5 Singapore Independent Documentaries to take us from China to prostitutes to sex

'Post love' on superficial viewing comes across as a tacky exploration of love and lust among the elderly with it's expressionistic and sometimes 'cardboard-like' portrayal of certain situations. But the documentary digs deep and is not afraid to ask the awkward questions. So the sketchy touches really belie a refreshing eye on an issue that's always been around.

Through a series of interviews with various silver-haired folks, we dig into the psyche of their amorous selves or rather what's left of it. While the stereotypes of the old men and their undying lust tended to surface, to humourous effect, the film did reveal what older women felt about finding love which was compelling. (Women are shown to be undeniably more resilient than men, unfortunately for me!) Among others, there is the reality of menopause, and old men seeking pleasures elsewhere when their wives are no longer up to it.

Beyond the tokenistic re-enactment of various familiar situations, this film has more bite than you think. It is not afraid to pose awkward questions to dirty old men and it stretches our visualisation of what could be post-menopausal/retirement/grandparenthood love with impressionistic illustrations of what it is trying to explore- old people in love and sex.

The film could have done one thing more justice though - it's exploration of age through getting two young actors to transform themselves could have been taken beyond the illustrative to the exploratory. It would have been interesting to know how two young people woul feel when put on the fast track to 'menopause'!

If there was one documentary that embodied the spirit of independent filmmaking, it would have been 'JoJo', rightly placed after Post-Love for its dealings with the same turf of 'lust'. JoJo eschews the traditional format of establishing a subject, getting points of views, forming conclusions etc, it goes straight into the epicentre of it all and documents it - the fish tank.

The fish tank for those who are unfamiliar is where you choose your ware. Girls, with number tags pasted on their hips sit under the LED mood enhancing lighting as the 'shop's display' for customers to make their selection. Like commodities, they are literally scrutinised and even fall into different grades and origin-driven classes that determine their price.

Alright, it does not take a genius to make this expose. But it takes lan audacious spirit to plant a camera in a bag and walk straight into a brothel to document the world inside. And if that is not enough, ask the girl for an interview.

While the film did not seem deliberately structured, there was a semblance of narrative progression and even closure to it. These subjects are first viewed with distant curiosity, then one let's us one step closer into her life and it ends with a payoff glimpse of her albeit with a ironic blonde wig that seems to work against her attempt at mimicry.

The title 'Comfort' in this portrait of a taxi driver is aptly humourous. The short film is the filmmaker's ode to his father who is a taxi driver who drives his taxi with a huge dose of pride. Something though not unseen but rare in Singapore. Before we whine about how taxi driver stories are 'done to death', the unscripted, unabashed nature of the taxi driver's banter with the camera draws us in.

While being a day-in-the-life-of journey, the 'touch of comfort' is the straight talking touch of the driver. Of course it helped that driver is the father of the filmmaker which made him 'obligated' in a way to complete the video journey and also be a little more comfortable about hamming it up for the camera. But you also got to give it to the filmmaker for asking the right questions, holding the 'record' at the right moments and editing it to give comic punctuation to what was virtually a monologue by the driver. There was of course one moment when his own vehicle did the talking - the LED mood lighting from underneath, and if u are observant, the LED stars on the car ceiling, like a kind of payoff to the title 'comfort'.

Before the film seems a little too exploitative, the filmmaker delightfully draws the connections between the driver and the people around him as well. Not just the passengers (of whom or was surprisingly captured in an interview), but the people close to his life as well, his daughter and not least of all, the person behind the film, his son. Effectively opening us up to the world beyond the driver's seat, extending the axes of vision for the audience beyond the typical cross- seat mid shot that a car space would only allow. Most importantly, it made the driver look less like an attention seeker who is desperate to entertain.

 'Train ride' the film is like a photographer's collection of lyrical parting shots of a subject, narratively loose but visually pretty. At the core, it is a visual essay to lament the end of the train's useful life in Manzhouli in China, virtually a series of postard-pretty images put together, peppered with soundbite from people within the community. Intimately framed shots aside, the filmmaker also puts his own shadow into the programme by documenting his interaction with the train staff right in the intimate confines of the driver's cabin. Yet, the film seems to be in a strange kind of paradox - you are physically close enough to the characters but never really close enough to the emotional core of the issue. Like a travelogue, the film is pretty but you are really looking at it like a tourist catching a visual steal of a monument only knowing that it's important and you need to get that camera rolling, never mind that it means little to you.

'Roots' hinges on what seems like a random choice of 2 student profiles in China - one is an ethnic Chinese, bred in Canada paying a hometown visit while the other is a Mexican who studying in China.  The film explores identity and no surprises for guessing this if you saw a clue in the title of the film. The subject is trite but the two profiles are interesting. Perhaps the filmmaker is trying to pit two opposites of the concept of culture shock (a reverse culture shock to be exact for the Canadian-bred Chinese.

While the Sean, Chinese boy sprouts nothing off the expected in his interview (relating to his Chinese roots and being proud even though he was bred in Canada), the filmmaker has selectively and wisely documented some 'threshold' moments of putting his cultural affinities to the test, like conversing with the taxi driver and following his family to the graves of his grandparents for Ching Ming (remembering the dead). While blending in with his relatives like part of the family, his bigger physique, almost like a testament to a North American upbringing, spoke as much for his sense of 'alienation' as much as what he verbally said. There was a particular scene at the dinner table where the family, almost too big for the table had to huddle around it and he stood out for his size among his relatives who have lived on a leaner Chinese diet. But of course, his visit was not not staying put at alientation but had a sweet ending to when he finally revisits the objects and things he left behind, including a chair his grandfather used to sit on - a distant memory that still rekindles that warm fuzzy feeling.

The story of the Adrian, the Mexican student presented the flip side of the card, a sense of getting away from one's original culture, dislocating oneself and trying to find a new sense of belonging and identity. A first glance seems to tell me this chapter is about China's progress on wold domination, everyone's moving here to learn Mandarin. But it is also about borders and cultural lines disappearing among peope today. He said with his kids, he wants them to master English, Spanish and Mandarin. It is tough enough handling two languages in Singapore, you begin to wonder if such parental imposition of culture is ever justified. But we are back to the concept of upbringing again and how blind we all are to influences when are young like an empty glass, which in a way makes a loose connection to Sean's cultural assimilation in Canada. So perhaps, if you think about Sean and Adrian deeply, they are not so randomly paired after all, for the filmmaker is really seeking to paint a snapshot of 2 people at busy crossroads.

'The Impossibility of Knowing', by Tan Pin Pin, which was screened as part of the Singapore selection of short films had been reviewed earlier as part of the Singapore Biennale.

Article by Jeremy Sing
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