Talkback: 9th Singapore Short Cuts (Part 1)

The Singapore Short Cuts series is in its 9th edition this year and, as a platform to showcase the most audacious, most ambitious and most commendable—or at least, most debatable—of local shorts, has been vital in propelling talented filmmakers into the spotlight. With the absence of the Sinema Showoff! series in recent months (last we heard, the Sinema team is working on bringing it back) and with the Singapore International Film Festival being postponed to next year, the Singapore Short Cuts series has been crowned Most Important Local Film Event of 2012. It's not a stretch to say that the event goes some way in influencing the results of the Singapore Short Film Awards: if not for the prestige conferred to the shorts it features, then for the attention the event gives to filmmakers whose submission made the cut, many of whom would otherwise continue to stay under the radar. (And that's where we come in!)

This year, I'll be joined by my brilliant colleague Colin, a former writer at SINdie, and who runs his own website, Against The Hype. We'll be picking out a few of the shorts that piqued our interest.

Raymond: Colin, it's great to have you with us! I know we disagree over a lot of the shorts featured this year, but I think it's safe to say we reached a consensus as to which were our common favourites.

But just to get the ball rolling: let's start from the very first short screened on the very first day, Wild Fire by Jacky Lee. It isn't anything that will make you go "WOOAAHH!" but I found it competently made; it's conceptually simple but well executed. The punchy editing of the film, coupled with the music, helped to get Jacky Lee's central point - gossip as a potent, malicious force as untamed as "wild fire" - across in a very clear, coherent fashion.

I also thought that since the film is such a broad metaphor for all the varied forms of miscommunication—which is, of course, a kind of misunderstanding of intent—it can also be seen as a cautionary message against the xenophobia that is increasingly afflicting some locals. Hatred is a kind of "wild fire" as well. Lee never mentions this in her directorial statement, but like I said, this short is a broad metaphor that can be interpreted in many ways. Colin, you mentioned that you thought this film is especially relevant given recent events?

Gossip spreading in the elevator- from Wild Fire

Colin: Thanks for having me back, Raymond! You’re right about Wild Fire's broad applications, though I think the film is less interested in being a metaphor than in committing to its simple premise—a misattributed rumor about someone’s death spins out of hand—with snappy scenes, gesticulating actors, a handful of local dialects, and a self-aware soundtrack (with an ER-style¬ thumping heartbeat) that makes fun of how seriously its participants are taking things. That it screened at Short Cuts just the weekend before National Day, when many Singaporeans too found themselves muttering about how an old man they knew was doing, is but an ironic bonus.

Raymond: Moving along, I'd like to note the remarkable number of documentaries featured in the first weekend. Window of Dreams, Wild Dogs, Existence, and Before the Wedlock House (which has so many directorial touches and flourishes that one could be mistaken into thinking it wasn't a documentary). We'll talk more about the Liao Jiekai's film later, since we both loved it.

Now, for the first three shorts just mentioned, there's a very clear, thematic through line which connects all their films: they're all about the marginalized. Window of Dreams and Existence both feature, as their subject matter, foreign workers - and yes, these are foreign "workers", not 'talents" - who are struggling to make ends meet. Both shorts chronicle their travails, their hardships, and their dreams - they attempt to humanize their subject matter. Yet Window of Dreams left me empty. It's not just about how many times such a subject matter has been broached in local short films, because there are only so many themes in this country that can be explored, but rather how uninspired it is.

By contrast, Existence was gorgeously shot, and Jeanette Lim has a great eye for detail; the film has many shots that capture the humdrum quality of the foreign workers' lives, and the editing manage to very succinctly capture the rhythms of their life. She eschews the usual shove-the-camera-up-your-face pseudo-technique that so many amateur documentary filmmakers take to like moth to a flame; she plays the voice-overs of the foreign workers over such astutely detailed images of their day-to-day life, and you actually get a REAL sense of empathy for them.

