Kent Chan watched 689 films to put up 'Temporary Repositories'

For his latest exhibition, filmmaker and artist Kent Chan watched all the films shown under The Substation’s Moving Images programme in the last 15 years. Classifying the films not in typical genres like “action,” “comedy” and “documentary,” but in personalised labels that are often fun, endearingly colloquial and local, he introduces new ways of looking at film and Singaporean film, while maintaining that he is “not out to romanticise anything.” His efforts in classifying and dating the films are etched in detailed Excel spread sheets that also mark the launch of the Moving Images Archive. SINdie speaks to Kent about his solo exhibition and the ideas and experiences which shaped his journey. The interview then takes a decidedly broad turn, which, interestingly, acts as a sort of preview for his next exhibition.

SINdie: Can you take us through the process of how you conceptualised this exhibition?

K: About 4-5 months ago, I discovered that there was an available slot at the gallery in January 2013, so I approached Aishah (programme manager of Moving Images) to use it for a solo exhibition. We started talking about what we wanted to do and I was trying to look for certain thematic in the films screened under the Moving Images programme when Aishah pointed me to where the films were—sitting in about 16 cardboard boxes at the office door. They were kind of like, just collecting dust. So at that point, there wasn’t really an archive, it was more like a storage of films, stocked up over the last 15 years or so.

SINdie: What spurred you to take on the responsibility and challenge of archiving the Substation films?

K: It’s not as romantic as that. Instead of looking at certain clips in the films to use in a video or something, eventually it became just about the archive, and the archive in totality becomes a film. I’ve been on this trajectory where I’ve been trying to find other ways that we can look at the idea of film, and how it can grow. The archive enables us to find new ways of looking at films.

SINdie: Out of the 689 films you’ve watched, what were the more memorable films which stuck with you?

K: ONO! Or Art for the Executive. It’s a film that Frankie Ng made in 2005. I think he was an Ngee Ann student at that time. ONO! was the third film I watched (in preparing the exhibition). When watching the films, I would have two computer monitorsone screen would be the film itself, and the other would be where I would research on the Internet for information about the film. So I tried to find information on Frankie, and found out the film went to Rotterdam. I actually really like the film, even if it was a very weird film, though in a really good way. It further surprised me that it stated on LinkedIn that ONO! was the last film that Frankie made right before graduation, and then he just stopped making films and became a banker. I suppose that happens more often than we want to remember. But it kind of made the project a little more interesting, because after all film is about stories and in doing this project, we uncover these interesting stories. So it’s a fair bit romanticising, but that film kind of helped the process a little, and the big question is, what happened to Frankie right? Why did he stop making films? In the process of creating the archive, you uncover these tiny little questions, which was kind of interesting.

SINdie: The ways in which you classified the films are pretty varied. They’re kind of like genres but uniquely your own, reflecting how the films resonated with you. You’ve got familiar motifs (HDB & Suicides), auteur inspiration (Wong Kar Wai) and even a recurring actress (Oon Shu Ann). What was it like classifying the films? Presumably it would have been easy at times and tricky at others?

K: I think the difficult part was trying to pick between the categories, because obviously many of the films fall under more than one category. I could sensationalise the exhibition by putting 40 films under “HDB & Suicides,” but that’s not the point. At the end, there’s also awareness that the films demanded equal representation. Someone mentioned to me that, very often, the films that are already at a screening are shaped by the programmers’ programming, and consequently, too, the archive is shaped by the archivist. In a sense, the archive is inherently autobiographical. It reflects the nuances of the person that’s doing the job.

SINdie: In the creation of an overtly personalised archive, were you trying to show that the act of recording and documenting essentially and irrevocably involves mediation and screening, and that we are not to expect anything less than that?

K: I think I’m going to take the easy way out for this question, which is that I think there are certain things that we can’t say openly. For example, if I’m an academic, I can’t classify films like that. As an artist, I believe I have a lot more leeway to play around. It allows me a certain amount of space to navigate the limits of what’s right and not right to say. But I think it’s been done to death: (the idea) that the moment a film is made, it’s not in the filmmaker’s hands anymore. The fact that is, if someone chooses to do a similar project like this again 20 years down the road, it’s going to be a very different point-of-view and any one point, it’s not just about who sees it, but at what point. For example, I didn’t view the films chronologically. I started with a box that said “Before 2006: A-B, L-M,” so that’s 4 alphabets. In a way, I’m getting the perspective of 4 alphabets before 2006. So I had weird categories to begin with.

