Review: Red Dragonflies

Red Dragonflies is a one-of-a-kind fusion of past and present, of personal and the social. A sensory delight that ignores the many conventions of cinema, this film was accessible enough to win over the jury at the Jeonju International Film Festival last year where it won the Special Jury Prize, earning raves from them for "its mysterious evocation of Singapore's disappearing history", and yet at parts so dreamily opaque that it may not at once be explicable.

Liao Jiekai, a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has made a debut feature that both entrances and confounds in equal capacity. It offers very little by way of old-fashioned plot, even though its synopsis in the press notes gives one the impression of a sprawling epic spanning generations. People who expect gripping drama and non-stop plot twists will be sorely disappointed. In fact, part of the mystery and magic of the film is that it shows and conveys so much even though very little happens in it. I found myself enthralled throughout, not wanting to miss a single moment.

Red Dragonflies tells the story of three children, then three adolescents, and then three young adults. The scenes of the three adolescents - Rachel, Tienwei and Junjie - form the bulk of the film. In these scenes, the three teenagers explore an abandoned railway track, although one of them soon goes missing. Elsewhere, a 26-year-old Rachel returns to Singapore after staying in New York for a couple of years, and soon reconnects with a boy who seemed to carry a torch for her in the past.

The connection between all these characters is tenuous at first, since Liao is careful to imbue the film with a lingering sense of mystery. He eschews the tired visual cues of flashback sequences, and in opting to go with languid editing and subtle juxtaposition to weave in between scenes of the past and present, readily gives you the freedom to draw up the links between the characters of the past and present yourself. In evoking memory and history in film, it is all too easy to go the sepia-hued trippy-nostalgia route, but Liao’s approach is far more tender and affecting, even if causing some confusion at first from the lack of distinction between past and present. His conviction pays off; the tone of the film is that of an elegy, lyrical and poetic, and it successfully captures the fragility of memory - both social and personal.

As the teenage trio makes their idyllic trek through the densely forested areas, their easy rapport – their trek is interspersed with playful jestings and teasing jibes – keeps the rather repetitive scenes constantly interesting (despite not much happening, till one of them gets lost). That they opted to make a trip into the great outdoors is a metaphor in itself; the untamed wilds speaks of the unbridled energy and raging passions of adolescence. There is incredible restrain in the handling of youthful passion here. I liked how Liao decided to forego the existential angst that is usually associated with adolescence, instead focusing on the characters' innocence, maintaining a delicate sensibility throughout the film.

The Rachel, Junjie and Tienwei of the present day are far from their former selves, however. Somewhat jaded, these three have settled into their routines, perhaps searching for something more to their lives. The urban setting of the present day, juxtaposed against the lush, wild, forested setting of the other scenes, is not just a direct commentary on Singapore’s disappearing history, but also a metaphor for squelched dreams and muted desires for the nation, as well as the characters. The trio in the present day does not resort to histrionics to convey their characters' growing pains, but the still, cautious camerawork gives you a sense of their silent anguish.

The performances from the cast are uniformly good, especially for one made out of many untrained actors, but the standout scenes are still the ones with the three teenagers. Their real-life chemistry (producer Bee Thiam said the actors Oon Yee Jeng, Yeo Shang Xuan and Ong Kuan Loong were asked to spend time together as a group before filming commenced) translates well onscreen, and their improvised dialogue is cannily authentic. Their camaraderie is very much the anchor of the trekking scenes, because while gorgeously filmed, my one beef with the film is that there are some dead spots in these sequences - too many shots of them trekking through the forest. If their expedition is symbolic of a journey through Singapore’s past, then this journey is very much uneventful. Fortunately, their brilliant chemistry buoys some of the drier moments, and Ong Yee Jeng’s chirpy Rachel is the heart of the trio as well as those scenes. Yeo plays the outspoken, playful but slightly volatile Tienwei with the right amount of brashness, and Ong Kuan Loong gives the reserved Junjie much-needed tenderness and sensitivity to balance up the energy in the trio, even though I felt the film could have better explored his character and his intense introvertion.

In the end, Red Dragonflies, so unostentatious in its beauty, exerts a hold on you that is impossible to break, only if you give it a chance to do so. A film that both delights and baffles, it will surely polarize audience, but once you get into the world of Red Dragonflies – and it takes a while to do so – you will go with the flow and enjoy every moment of it.
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