What Window of Dreams gets wrong is that it features too many shots of its subject matter (Mohammed Kassim) and his family talking to the camera. That is fine in itself, but when the film is only about ONE central character, and the filmmaker chooses to focus on those in-your-face-interview shots, the film becomes entirely one-sided, with only one-perspective, draining it of any true insight or potency. The film gets reduced to a mere plea for sympathy for Kassim (even if he or the filmmaker never intends for this). Instead of humanizing its subject matter, the filmmaker sentimentalizes it. At times, the film even veers towards the explotative. Having said that, I do respect the filmmaker's effort in doing her research and attempting to give voice to the voiceless. Her heart was in the right place. And I think given the current wave of xenophobia infecting some Singaporeans, both Window of Dreams and Existence are timely antidotes to the blind outrage over foreign workers. Colin, I'm not sure if you liked Existence as much as I did. Did any of the documentaries (sans Before the Wedlock House) leave a strong impression on you?

Colin: I wouldn’t say that Window of Dreams gets things wrong as much as it’s working within an unambitious talking-heads format. It's a style that's so in vogue for sentimental foreign-worker documentaries that it risks causing all the individual subjects that populate these films to blend together.

A foreign workers featured in Existence calling his family

Existence avoids that somewhat by taking a new angle, fixing its eye on the spaces that these workers inhabit. You're right about the film's keen eye for detail; I liked the close-up on a worker's hands cupping inadvertently into a heart as he handles some woodwork. The film gets a little too precious, though, by fitting subtitles into different dark areas of the filmic image, so that (for instance) one set of subtitles shrinks as the truck containing it recedes into the background. That can make what we're watching feel slightly too mediated, too far detached from a sense of documentary realism, even if the use of the phone-call voiceover attempts to tie it back to that genre. 

Speaking of the marginalised, I'd like to discuss James Khoo's Hentak Kaki, which turns an eye on the under-appreciated career aspirations of local army regulars, and the rut into which misfortune can place them. The film relies too much on shot/reverse-shot conversations (and the dialogue can come off as contrived and rather army-negative), but it still delivers its requisite kick when lead actor Michael Chua lets loose with his climactic, soul-baring line. There's a sad desperation the film taps into that I wish it had had the courage to follow through, instead of tacking on a feel-good epilogue seems like an awkward clasp at fantasy. Yet the bold premise alone still leaves me in admiration. What do you think?

Raymond: I agree with you that Hentak Kaki's ending felt somewhat contrived; it distracted the audience from the core of the film, which is the tension between the ill-disciplined, recalcitrant NS man and the straight laced warrant officer. The former, while seemingly a mess at life, has a freewheeling quality, and does not feel constrained by laws or boundaries; the latter clings on to them, out of fear of the unknown. Despite that misstep, I absolutely concur with you that Michael Chua's final cry of anguish towards the end packed an emotional punch. The scene where Michael Chua's warrant officer character is running - ok, limping - down a track, before his legs give way and he grimaces in agony, very succinctly captures the central point of the film. The metaphor is so literal that I don't believe I have to explain it, but I think the literalness actually makes me respect the film even more, for its conviction and boldness in handling such a tricky theme.

Michael Chua as a warrant officer in Hentak Kaki

Since we are on the subject of films largely centered around a character's career, what did you feel about Anthony Chen's Karang Guni? (Watch the film here.)
Colin: Karang Guni offers something of a reverse case study to Hentak Kaki. The latter can seem rather shoddily slapped together (what with the unsubtle "wise fool" of a DB inmate, or the often haphazard framings), but it taps on the emotional core of a fresh, unexplored scenario. Conversely, Karang Guni never feels less than well-made. And yet true to its title, the film feels like it's just gathering old material: marginal individuals (another foreign worker!), isolated environments, strangers finding connection, and a lot of aimless munching. In these ways, the film seems like a cosmetically made-over retread of Chen's earlier Hotel 66. This time, the two protagonists are a rag-and-bone man and a PRC national who gets thrown out of her flat and climbs into the back of his truck. Little is said between them, which makes the film's culmination in a "thesis statement" about how Singaporeans react poorly to the new seem unmotivated, if not also hypocritical. The whole enterprise just feels like an unfortunate step back after Chen's powerfully subtle Lighthouse.

