Filament 2010: The Second Night

It's hard not to be wary when one attends a session of student short film projects, because even if the films are consistently well-made, the films' stylistic and narrative approaches tend to run together, and the audience of classmates often reacts to every credit like an in-joke that one won't get.

It's hard not to feel grateful, then, that Filament 2010 (or at least the night I attended, the second of two) avoided all these pitfalls. Not only did the screening comprise just a short slate of four disparate final-year films—one documentary, two fictions, and another in between—there were interesting thematic connections from film to film, and the Substation theatre was packed full of appreciative non-hecklers (I assume they were NTU Wee Kim Wee School-mates). Anyway, on to the films themselves:

A New Hope (Dir: Chermaine Ong)
A simple talking-heads documentary about two HIV-positive people in Thailand. One is Su, a child who contracted the illness from her HIV-positive parents. The other is Pong, an HIV-positive mother who wonders if her boyfriend and daughter have it as well. Both are victims of Thailand's (ironically) successful HIV campaigns, which have brought down infection rates but stigmatised those who have the disease, no matter how they contracted it.

The film liberally stirs in interviews with both Pong and Su, as well as scenes in which Pong's loved ones undergo HIV tests. Because Pong and Su aren't closely related by blood or geography, this makes for a somewhat disjointed film when we jump from one to the other. I was surprised that the filmmakers didn't hinge more strongly on linking Su's testimonies of being bullied with the anticipation of the HIV test results for Pong's daughter (since a positive result means she would come to face similar problems). Though perhaps it speaks well that the filmmakers don't try to sensationalise these proceedings, and the very fact that these are real issues faced by a near-invisible group of people makes their film worthy of attention and praise.

Epiphany (Dir: Han Xuemei)
Oddly, the screenwriter of Epiphany isn't listed among those credited in the programme booklet, even though the raison d'être of the film is to show off his/her cleverness at intertwining characters. The film revolves around characters who get involved in brushes with death, or are losing their will to live: A girl stands on the edge of an HDB roof. An old granny walks onto a road to pick up her fallen groceries. A man has to leave his wife and daughter. Other characters include their loved ones and the bystanders to their verge-of-death incidents, and what's clever is that these roles sometimes overlap with the main characters as well. As we watch the film unfold, the fun is in seeing how it draws ever more links among the characters, and how it keeps throwing up morbid, fake-out "cliffhangers". I've lost track of the numerous screeching brakes and exchanging of glances, but my favourite was when something (or someone...?) lands on the windscreen of the man's car, followed by a quick cut to a different scene altogether.

The film's ending brings its three main characters together, though in a rather simplistic, oversentimental way, and it's followed by a John Milton quote—"Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world"—that seems incongruous in its profundity compared to all the pulp-fictiony stuff that's led up to it. The problem is that, even though the ending implies that these characters have found new connections and reasons to live, nothing has truly been solved. The film's messy web of estranged parents, children and lovers continues to linger...

Post-Love (Dir: Amanda Lee, Ng Xi Jie)
Post-Love combines A New Hope's under-heard voices of a minority group and Epiphany's show-offy fictions. This time, the interview subjects are the Singaporean elderly, but what's interesting is the topic: their thoughts on love. But then, a huge problem: what happens when your interviewees rehearse old clichés about genders (men are lecherous/women are menopausal) and then-vs-now ("kids these days" are more romance-focused and liberal)?

The filmmakers' clever answer is to amp up and play around with these clichés, so that they're both reanimated and not taken too seriously, even if we aren't learning much that's new and perhaps running the risk of reinforcing stereotypes. They do this by: 1) intercutting the interviews with exaggerated skits of old couples or to-the-camera exposés of "prostitutes", "PRC women", "potential suitors", etc., replete with deliberately unconvincing makeup and overbaked gestures; and 2) playing around with their subtitles. Notably, one interview involves a leering old man euphemising in Mandarin about lighting candles and popping champagne, while the English subtitles next to his head go wild with pleasure, revealing each word as he says it and popping into a bigger font-size at every insinuation.

And then there are the flashes of insight, as when one woman reveals that she's gotten used to loneliness, due to the impracticality of finding a compatible suitor at her age, and the inevitable mistrust that arises from wondering about his possible ulterior motives, such as money. There's also a precious moment framing an elderly couple sitting a width apart from each other on a couch, illuminated by the light of the TV, while the space between them fills with the exchange between the filmmakers that led to this moment: we learn that this was as far as one of them could get to having his grandparents be intimate for the camera. We may doubt the truth of the exchange, given all the pantomime that's come before, but if so it'd still be a nice and revealing enactment. Not everything works in Post-Love, but it's a grand display of documentarians working with what they've got, and it's dotted with moments like these that need no improvement.

Zombies Saved My Cold Dead Heart (Dir: Erwin Nah)
Neither as politically important as A New Hope or as conceptually creative as the other two films, nearly two weeks later Zombies continues to stick in the back of my mind, and not just because it was the last film of the night. It's more because the bespectacled dork and the girl he meets looked cute together, even though they seemed more awkward than they needed to because their dialogue was delivered too slowly and the pauses were too long. And that's before I've mentioned the content of the dialogue, in which they poke fun at the tropes of romantic comedies, none of which this film ever tries to subvert.

A rom-com like this is a cold dead proposition: you know exactly what it is, where it's going to go, and pretty much whether or not you're going to like it. Far too late into the film, there is a intertitle that pauses the story to warn "cynical viewers" and "art-house aficionados" that they're not going to like what happens next. It's a fair point, but really? Only now? What saves this film are not zombies (which it could well have done better with), but the fleetingly funny snapshots of our hero's imagination, and our sheer belief in the ability of heartbroken, well-intentioned people to find their way back into love. I wasn't unsusceptible.

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