S-Express Singapore - Underdogs and Cowboys

Nobody's Home

This year's S-Express selection under the Singapore Short Film Festival features a strange motley bunch of social underdogs. Other than Nelson Yeo's 'Nobody's Home' (earlier reviewed on SINdie) which features HDB-bred cowboys, the short films featured 2 Indonesian maids, a bevy of 'Bangladeshi' workers, a girl reeling from a lost love and China cinema ticket seller. Interestingly, this is very timely in the light of the light of the recent chatter over whether Singapore is bursting at its seams with foreigners.

Obviously, the films were empathetic towards the foreigners, since they are meant give them a voice. But it brought to mind the fact that we have become the new villains in our own locally made movies. Surely if we change the lenses, we can discover something extraordinary within the mundane. While I have nothing against depicting what's true, I feel foreign labourers as a premise is too easy a starting point. The conflict in the story comes almost ready-made. In fact, these foreign labourer-driven films are a dime a dozen and they go a long way back to the pioneering days of local short films when Han Yew Kwang made 'The Call Home'. So what's new? The narratives have gone lazier the treatment, less imaginative.

There are 2 'Sendiris' in this batch of films - Rumah Sendiri (Home Alone) and Sehari Sendiri (A Day Alone), these together with the other films, point the deliberate choice of 'loneliness' as a theme in its curation. The former traces an Indonesian maid's routine day of chores and being confined at home where its owners are away. She irons, she peels, she cleans, she hangs clothes up, she cooks. The director Daniel Hui displays a sensitivity to the general ambience that surrounds her, and I am not just referring to sound. There is a great sense of intimacy with her and it is not established from the incredibly tight shots but from the way the camera lingers on very day-to-day details of her life, sometimes without even anything happening throughout. Sadly, it does not go much beyond a point-blank portrayal and a little metaphorical parallel at the end with the song.

Rumah Sendiri

What's more interesting about the film is how the lines between play-acting, reality and even just following 'her master's instructions' are blurred. For what you see, you are not sure where the maid is just being herself or playing up for the camera or even just obliging the director's instructions (who happens to be the master of the house). To illustrate the point, she says 'finish already' to Daniel after she is done with the song, as if she has just completed one of her dozen chores. Even if it is unintended, it certainly begs the most thought in this piece.

The other 'Sendiri' is nothing more than video lamentation of a lost relationship. Narrated mournfully over a scene at a beach and bathed in evening hues of yellow, the film is fixated on a girl who is 'paralysed' by her loss and can't do much to save herself. Other than the quietly affecting pulsations of the waves lit by the setting sun, the film is a little too self-absorbed for it to make a connection with the audience or show us something different about loss.

Sehari Sendiri

'Durai and Saro' is the other 'more expensive looking' film in the S-Express selection other than 'Nobody's Home' (both use some degree of tracking in their shots). 'Durai and Saro' tells is a romance between an Indonesian maid and a Bangladeshi worker made in the carpark where they meet. This film had plenty of tender moments that could be amplified with more succinct storytelling. A classic was the Indian meal. Durai buys Indian food, enough for two and offers it to Saro. Saro appears hesitant and we are not sure if it is because she is shy or she is not used to using her hands to eat. Then, with some gentle coaxing, she begins to dig her frail little palm into the heap of rice and scoops it up for her mouth. Soon, they get into a little rhythmic motion with their hands, savouring the humble dinner in the dinghy carpark - sweet.

Durai and Saro

A few things marred the good old-fashioned goodness of the film - poor lighting and bouts of melodrama. If the director knew 70% of the film was to take place in the carpark, he should have paid more attention to lighting. In fact, most of the scenes were set in very gritty environments like the workers' home, the carpark, the void deck and for the choice of night time, more thought should have been put into varying the visual landscape that appears in the film. The maid's angsty and rather articulate monologue made it a bit hard for me to marry it with the physicality and behaviour of the character in person. It made it seem like she had a trapped spirit inside her body speaking out.

An angsty monologue in Durai and Saro

Of the 5 short films, 'Tickets' the final film has the strongest credentials, having premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival. Sherman, being the most experienced and lauded of the lot, demonstrates a skillful hand in bringing out pockets of poignancy out of a simple point-blank interview. The porcelain-like beauty of the Chinese ticket seller profiled, appears in stark contrast to the greyness of the cinema projectors that and other cold-looking machines that filled the background against where she sat. Her ability to divulge honest, heartfelt thoughts in a plain-speaking manner in the intimidating premises commands reasonable attention. In fact, less is more, her moderate speaking tone struck the right notes in me. Had she spoken too emotively, then the poignancy in her story would have lost its ability to speak for itself. But I can't hold back from saying that 'Tickets' , like the rest, is forgettable and unimaginative. There was not a whimsical moment which touched my threshold of emotional engagement.


In fact, this year's S-Express, with the exception of Nobody's Home, could do with a lot more whimsy. What happened to the days when making a film demanded so much more visual flair and a need to convince its audience? It seems more and more filmmakers are convinced that an emotional outburst can anchor a film, or that a film can be based on one tiny nugget of 'smart-alec-ism'. Why do they think that they can get away without telling a story? Why do some filmmakers feel hesitant to even just entertain the audience? Here's a paradox I see - when you are gripping something too tightly, it loses it ability to find it own raison d'etre. So why take a story so seriously. Bend it, twist it, play around with it and make your audience wake up to it - with a serious pair of eyes.
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