RaymondKarang Guni certainly doesn't tread unexplored territory with its subject matter, but I think that's hardly an indictment on the film - I guess the feeling of alienation is one of the most keenly experienced ones among artistes in Singapore and such a subject matter lies close to their heart.

About the film: the karang guni at the heart of the story is what you could lump together with foreigners in Singapore as "marginal individuals," but I truly appreciate the fact that Chen really tried not to give him an overly generic "lost soul" treatment, and opted not play up his sense of dislocation or, even worse, turn the film into an exploitative sob story. Yes, there are spots in the film (when the score comes in) which invites maudlin excess - which I think also makes the film somewhat uneven, given its detached quality for most of its course - but ultimately the film doesn't feel overly sentimental. My problem with the film is its literalness.

I recognize that there is still a charm and nostalgia that comes with the sighting of a karang guni, and it takes a lot of skill to not romanticize the past, even while trying to evoke the sense of alienation that comes from seeing one's homeland change rapidly. The rag-and-bone men that visit heartland residences ever so often are certainly a familiar sighting for those who stay in HDB flats, but they're also strangely ignored individuals. They feel simultaneously common and yet unfamiliar, even if encountering them is part of the heartland experience. I think pairing the karang guni with a foreigner - both of whom could sense in each other a kindred spirit - only accentuates the sense of alienation he feels even when he is ostensibly "at home." The film is not just about the marginalized, but also about our disappearing heritage. I am grateful that Chen tries to broach such an important theme, but the film's ideas about disappearing culture are put forth a little too literally (through the karang guni's monologue/dialogue), and not to my liking.

I absolutely agree with you that the outsiders in Karang Guni remind me of Chen's earlier short, Hotel 66, but perhaps without the charm and whimsy. This is probably Chen's least subtle work (and a step down from Lighthouse, which remains one of the best local films I've seen), what with the fortuitous ending shoehorned into an otherwise pleasant but bland "observational" film. Having said that, this being a commissioned work for Nikon (full disclosure: Anthony Chen mentioned to me himself that there are certain restrictions imposed on him - I take it the happy ending is one of them), the short served its function: to highlight the clarity of the sponsor's product.

The "happy ending" right at the end is extremely uncharacteristic of Chen who, even when veering towards the whimsical/quirky (Hotel 66) or sentimental (Reunion Dinner, again a commissioned film), steers clear of neat resolutions. Chen to my mind, along with Boo Junfeng, are two of the most observant filmmakers in Singapore, and I doubt that under normal circumstances he'd have written such a scene in.

Now, onto Ray Pang's The Team (you can watch it here). I did not appreciate Ray Pang's description of his own film in both the programme booklet and on Vimeo when I first read it, which made the film sound like a government project promoting racial harmony. What I did appreciate, however, was the actual film, which I thought was directed with great energy and verve. If the young Chinese boy's dialogue was a little too brash for his age, everything else very succinctly captured the spirit of youth. The film, organized around little contests -the fish battle, the soccer match, even the stand-off/face-off among the groups to see which one was cooler - conveyed young boys' desire for glory. I loved how during the stand-off sequence drumbeats played to cuts into close-ups of the group leaders' faces.That whole sequence has a mafia-film ring to it, reminiscent of confrontations between gangs in mafia films; of course, likening the young boys' groups to mafia gangs is kinda silly, but that's precisely the point. Young kids have a great imagination, and boys often project themselves into settings where they can be heroes. It's both silly and admirable at the same time.

(Part 2 of this installment, where we will be talking about Liao Jiekai's Before the Wedlock House, Tan Pin Pin's Yangtze Scribbler, and Charles Lim's All the Lines Flow Out, will be posted by the end of the week. It will be combined with this post.)
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