SINdie: I felt that your categories help. The pre-classifications act as a blueprint or reference of sorts, however subjective or inaccurate they may be. At times, it was precisely the subjective nature of the descriptions, which intrigued me to check out new films, to find out what your definition of a “Film Film” is, or what “Art” is, and if my own impressions of the film matched yours. It makes approaching Singaporean films a whole lot easier and accessible for a layman, especially in the way the films could be browsed like products on a supermarket aisle.

K: Touching on how it was exhibited: At the end of the day, my first entry point is not the films itself. It was the DVDs and the boxes. Before I watched the films, what I first saw was the discs and what was labelled on them. So the object becomes important. The only materiality we ever talk about in film, is video or film. But in the exhibiting of the work itself, we’re dealing with a different kind of materiality, which is the DVD itself, most of which had handwritten labels. A lot of times, the first information I keyed into the Excel spread sheet was what’s written on the disc. For the archive, I focused on (the labels) “Title,” “Filmmaker” and “Year,” whereas The Substation had the extra category of “Duration.” Most people don’t even bother; some people give too much information you know. But that also shows the care that people put into their films, and it’s far more personal that way. Before you even watch the film, you already see the filmmaker's touch there.

SINdie: As part of the exhibition, you also screened a video of people watching a film. The idea of interrogating spectatorship, and exhibiting the fundamentally voyeuristic nature of film-watching has been explored many times [Kiarostami’s Shirin (2008), Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003)]. How is your take on this any different?

K: I don’t think I was trying to make any new point. I actually only found out about Shirin five days ago. But with Goodbye, Dragon Inn as a reference point, specifically with that film, the difference is that I’m not out to dramatise spectatorship. Nothing happens in the film (screened at the exhibition).

SINdie: The people in the film were completely passive.

K: Yes, even with the two characters that came the closest to being a couple, there was very little interaction between them. And that’s the reality of it. I’m not romanticising the film-watching experience.

SINdie: It's like we go to the cinema to have our senses bombarded and are ironically pretty dead during the whole duration of the film.

K: If you sit through and watch the film, it’s played off Eclipses (2011), which is Daniel Hui’s film. The first thing I told him after watching the film at its premiere was the idea of “economical anthropology,” and the idea of anthropology touches on labour, which the film talks a lot about—not only in the scenes depicting people working and labouring, but also the idea that watching a film is really an act of labour. Any romantic is not going to admit this, but sometimes watching a film is really laborious.

SINdie: It is; it takes a degree of stamina to sit through a film.

K: And very often we pay good money to make ourselves labour / watch a film. The idea of labour also describes my experience creating this project in the sense that I also had to spend a lot of time labouring, watching the films.

SINdie: How many films per day?

K: I think I hit about 50-ish a day, but it was spread out over 2-3 months. Some days I was just too busy. So it was quite spread out. After awhile, it just kind of fucks with your brain a little.

SINdie: But isn’t our film culture in transition? I would like to see, for a change, a film showing people who multi-task or do different things while watching a film, and arguably, not seated so politely in a cinema anymore, but perhaps in the comfort of their home, from their laptops or on their tiny tablet screens on trains.

K: In the video that I made, you see one person walking out, and there was supposed to be two screens, two channels. The camera doesn’t follow anybody but it just shows the whole city and what people do on a weekend evening. And you realise the things that people would rather do than watch a film. If you look at why and how we watch films, and film as a social activity, as well as what’s available or offered to us, watching a film is making a choice. My position is that over the last few years, I’ve drifted a bit from film and film-watching, and it sort of reflects my position there, in the choices I would make doing other things instead of watching a film.

SINdie: So you’re not a big cinephile?

K: Not as much as I think I used to be. So in a way, the project is about me trying to remember films and just go hardcore one time lah.

SINdie: Why do you think there is an abundance of short films in Singapore? Is it indulged for anything other than obvious practical filmmaking considerations, like budget and time constraints? Do we find a local niche in short films?

K: I think, and specifically I made a point about this in the exhibition: Even though it’s been stated that the films at the exhibition are largely Singaporean films, I still have a special category called “Local Films,” because the ones that are truly local are at times quite artificial. Gan Bei (2005) was supposed to go under “Local Films,” but it went under “Sunny Pang” in the end. It’s basically about two drinks stalls at a hawker centre. Films about familial pressure, Singlish, language and satire are typically Singaporean.

