Reviews of selected films from the 2011 NTU ADM Digital Filmmaking Show

On a tiny island perceived as having a lack of (creative) resources, there’s the danger of mutual pats on the back whenever a new project or concept is launched, be it a film, a book, or a place. Critical and artistic merits matter of course, but if we could grade a work, the ethos of judgment often seem to start
from E – E for effort. The berth of acceptance seems so wide that it doesn’t matter that much if your work or even the ideas are ill-developed; give ‘em a pat on the back for the effort.

It’s not wrong. We value things when they seem to be in scarcity. But this hasn’t led to a productive and most importantly, critical output. Never mind if it’s the nth film a panel has seen that delves into the depressing microcosm of public housing living with requisite social status arguments. But it’s 2011, fourteen
years after 12 Storeys. We have Pinnacle@Duxton now, a towering 50 storeys high.

Thankfully, the graduation showcase for NTU’s Art Design Media digital film students proves the prolific possibilities for more stories to be told, and artfully as well.

A story that seems hardly told in Singapore, is something that Cheng Shian Wen bravely takes up and directs. The Line explores the developing complexes of two local military men, sent on an international peacekeeping mission to the fictional land of Taunesia. Sergeant Jason Tan (Jerry Ho) and Corporal Ahmad
(Yazid Jalil) are the quintessential comrades-in-arms combination: the former, a sullen, cynical and older type paired up with the eager, idealistic younger latter soldier. Upon receiving a distress signal, the duo step out of “the line” of neutral grounds into contested territory to escort a relief mission personnel (Rebecca Spykerman) back to safety. The ensuing fight with the rebels changes everything, as they struggle with unfamiliar violence and reshape their convictions.

Cheng in his graduating film eschewing the hostilities of HDB-contained lives, tries to fill a gap in the action genre of local film output with a war film, finally some gore that goes beyond ghosts, gambling and gangsters. And it is this effort that is both commendable and tricky to appreciate.

The idea of neutrality in The Line is a strange multifarious notion. It can mean impartiality, but also impassivity in its uninvolved position. Further from disinterest, it can signify a complete lack, of motives or desires. Cheng plays with this idea of neutrality not just with the screen characters, but with viewers as well. The film itself confronts our spectatorship, with particular reference to how we view genres, in particular that of a local action or war film. This is in spite of real life inspiring reel life. Our Singapore soldiers march within the pantheon of international peacekeeping forces overseas, so we shouldn’t be too surprised
with the inspired set-up of the narrative.

But the fact is, we are. Our neutrality towards this genre of action films when it comes to war and Singapore is not mere impassivity, but sadly a lack, of perhaps belief in the genre. The move from squibs to special effects was impressive enough, but the implausibility of Singaporeans in violence-ridden situations won out as audience laughter broke through with the spectacular shedding of blood onscreen. It’s a sad phenomenon that Cheng’s film strategically summons within the cinema: the incongruity of our lived in experience and what we see rendered on screen. The problem here isn’t even the Hollywood-resultant desensitization
towards violence, as parents would be happy to claim. Here, it’s a general plague of the desensitization to the perceived lack of violence in this country. War films like The Line seem to end up being viewed in the way we view those anti-terrorist videos in train stations. We’re constantly reminded of the potential for bloodshed, but after every six minutes and the train pulls in abruptly, we forget or worse, dismiss. And we laugh.

But Cheng calls out for a neutrality in the making of the film itself, even making the smart move of relocating the violence to a fictional global outpost: the land of Taunesia where presumably peacekeepers from other countries too can be situated at. Put relatable Singaporean character types into the setting, and the
film becomes a dare for viewers to cross the line, across our supposed neutrality of spectatorship. It’s a fine line too. Lose the gravity, and the film looks like a parody of NS men, circa 1996 with Army Daze. Lack some light-heartedness and it falls too easily into the trap of implausibility.

But Cheng doesn’t always traverse this line finely. While Gene Sha Rudyn’s presence might be applauded, the scripted presentation as a sort of Che Guevera rebel leader seemed to be a slightly excessive touch. Throw in the unweathered young bodies of supposed rebels running zanily through the field with guns in
their hands as if they were toys, and the intensity of the supposed war starts to flag.

