A 'Trilogue' on the SIFF 2010 Singapore Short Film Finalists (Act 1)

Filmmakers, beware! What you are about to read is a heated conversation between three people about this year's SIFF Singapore Short Film Finalists. Don't feel alarmed if even some things like the glint of sunlight in a particular shot are talked about. We love details! Joining Jeremy and Colin is Leon Cheo, a guest voice for this SIFF season.

Leon, 25, is a director-writer-producer currently doing a BFA in Creative Producing with Chapman University (Singapore). His latest film, “Four Dishes”, has travelled to film festivals in Iran, San Francisco, Bangkok and Berlin. He never gets spare time but maximises it as much as possible by developing new projects. He just completed a new short, entitled, “Swing”.

Act 1

Jeremy: In the previous year's shorts finalist line-up there were one or two I could say without batting an eye-lid that I didn't like. I can't say that for this year. I think this is a year of moderates - nothing too bad and nothing good enough to make you think we've found another poster boy or girl. Adding to this is the range of genres in a single competition. They are namely comedy ("Que Sera Sera"), animation ("Contained"), kids' drama ("Sunrise"), drama ("Promises in December"), documentary ("Life with Ummu"), experimental ("The 25th of Laura") and what I call the perfume ad whimsy ("Mu Dan"). It is strange how there is a token from every common genre. I am still thinking about my favourite although I can already hear some people rooting for "Que Sera Sera", "Contained" and "Mu Dan".

Let's talk about them in order, starting with "Que Sera Sera". Ghazi has a knack for taking the cheeky out of many things. It is both witty and adorable how the inner-voice (VO) sounds like a rebel while the outer voice is a whimper. As a result, it makes the boy seem vulnerable which I feel is key to making the audience sympathise. I cannot forget the little presentation he did to his teacher alone. It's a classic for sure.

Colin: What a sweet film, and how cheeky indeed that it achieves this by being as profane and borderline racist as it is! A lot of this can be attributed to the disarming figure of Syahidi, who plays the chubby kid that is the film's centre; as well as the ever-present voiceover by (I presume) the director Ghazi himself. Like I noted, the voiceover can be rather profane, at one point even getting into a chant of words I won't repeat here, while the sanitised subtitles keep swapping between "Dick." and "Head." It also tempts charges of racism, despite disclaiming that "I am not racist", when the kid, late for school, bumps into the Indian discipline master at the school gate. It helps, of course, that I know the actor playing the discipline master is a sporting friend of Ghazi's. But what saves all this even more is (as you've alluded to, Jeremy) the disparity between the cursing voiceover and the boy's sweet and natural disposition, which ends up making the former seem more harmlessly amusing.

I also loved that, like Philothea Liau's "Brazil" (where the value of an eraser reaches absurd heights), "Que Sera Sera" manages to evoke nostalgic details of past school days, and appends to that a kid's perspective on those details. I'm referring here to the discipline master's punishment, so idiosyncratic to its time and place, and so random and unfitting to the problem; and to the boy's reaction, never questioning the punishment's logic, but troubled by an unrelated set of problems that it will cause him.

The only complaint I have is that the film contrives a tummyache just so that the main character will miss his class. This makes sense logistics-wise, since you'd only need to cast the teacher and none of his classmates; and it helps the emotion of the scene where he presents his ambitions to the teacher alone, since it's no longer a chance to show off to peers but a more intimate reveal of his dreams to someone who seems to care (which prompted another filmmaker during the Q&A to ask Ghazi if he ended up marrying that teacher, heh).

But since the rest of the autobiographical film feels light and frothily believable, the tummyache could have been better foreshadowed so that it wouldn't seem like a mere storytelling device. For instance, his voiceover could have mentioned that he eats just about anything (and showed him eating something bad), or he could have been filmed eating just before he was made to run laps around the parade square. A minor point, really, when the rest of the film manages to be so funny, truthful, and above all sincere.

