Trying Not to Try Too Hard

‘Don’t try too hard.’

Says jury member and Malaysian filmmaker Liew Seng Tat about the films he has watched at the recent Singapore Short Film Awards. Piqued by his comment, I decided to get in touch with him to ask him what he meant. This is his reply:

‘Personally I feel that a film should be made to feel that it's made effortless. I found some of the films I saw were trying too hard to prove themselves, thus making it very mechanical. Technique remains just technique if it doesn't marry with the story. Story remains superficial if the filmmaker is trying too hard to make a point.’

I remember helping out on a short film recently as a production assistant. The film took 9 days to shoot and the sets and props look like the crew coughed some blood making it. Is it really worth it when the story behind is simply about falling in love or remembering someone? I attended quite a number of screenings at the recent Singapore Short Film Awards. Like Seng Tat mentioned, I felt obliged to nod at how ‘complete’ each work is. What I mean by complete is that each film gets a tick in almost all boxes – properly graded visuals, clean sound, ‘soundtrack’-worthy music and how can we miss the snazzy opening and closing credits? Some even have car chases, period costumes and dashes of CGI! But ‘obliged’ because itching inside me was a feeling that I was only as entertained as watching a TV program. When the credits rolled, I found little to take home with me.

The giant machines and cast of thousands spotted in some local short film productions.

I have some suspicion that the ‘effortless’ storytelling that Seng Tat mentioned does not come naturally to us Singaporeans, unless of course you are a writer or poet. I guess what it means to be ‘effortless’ is like when you do not notice the painter’s strokes when you appreciate the painting. I must admit in writing this article, I am subject of what I am writing about. I have put in ‘effort’. I am conscious of what people will think of this article because many would be reading it and judging my own judgements on the films I write about. I want it to sound clever for fear that I would not be taken seriously. I must make sure I do not say anything too offensive otherwise the MDA will not give me money to further the interests of this blog or my own films.

Similarly among the films I watched, many seem to be too mindful of what a ‘good’ film needs and actually have them all thought out before even thinking of the storyline. For instance, you feel 2 people will fall in love because the script says so. But to be fair to the filmmakers, the films screened were made under a variety of conditions. Some were made as school-based assessed projects. These include La Salle shorts like ‘National Day’, ‘Outing’ or NTU shorts like ‘Respirator’ and ‘My Underwear, My World’. Many were SFC-supported ones usually require a much scripted approach. If we are looking for ‘effortless’ storytelling, perhaps the handful of shorts made under the Fly-By-Night and 48 hr film competition have something to that effect. ’10 Painful things about being a Tranny’ tickled me off my seat with its spontaneous camp. My heart echoed with the honest and poignant feelings evoked in ‘Mummy’. And Siang Yu displays a knack for comedy quite close to Jacen Tan (in his earlier Zo Gang, Zo Peng series) in ‘Is there Money in this?’ Watching these, you can almost imagine the filmmakers sipping up ‘kopi si’ in the neighbourhood coffeeshop while planning the shoot.

Looking beyond our ‘fly-by-nighters’, there is certainly no absence of good films that break the mould. But spontaneous and ‘effortless’, they may not be. Some of my personal favourites include the irreverent ‘Dirty Bitch’, the highly pre-meditated ‘Respirator’ and David Shiyang Liu’s labour of love ‘5 Films in an Anthology of a film in a month’. Look at our more recent crop of feature films like ‘Here’, ‘Invisible Children’, ‘In the House of Straws’ and ‘The Blue Mansion’ in the past year and you might agree with my use of the phrase ‘a heavy-handed approach’. In fact, when I compare them to films from our northern neighbours, I ‘ve got a Yin and Yang way of describing this – Singapore films seek to outsmart their viewers while Malaysian films seek to be outsmarted by their viewers.

'Waiting for Love' by James Lee; 'The Elephant and The Sea' by Woo Ming Jin; 'Flower In The Pocket' by Liew Seng Tat; 'Love Conquers All' by Tan Chui Mui; 'At the End of Daybreak' by Ho Yuhang

Will we ever be like our Malaysian counterparts? Or should we accept the fact that the organic approach does not work for Singapore. There are certainly differences between the two countries that do not warrant an apple-to-apple comparison. Perhaps storytelling comes more naturally to Malaysians because life is tougher up north and recent events in the realm of politics, religion and race can testify to that. I dare say we have become such an ‘institutionalized’ society that we have forgotten how to say simple things in the most natural and human way. Authority and collective voices talk louder here than individuals.

A possible after-effect of the ‘institutionalisation’ is the ‘apeing’ of films of the celebrated by the younger generation of filmmakers. Ben Slater has written about this on Criticine a website for in-depth discourse on Southeast Asian cinema. He mentions a proliferation of short films that ‘pay tribute’ to the ‘Class of 2002’. This class includes Sun Koh, Eva Tang, Royston Tan and others (I would extend the class to include Boo Junfeng as well).

The Class of 2002

I caught a number of these ‘tribute’ or semi-tribute’ films in the SSFA batch. I daringly list them here to my own peril: ‘Letting Go’, ‘Dawn’, ‘National Day’, ‘Linger’, ‘Childhood Games’, ‘Mi’, ‘Man in Snow Globe’, ‘My Underwear, My World’ and ‘Distance’.

While some are giving new window-dressing to old bodies, others are pushing the envelope further abroad. This year, 11 Singapore films made it to the Rotterdam film festival this year, a mecca for the newest and most exciting films worldwide. The festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof calls us ‘one of the most productive countries of Southeast Asian cinema’. The word is ‘productive’. It does not say whether we have made our mark abroad like Malaysian films have or are still doing. A quick look at the 11 films that will be screening in Rotterdam seems to point to something – we are just not born-storytellers and we more like philosophers or stylists. Considering only the more ‘properly-made’ short films at SSFA and you will find that stylists rule the day (with ‘Girl with the Red Balloons’ taking the cake).

So be it. We can’t tell stories. But we seem to be able to paint fantasies quite well. Victric Thng, another jury member at the SSFA said ‘Take more risks’. Maybe we have found our answer. The key to not trying ‘too hard’ is to take more risks! We are trying too hard because we are just too mindful of keeping up with conventions and expectations. Just let the monster in your film grow and it will still take you home after a helluva ride. And if the huge number of productions this year is anything to go by, this will be a year of exciting rides, other than the new ones at Sentosa.

Here is an interesting quote from Warren Sin, another member of the jury:
‘3 in 4 shorts reveal a certain fetishistic tendency towards the unreal, fantasy … attempts to escape the here and now … a contempt (even) for the present'

Still from Wesley Leon Aroozoo's 'A Lion's Pride', screened at SSFA 2010.
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