Best Performance and Best Cinematography at the SIFF Silver Screen Awards

Marc Garbiel Loh in First Breath After Coma

If I were to walk away from this year’s SIFF Silver Screen Awards Finalist films remembering one thing, it would be the penchant for the dramatic and the beam of light sweeping across the La Salle logo in a disproportionately high number of short films. Put aside La Salle, their productivity is commendable. What I would like to focus on is the choice of films for this year’s finalists – high on theatrics but low on filmic quality, with several shorts fitting nicely into a TV genre. With a tagline ‘See Different’ and a trailer with a caricaturized fight, it might be natural to draw the conclusion that we need to view this year’s films with a different set of lenses.

Here are who I think are likely to take home the respective trophies and why.

Best Performance

It is almost like a Jerry Hoh and Oon Shu Ann special when they repeatedly appear in the various nominated films. Oon Shu Ann has an aesthetically strong face with a determined look that certainly helps anchor the films she starred in. She played a hotel chamber maid in ‘Hello Goodbye’ with subtlety and economy of expressions, fitting the narrative needs of the role well. Her thoughtful glances speak volumes for the otherwise quiet film. She then plays a stubborn and brave young boxer who will bear the pain of her bruises for a slice of honour. Despite her nomination for this film, it is less preferred one to ‘Hello Goodbye’ because she seems to wear the same adamant look , which can be tiring to watch for an already intense film.
Jerry Hoh despite the frequency of his appearances seems sideline by the nature of his roles – fillers to tell the story of the protagonist. I would like to see Jerry play a really bad guy one day. How about that for a real change?

While Sunny Pang was nominated in 3 Days Grace and Benjamin Chow was nominated for Band of Mischief, their roles failed to make a leap beyond the literal. Sunny played a son who has to take care of his father who has a stroke and it is a thorny and painful job. I blame his hair for the role. It seems to condition him into becoming more of a pose. And we spend most of the time seeing his physical expressions of frustration but none of his dilemmas, if there was one. Then again, it could directorial. And what's with Benjamin Chow's nomination for his rather predictable and off-the-shelf portrayal of a muppet-haired school bully?

Oon Shu Ann in Left Hook

This leaves Marc Gabriel Loh as my favourite contender against Oon Shu Ann in the Best Performance category. Marc takes us through a journey with his crush, his fears, his self-doubts with a performance that is nuanced and befitting of the bittersweet overtone in the story. It is easy to turn a blind eye to the intricacies of his performance when the character that he is playing simply overrules our focus - one that borders on the freakish with his gender-straddling persona. But looking beyond the gender-bending, one finds an likeable heart, a quietly determined spirit and most importantly, someone who does not try too hard. Having said that, I think Fie's (Marc's role) mother deserves a special mention award as well for playing a mother that was predictably resigned to her fate yet surprisingly comic at the right points. She is a 'Feshyen Feshyen' Mum!

Marc Gabriel and the feisty lady playing his mother

My choice for Best Performance : Marc Gabriel Loh in First Breath After Coma
Besides Marc, I was also particularly captured by the respective performances of the lady who played Marc's mother and the Indian girl who played Netra in 'The Red Veil'. Netra had a unspoken charm about her that conveys the complex feelings she had when dressing the younger girl who was about to be 'baptized' into the same rocky journey she's been through as a prostitute.

The actress who plays Netra in The Red Veil

Best Cinematography

This year’s nominees reflect a stronger dramatic and narrative focus at the expense of cinematography. Most of the camera seemed to be simply tools to the plot, without helping to tell the story in a different way.

Blue Tide seemed like a foreign imported TV soap you can watch out of Channel 8. The variety of off-centre, partially framed, heavily shadowed shots resembled what seemed like a good fan boy tribute to the HK crime features. The only problem is there was nothing inventive and everything genre-driven about the approach.

The next nominee Band of Mischief romanticizes the act of revenge in the setting of a school. While playing with clich├ęs like the ‘suicide-worthy’ rooftop wide shot, it threw a handful of tricks when it helped re-enact a torture scene, making torture so real and making what is ‘teenage’ so ‘adult’. There was even a steady cam shot that followed the walking protagonist with his back turned to us while he narrates the resolution. But the style of the camera did not complement or support the narrative but seemed single-mindedly aesthetic. Not a good thing when you start noticing the brush strokes of an artist more than the work of art itself.

Left Hook, like Band of Mischief and Blue Tide, fall into a genre look. This time, it is that of a fight club with oestrogen. The punches, the bursts of sweat beads, the quick sweeps and the shadowed lighting served the boxing-themed film well. Then again, the genre qualification of the film seems to douse the need for reinvention. The film must be applauded for it high production values and especially making bruises look real on the actresses face. Of course, good lighting on the part of the camera helped realize the look.

Window of Dreams among the nominees is my biggest puzzle for the documentary was a narrative triumph more than a cinematographic one.

The Red Veil

The Red Veil, if not for its poor indoor lighting would have been great contender for best cinematography. Perhaps making a corn field look scenic was too easy a job. Nevertheless the drifting shot of the actress as she moved down the line of drum-beaters achieved a kind of visual poetry that was hard to find among the rest of the finalist shorts in which the literal ruled the day.

This leaves Hello Goodbye as my favourite for Best Cinematography. It made a hotel room look deeper than its dimensions especially when nothing much was happening in the room except for cleaning, dusting and daydreaming. In a whimsical film about pining, the creators have managed to turn a standard hotel room into a sort of an emotional sanctuary. The soft lighting that filters through the curtains, the light distilled through wardrobe cabinet lourves and the overriding hues of the film makes this film live beyond its thin storyline. It makes you remember the place as much as the characters that filled the spaces. Which in my opinion may not be too far from what the director might intend, for the hotel room was in fact an emotional anchor in the film as much as it is a visual anchor.

Hello Goodbye
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