Leon: I agree with Jeremy; there is no outstanding short film this year. I like certain things about the films, and also dislike certain things. With "Que Sera Sera", I think it's great that we have Malay voices like Ghazi in the Singapore film landscape. The casting of Muhd. Syahid is a wonderful choice. He is cute and immediately endearing. Because of him, I forgive the toilet humour. The crude and vulgar stream of thought of the boy is hilariously sharp. It's nice to have a comedy when everything else is more serious and dramatic.

Jeremy: Now that you brought up the tummy ache, I am starting to see it as an narrative excuse. But hey, maybe let's just imagine all of these, tummy ache, profanities is Ghazi! Haha. It is meant to be a personal film anyway.

I sort of had an inkling this would be the audience favourite but my loyalties started to sway when I saw "Contained". It is undeniably meticulous in its execution. I must say I do not understand the animation techniques well but I tend to judge the skill by number of frames. In other words, it has to move a lot! I see a lot of very shoddy work from students where you can tell the figurines/characters have very limited lines of motion. In this, the motion is fluid and there is always something surprisingly in each scene. I especially the part when the studs and crazy thorny things were popping out of his head! I also must say the sound design was spot on!

Leon: The technique in "Contained" is evident. I don't know what you called them in stop-motion terms but I really like the way shapes evolve into other shapes. The creepy visuals and textures of this short film reminds me of Jan Švankmajer, probably the most influential artist in the stop-motion world. Every year at SIFF, there is always one animated short and the technique is usually excellent. Now, if only Singaporean animators would begin tackling more narrative-driven animated stories - I think that would be truly a treat.

Jeremy: I would say give us something different this year - let "Contained" win! At least it sets a new precedent for animation.

Leon: Maybe they are not winning because they aren't as dramatically fulfilling as the live action shorts?

Colin: I, for one, would have no problems with a win for "Contained". Great stop-motion animation nearly always catches me in the throat, just for the sheer technical bravado and patience involved, and "Contained" managed that early on with its depiction of those plasticine waves sloshing.

But despite the difficulty of crafting those wide shots of the island, I find myself aligned too with Leon's point about the need for more narrative-driven animation. That may explain why my favourite scenes of the film are those set in the dark, tight confines of the hut interior, where the main character tends to his dying flower. There's a surprising rage to his attempts to save the mere appearance of the flower's health, culminating in that sad image of the re-attached petals blowing off the flower, leaving strips of cellophane tape flapping in the wind. I love that, while most films would opt for making a similar character pitifully emo, this film drives him insane instead—and breaks out that madness visually in its memorable final shots.

The theme of being left alone carries over to the next film, "Sunrise", about an eldest son who has to care for his younger sisters after their mother leaves them for work. It's the most "foreign" film among the finalists, filmed and set in Cambodia with the orphans of the Sunrise Children's Village, which may explain why I found it hard to identify with it... although the languid first half may also be to blame. What did you guys think?

Jeremy: Two years ago, there was a film in SIFF called "To Speak". It was about two kids wanting to own a house and overcoming all odds. My first impression of "Sunrise" is that this is yet again a film that exploits the 'easy abundance' of stories in poverty-stricken Cambodia, like a kind of "poverty voyeurism". But compared to 'To Speak', it has more cinematic value and a stronger narrative drift. By the way, I love the framing and the lighting in the house scenes. Evokes a languid feel and also enriches the mood in the house. What i really take away from this film is the temple scene in which the boy stoically speaks to the monk to arrange for his mother's funeral. The naivety and the innocence of the boy just captures me!

But what I don't like is the length. I realise nicely-shot scenes have a short shelf-life on film. Never repeat them too much which "Sunrise" did. There is also what I would call a paradox of novelty. By this, I mean if you start your idea in a seemingly colourful place, you may end up with something actually very boring and if you start in a more ordinary premise, with a little thinking, you could conjure something actually very exciting. Hope you know what I mean guys...

Leon: I think films like "Sunrise" get stale very quickly. I could do with a bit of trimming on the running time. I mean, you see this kind of film every year at the festival and there is really nothing new or interesting to be seen here. I wonder how/why this film was selected...