If you want to talk about niche, I think we have a shitload of niche, but I’m not sure which is ours though. Take for example, this category called the “Postmodern Moment.” If you follow the architectural perspective, the "postmodern" is technically defined as 1950 onwards. If you take the art perspective, it’s a little bit later, usually seen around the 60s and 70s and the heydays for postmodern films is really the 90s, with the likes of Pulp Fiction (1994), Wong Kar Wai and Jim Jarmusch who is a big influence on Nelson (Yeo).

SINdie: Coffee and Cigarettes (2003)…

K: Not just that, specifically Dead Man (1995). You see it at least in two of his films, like Fistful of Yusof Ishaks (2008) and Nobody’s Home (2010). You see Dead Man being echoed very strongly. But there’s a certain kind of motif in postmodern films. The postcolonial nostalgia came out during the postmodern phase and WKW was definitely one of the biggest figures of that movement.

SINdie: There are still many WKW-wannabes out there.

K: There are, but a little bit less. If we keep borrowing the stylistics of other postmodern films, then what defines our own postmodern? It comes to the point that we don’t have our own postmodern. What are Singaporean films then, if our postmodern is seen as mimicry of WKW? WKW’s aesthetics comes from his personal history; hailing from Shanghai, he looks back at the old Hong Kong, and it came at the crux of when HK was no longer a colony…but we were no longer a colony thirty years before that, so how is it possible that we develop the same kind of aesthetics? We don’t have that same kind of situation to have that kind of film. So our postmodern never really existed when the world was going through a postmodern phase. ONO! has a very distinct postmodern strain in it. Another film – Lim Poh Huat (2004) by Lee Wong.

But I think our own postmodern aesthetic is starting to come out, especially in Wesley (Leon Aroozoo). One big thing about the postmodern is that there is no grand narrative right? Another moniker for the postmodern is also “the point is there is no point,” and we see that in Wesley’s films sometimes. I think we’re a bit slow in that sense, that it’s only happening locally now, a sort of retarded postmodern we’re experiencing. But our postmodern is very derivative, and so too were the films. You can see this in how there’s a category called “Hong Kong style” and another called “Taiwanese.”

We always see Singaporean filmmakers imitate certain auteurs, but have you ever seen anyone imitating Singaporean films? Then the big question would be, “What are ‘Singaporean films’” right?

SINdie: What do you think are the conditions we need to produce an auteur of our own?

K: How do you develop distinctions in a homogenous society that is 45 minutes apart, at any one point? Not to sound like a pessimist, but we just don’t have that distinction. We don’t even have an urban-rural dichotomy. There is no tension, no separation.

SINdie: Do you still make films?

K: I just did. I think film is an idea, and I see this exhibition as a new way of looking at films, and henceforth a film-making endeavour. Film and cinema are almost inseparable but they are also distinct. Cinema is a place and cinema is the ideology. There’s baggage in the idea of a “cinema.” So that’s what the exhibition is about for me: finding out different ways of how we can look at, understand, experience and continue film, as well as expand its definition. Moving images will always exist. Film in the celluloid sense doesn’t, and filmmaking may ultimately not exist in the way that we know. But film as an idea can survive. I don’t have to make film, because film is already here, present in our familiarity of them. 

Film can be materialised but it is also intangible. It has a certain history, culture and practice. But "cinema" has so much more romantic baggage than the word "film." The three big things about the late 19th Century and the early 20th Century is that the growth of cinema has always paralleled the growth of the city and hence, modernity. This is because the symbol of modernity is the city as a modern space, and the cinema occurs in this urban space. Cinema's growth is symbiotic of the city's. The city itself is cinematic. 

SINdie: Will the archive be available for viewing (like a film library) after the exhibition?

K: It’s “Temporary Repositories.” The Substation is still considering what they want to do with the archive at this point, but I’m probably going to close this chapter when the exhibition ends. The archive is ultimately not mine. I don’t own the films, I may have done the work, but the films belong to The Substation.

SINdie: What’s your next project?

K: I do have an idea for an exhibition that was conceived before “Temporary Repositories.” It’s called “It’s Only Talk,” and it involves me and four other filmmakers and conversations about film, specifically dealing with the ideology of film.

Pictures courtesy of The Substation

Transcript by Tay Huizhen

Check out Kent Chan’s “Temporary Repositories” at The Substation Gallery from now till Sunday 27 January. The exhibition is open daily from 12pm – 9pm, except on public holidays. Admission is free.

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