River Hongbao 2011 + Anthony Chen's 'The Reunion Dinner'

So SINdie's Jeremy Sing scored an invite to the largest annual celebration of Chinese New Year - River Hongbao. I went in his place since he couldn't make it (he was busy working on SINdie's poster exhibition!) and I was eager to see Anthony Chen's commissioned film 'The Reunion Dinner'.

I pondered for a long time on a better title for this post, for something that didn't scream 'THIS EVENT IS BORING AS BATSHIT', but any potentially witty working title eluded me. Probably because the event was really that boring - much of it was spent waiting. But this is coming from me, a somewhat young and cynical Gen X dude, so you might want to take my words with a pinch of salt.

Instead I'll touch on the positive points!

Well, the organizers have kindly done the younger audience members a favour by not having some getai singer belt out songs from the karaoke hitlist of hell list of CNY songs. In place they had a Chinese Orchestra playing a couple of songs; their music being something you'll either enjoy or find torturous to sit through. I'm guessing for the 70% of the audience members who are elderly, they'll belong to the former group.

The highlight of the night was definitely Anthony Chen's 'The Reunion Dinner'. More on that in a while.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra on stage playing some numbers before the arrival of MM Lee.

Kids here dressed up as rabbits, in shiny tutus and complete with bunny ears. I find that wildly inappropriate somehow (even if it is the year of the Rabbit), but oh well. Whatever floats the audience's boat.

The arrival of MM Lee. I couldn't get a good picture of him on stage, so I decided to take a photo of him on the screen.

The Singapore Chinese Orchestra playing the score to 'The Reunion Dinner' live.

First impressions of 'The Reunion Dinner': The film tracks the protaganist's life in his family through the motif of tradition - in this case, a family's reunion dinner. The film spans three different eras: the protaganist as a young boy, then a teenager, and finally a grown man (and a father). Beautifully reconstructed sets are a sight to behold. The slightly muted colours of the scenes in the 70's and 80's manage to simultaneously convey both the simplicity of its time, as well as the vibrancy of life then; juxtaposed against the piercingly sharp colours of the scenes in the final act, he makes clear the progress and development Singapore has went though in the past decades, and makes a strong statement on the sophistication of modern Singapore. He then uses this to drive home the message that Singapore's outward appearances might have changed and life might be radically different now, but the tradition of the CNY reunion dinner, as well as the heart of the ritual - the importance of family - will and must endure. As a festival commissioned piece, the film may be forgiven for painting an overly optimistic picture of family, one nearly devoid of conflict throughout its course. Still, Anthony Chen remains a master of exploring basic human sentiments often difficult to articulate through a minimalist script, much in the vein of previous works 'Ah Ma' and 'Hotel 66' (though The Reunion Dinner has comparatively more dialogue). In this film he succintly portrays the love of family without resorting to emotional histrionics. I think it is this minimalism that I'm starting to see define his works - his films may have an interesting premises and beautiful textures, but he strips his films bare by discarding the (overly) dramatic elements so often resorted to, and uses the most mundane and common everyday gestures to explore basic human impulses and subsequently bring about a modicum of catharsis. (Of course, I've only watched 3 of his shorts so far, so this is just my general impression.)

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