Colin: Yeah, I think we all agree on the slowness of much of the film. There's an approach to observational detail (e.g. a shot of a plastic scoop bobbing in a full bucket) that works when these details are tethered to a narrative throughline, and I don't think it's achieved in "Sunrise". To be fair, I like the same temple scene that Jeremy does; it reminded me of Kore-eda Hirokazu's Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004), which also involves a kid having to step up to being an eldest sibling, an adult, and even a surrogate parent, long before he ever deserves to.

Jeremy: You know, I have a feeling the judges might just give the prize to "Promises in December", the next film. It's got that award-worthy genre and form, in other words, it's a 'serious' film. You've got a plot that has a historical and social context. The issues are well-thought out, the acting proficient and you've got it all geared up to look like it wants to be taken seriously.

So where's the catch in my comment? The catch is I feel a little uncomfortable with how the film could be a little unorganic and scripted. The opposite of that would be Ghazi's Que Sera Sera. I also don’t like how the feel of tsunami is being evoked. It somehow feels quite artificial. I also had an issue with Raymond Yong’s TV-style acting.

Leon: I really liked the film. Though the early scenes between the taxi driver and the maid are a bit stilted, I enjoy the parallel and juxtaposition of the main characters. As the film goes along, you wonder where it's going. Then, the final revelation comes and it is well set-up: you get scenes of the taxi driver at a columbarium and you wonder why. The pay-off is good and the non-linear play on the plot is effective. I connected with this film the most. I want to see more of Elgin Ho's films.

Colin: I'm divided on "Promises in December". For starters, while the taxi driver and the maid are in danger of being far too common character types, the film pairs the two as leads rather fruitfully. I like that it opens with the maid on her phone, shaping her as a person with an imaginable life back at her Indonesian home, without abstracting it into a burden as many migrant films do; and I like that her employer family's daughter for whom she makes breakfast actually seems appreciative of her work, when so many other filmmakers want to harp on the flashpoint of abuse.

Instead the film makes the taxi driver the worker-class character who is beset with problems. His HDB flat and packet char kway teow are clearly meant to contrast the landed property and pancakes where the maid works, and yet the film does this while skirting past a lot of the cheap oppositions that are one of my pet peeves about local film. I suspect it works because the maid doesn't actually live there, making the contrast more complicated, and because the film doesn't demonise either way of life.

This leads to what is absolutely my favourite shot among all the finalist films: when the maid is in the driver's taxi, he tosses off a comment that she probably wouldn't want to live in Singapore if it weren't for the pay, right? As he says this, we get a shot of the maid looking out of the cab window, on which is reflected a row of HDB flats, and she is silent as they drive by. It's such a profound shot, capturing the perspective of a woman who probably dreams of a life that the man is disavowing, even as we acknowledge that her six years' work in a landed property would likely misrepresent life as he knows it.

And then the film has to spoil that by contriving an explicit link between them, of all things by invoking the Asian tsunami of 2004, and delivering "justice" to each character. Not only does the link make the whole setup feel artificial, it's a little unfair to use a senseless tragedy like the tsunami to give fictional characters grief, especially if it's a fake-out or if it's to "punish" a character for not being understanding. "Promises in December" does both, and I haven't even mentioned the awful closed-captioning on the film, which mars a potentially horrifying tsunami recording over a black screen with the words "[woman screaming]". (Or that, at an earlier point, reads "[phone vibrates]" even though the onscreen phone isn't visibly vibrating.)

Jeremy: On hindsight and after this discussion, my view of "Promises in December" has shifted a bit. I agree with the favourite shot of yours Colin. It carries the film's spirit of irony quite cleverly. Maybe I didn't pick it up at first look because the HDB flats' reflection was whizzing past the window surface too quickly. They could have cut to a point-of-view shot of the flats instead. It would have amplified the message. My conclusion about this is I like its idea but I would have preferred a less deliberate form.

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