First Takes Oct 2010 - Trees that talk

October's First Takes is a mixed bag of genres from the animal-rights themed documentary to a sketchy comedy to history and to hybrids of the supernatural and the absurd. The common thread was mostly NTU. Once again, the spirit of the curation embraced that 'just do it' recklessness about the productions; how they bulldoze their way through the production process without a full 'driving license'; and how proudly the filmmakers articulate their own justifications for their creative paths taken.

Reckless they sure are. '2309' by Sivaraj Pragasm tells the story of a father, who has neglected his family, and faces the prospect of turning into a tree, as told by a mysterious stranger. The lines between what happens in his dream and his waking reality are blur so we are not sure if it is just a nightmare or part of the story's reality. Sounds like a original? Likely, but the loose grip on the narrative brings it down.

It's a pity because Sivaraj pulls together some great elements for a show - Timothy Nga, an interesting premise and a shooting set (with chessboard flooring) that is extravagant by common standards of the indie practitioners.

Narrative aside, the acting is really the biggest stumbling block. Many of them resort to stereotypical moulds of expressions. The son character slouches all day on the sofa watching TV, defining rebellion (to his father) with a limited vocabulary of 2-3 facial expressions. The daughter character is a step worse in her '1 mode of existence' presence - the mode being the self-engrossed, beauty-obssessed teenager painting her nails. The mother is just part of the family equation, bridging the plot gaps. With a bit more sensitivity put into directing the actors, the film could have avoided this.

Sivaraj shared passionately during the Q and A about the inspiration behind humans 'turning' into trees. This bizzare concept grew out of observing a woman talking to a tree outside a shopping centre one day. In fact, without that observation, the idea of a 'tree spirit' is already part of our cultural story bank, which makes this premise extremely fertile for a beguiling story. I would love to see Sivaraj take on this premise by its horns and awaken it in a more thought-out manner.

'Safety Zone' is a gamble of ideas. Awkward and extremely raw, it is genuinely Eileen Loh's first film attempt (apparently First Takes has broken its own 'virgin' rule a few times). If you think about it, the film actually makes logical and sequential sense. A man (called Yong Suay even though having a definite name seemed inconsequential in the film) has a close shave with an accident and thereafter finds himself trapped in a series of paranoia-driven fears. Paranoia being destructive in nature eventually leads him to his own death. So narratively, it comes full-circle.

The straddling between horror and absurdist humour tends to disorientate the audience. You are not quite sure about the film's frequency. This also dilutes the message of the film which is potentially quite a clever one. Sometimes, you don't know whether to laugh at a scene or be concerned. I choose to laugh because the corny coincidences and the exaggerated reactions are just screaming for your reaction, especially when he stretches sticky tape in a cross across the gas stove in a desperate attempt to put himself out of danger.

There is a lot thought put into 'Safety Zone' but its execution and its treatment cripple its vision. 'Bukit Chandu' by Chiang Wei Liang on the other hand is fitter for the silver platter, as far as production values and finishing is concerned. A period piece, 'Bukit Chandu' takes place during the Japanese invasion and recounts how a platoon of Malay soldiers braved their lives in battle against the Japanese. It tells the story from the point of view of a medic who struggles to save his comrades.

The film does not have much going on in terms of a narrative but is more a contemplative look at honour and sacrifice in the context of a war battle. The draw in this film is the rare representation of Malay soldiers in the battlefront against the Japanese invaders. The retaliatory acts of the Chinese against the Japanese have been depicted ad nauseum in general media. The thrust of the war was also largely seen as a Japanese offensive directed at Chinese people throughout Asia. The indigenous people of Southeast Asia seldom surfaced in this particular chapter of history. So this film illuminates a forgotten effort by the Malays.

While identifying a story in this peculiar episode of history is wise, Wei Liang missed bringing out the essence visually. Presented in black and white, the film’s rather bland and superficial approach to the topic never really brings home its intended message of sacrifice and honour, or perhaps the bravery of 60+ men against 14,000 Japanese soldiers. These facts were simple flashed out in text at the end of the film, rendering the visuals before that a mere act of re-enactment.

The first 2 films, Sol Chang: Elephants on the Street by Low Ting Yi and Riding East by Melissa Foo has been reviewed as part of Filament 2010's grad showcase.
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