The portrayal of Jen was however probably the most dissonant chord in this orchestration of a war. Violence is frightening because of how in spite of our best efforts, we lack the capacity to take the sudden and unpredictable intensity of it. But the violence here never quite hits home when Jen emerges from the tropical
forest outside of the neutral zone, in a completely clean long-sleeved shirt, carrying a backpack and so suspicious a conspicuously black briefcase. This came with excessively wary scripted behavior that screamed out the briefcase’s critical and incriminating contents. The graceless delivery of this MacGuffin unraveled
into predictability, as the briefcase prompts the ensuing violence of the rebels and the character growth of these young personnel caught in the crossfire of war and its injustices. Nevertheless, Cheng gains commendable merit for boldly trying to deliver a narrative that dares us reflect back on our own viewership
when it comes to action and war films made local.

It’s heartening to see that Cheng isn’t the only one who tries to fill in the local lack in certain film genres. Nelson Yeo’s Seeya in Elektrik Dreamz seems to be an abstraction in genre classification. The characters recall the novelist Haruki Murakami’s archetypes: whimsical but oddly relatable, round but ill-
fitting pegs in a square hole. In a post-apocalyptic world, a lonesome Sheepman
excavates dreams, two orphans find companionship in a barren landscape, while
somewhere in the past, a woman seeks her lost lover of only one day.

Seeya in Elektrik Dreamz is a long-drawn and poetic drift into the act of memory – a dreamscape of impermanence and of attempts to comprehend the past. Loosely associated vignettes cross into each other with the non-linear presentation of the four characters’ histories. A single voiceover bridges the
vignettes together. Under Yeo’s artful direction, the multiple narratives meld into each other beautifully in spite of their marked differences in storylines. With Yeo, reminiscence in the film is an act of re-visitation and possibly regret, but not remedy. It’s as if acts of reminiscence go nowhere and serve little purpose.
A temporal understanding of events is thus hardly necessary since the last vespers of memory are but a product of the bygone era. Steampunk mixes with spaceships and a Sheep Man in this indefinable period.

Nor does a spatial understanding of the places where events took places matter. They might have mattered then in the past, but not in this post-apocalyptic world of barren abandonment. Credit must be given to the effort put in scouting for unrecognizable locations that aided the sense of dislocation to the film’s dreamy
feel. Never mind too that one can barely discern a retelling of one character’s life from another’s in the voiceover. Memories are but fallible images, subject to revisions in the re-visiting, and in the light of abandonment and massive meteorites hurtling to the ground (thanks to special effects), all sing the same
song of loneliness. But Kexin Feng’s cinematography is arresting enough anyway, working its independent magic in each visually rich shot, aided by production designer Cindy Khoo’s tasteful eye for detail. It almost hurts calling this well-constructed work a thesis film.

Yet another film which operates on a different level of comprehending reality, is Michelle Cheong’s The Wedding Avenger. A light-hearted take on post-proposal, pre-wedding cold feet, Japanese videogames influence the presentation of the film where the trials and tribulations of the bride Jade (Chanel Ariel) come in
the form of gameplay stages. Chinese wedding traditions are satirized in the excessive seriousness required of each terribly wacky game stage or bonus rewards, where each choice as related to wedding preparations from cake to groom, risks the wedding (and relationship) in the possibility of a K.O result.

Cheong’s quirky use of the game style and Wesley Aroozoo’s adroit editing cleverly offsets the weight of the issue as discussed –marital commitment and responsibilities. What results is a refreshing take on an otherwise heavy issue, and an opportunity for a heroine to emerge, take charge of the console, and even grow and mature through each battle stage. The final trial is however one against time and the changes it brings. No health points gained from the dating stages can replenish a relationship as it goes through the years. What’s needed is the acceptance of change and the decision to commit, bringing Jade back to the first
real trial – the present and the choice to relinquish the ring. Hilariously fun to watch, Wedding Avengers even looked like a hoot to make.

Altogether, these three films stood out for their brave efforts in telling distinctive stories, and in particular Yeo’s exquisitely filmed Seeya in Elektrik Dreamz. While the case against giving marks for only effort can be justly debated against, their works certainly shows that that they may be appreciated beyond just the mere
effort expended on them. The NTU ADM graduation showcase 2011 for Digital Filmmaking was utterly delightful, at least for the unexpected pleasure from watching these three films and certainly bodes well for the graduating cohort, and hopefully the larger silver screen in Singapore.
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