'Mama' Shop Talk from Berlin - by Mathias Ortmann

The so-called Big Three of the international film festival circuit –  Berlin, Cannes and Venice – always offer a good deal of spectacle and some good films as well but what they show is, naturally, a selection with absences. Their programming may leave a lot to be wished for and it then falls to the remaining film festivals out there to see to it and perhaps make some corrections. At this year’s Berlinale, again, Singapore wasn’t really in the spotlight and the country represented by but one short film entry: “Masala Mama” by Michael Kam which screened in the Kplus shorts section. So, let’s see whether it got the job done and may have opened the door a bit further for more Singaporean films to make it in.

In some old-fashioned neighbourhood “mama-shop”, a Chinese boy browses through a comic but gets exposed a wannabe shoplifter through a botched attempt at snatching the magazine. This happens as, on his way out, he bumps into a handsome Indian policeman who is introduced to qualify in turn the Indian owner of the store, complete with moustache and lively eyes, whose alacrity in serving the new customer does all the necessary telling; the unavoidable swear word (“faggot”) will from now on serve to summarize the ensuing confrontation between the boy’s father and the shop-owner. The sensitive lad himself is set apart from his schoolmates by his obsession with comic strip magazines and his own talent for drawing; also from his father, obviously, and his paternalistic and authoritarian way of life and everything it stands for. But he is hardly a rebel, rather your occasional daydreamer, the very type of fringe existence so easily overlooked.

Over the course of events he unexpectedly finds a companion in the Masala shop-owner, who is the exact anti-thesis to the boy’s father: impulsive yet civilized, attentive and, surprisingly, friendly; perhaps a little wicked, too. Of course he acknowledges and supports the creative pursuits of the boy, even encourages him, thus eliciting a true instant of awkwardness overcome from the kid. When he tries to thank him for taking his side in the confrontation with his abusive father, also to make amends for his own cowardice, perhaps, he gives him a hug when he has no words. Thus a bond is established and our two comrades can at least imagine the world being a better place, where courage paired with tolerance actually wins the day – fiction finally takes over!

The plot layout is simple enough, the characters are handy stereotypes but not cardboard and the actors conveniently type cast. Among the short’s qualities I particularly cherish the measured approach it takes to being partial and the gentle handling of its content. It doesn’t bark at what observations of narrow-mindedness it features. But, and that eventually belittles the impact, it also remains mostly lukewarm. Some interspersing shots don’t really add much to the development and the editing could have been minimally tighter. There are some very situated and stiff performances which, in a way, only adds to the film’s charm. “Masala Mama” displays a lot of love for detail and endearing art direction while not being overly nostalgic in its presentation, which is something we have seen too often before. The themes of homophobia and physical abuse seem real enough and in terms of sequences and pacing, an efficient and palatable balance is held almost to the end.

So many varying emotional tones and a range from covert communication to yelling and picking a fight, all in less than 9 minutes, trans-cultural, cross-generational and drawing together seemingly opposing life spheres, actually goes quite well together. The short is heart warming, indeed, and that is because in all the aforementioned mix it doesn’t insist on elaborating too much on contrast and applies a relaxed and evenly tempered visual treatment to most of the scenes. It is, stylistically as well, an example of applied kindness and it provides fresh insight into the kind of little wonders that (hopefully) every troubled childhood encounters at some point.

All things considered, “Masala Mama” is a nicely done, well crafted film of equal parts soft humour (“You…me…very trouble!”) and good production value. Its one major flaw is that it is lacking in conceptual consequentiality: just when the exposition takes a flight – we’re done already! Now, that’s too mean, really. In the end you feel somewhat cheated for the best and are left wishing that the allocation of screen time were reversed. More of that imagined sequence with the shop-owner and the boy as super-heroes and their joint exploits, some intervention on behalf of the non-conformist dreamer, would have been a delight to watch.

What “Masala Mama” does prove, however, is that there are plenty of interesting approaches, precious trigger points for creative storytelling in the specific cultural blend that is Singaporean society today, that the alert observer could pick up. There is much uncharted territory in Singapore’s history too, past experiences as yet undisclosed in her film production at least, which it should be well worth for any inventive and dedicated filmmaker to explore; and for such films to meet with audiences the world over who have an appetite for some unfamiliar dish with a characteristic flavour. “Masala Mama” did just that.

Based in Berlin, Mathias Ortmann writes profoundly and intensively about Singapore films. Many of his writings can be found on the Sinema website. This is the second film review by Mathias written exclusively for SINdie.

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