Review: 10th Singapore Short Cuts

It has been a decade! The 10th edition of the Singapore Short Cuts recently concluded with quite the bang: a retrospective of Anthony Chen’s shorts, fitting since Chen’s films have been featured many times in previous editions of the SSC. But Chen’s “graduation” to the big screen, so to speak, with his debut feature film Ilo Ilo (out islandwide later this month) isn’t just cause for celebration – it also bears testament to the importance of short film screenings like the SSC as a means of highlighting upcoming talent and granting them exposure.

And as great as it is to look back at an immensely talented director’s oeuvre, SINdie has always been about celebrating and championing little known local directors and films, so it’s those shorts we’ll be talking about here. (But don't worry y'all, we'll still be doing something on Mr Chen very soon- watch this space.)The shorts that were screened on Day 1 and 2 of the SSC certainly provoked lots of reactions within our team: some films energized us and some unnerved; some spooked us out while some made us go awww. In short, this year’s crop of films gave our team plenty to talk, think, and argue about, so without further ado, let us dive in.

Raymond: Colin, it is great to have you around to talk about this year’s crop of shorts, especially since this year yielded some of the boldest, most imaginative and most aesthetically daring films I have had the pleasure to watch in a while. Of course, bold and aesthetically daring mean different things to different people, and these films were not all “good” or successful. There were films that crossed the line from boundary-pushing to straight-up inexplicably bizarre, and not in a good way. Let’s first start off with some of the more formally experimental films.

My favourite short from Day 1 and 2 is WORMHOLE. It’s basically about a bunch of earthworm enthusiasts (fetishists?) who gather to, well, listen to earthworms. It’s pretty bonkers, yes, but it’s brilliantly, knowingly, bafflingly bonkers. Directed by Nelson Yeo and Chris Yeo Siew Hua, the film was a submission for a 48 hour filmmaking competition. I suspect though, that the idea for the film had been gestating in Yeo’s head for a while, since the idea came across quite coherently enough. But let me just turn the tables for once and ask you how you felt about it, Colin, before I reveal my thoughts about it, since it was my favourite short in part because of its confounding nature, and I suspect you may harbour different feelings about it precisely because of that.

Speaking of 13 Little Pictures, the collective’s stalwart captain Tan Bee Thiam also directed a new film this year. KOPI JULIA is also one of my favourites from Day 1. Purported to be a tribute to the crop of local horror films made by Shaw and Cathay in the 50s, of which I unfortunately haven’t seen any, Kopi Julia is a silent film that, according to the programme booklet, uses “devices such as inter-titles, uncluttered framing and a dependence on physical expressions” to tell its story. It actually reminded me of many German Expressionist films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu in that sense, especially with the way it employed lighting.

Kopi Julia poster image

Kopi Julia tells the story of Ikram who lives with his vampire stepmom. He brings back schoolmates for his stepmom to feed on, but things take a twist when he takes a liking to a boy at school - a boy whom his mother tries to seduce, in the hope of feeding on him. The film is both ostensibly a homage to films of a bygone era and a love letter to film history. But Tan eschews a deliberate creation of an “authentic” 50’s-ish (or even 20’s-ish) image because he knows that creating a new old film, so to speak, is futile. Whatever made those expressionist films so impactful is inextricably bound to the milieu those films were borne out of. I suspect Tan is aware that, stripped of such a context, a slavish reconstruction of those films would be pointless. Hence, he foregoes faux-graininess and other retro/nostalgic devices (so popular in Singaporean films these days) and opts for a crisp, pristine, digital image, further updating the film by imbuing it with a loudly queer perspective – the film is a queer (revenge) fantasy of sorts – which is anachronistic to the films from which Kopi Julia gets its inspiration. The film is, then, an example of reaching into the past to create new narratives, new meaning.

Unlike most films which invoke or evoke the past, Kopi Julia makes no claim that the past is preferable to the present nor does it point out the shortcomings of silent-era cinema. The short is distinctly derivative – lovingly so, of course – and yet singular at the same time. What it does, I think, is highlighting the importance and the impact that visuals – careful framing, expressionistic lighting, emphatic physical gestures like a smirk from an actor– have on storytelling, something that is lost on many commercial filmmakers these days.

It also pays tribute to the past while exhibiting clear forward-thinking, never sinking into a cheap quagmire of past-is-better sentimentality. Oh, and did I mention, the film was damn fun, too? Seduction! Muscle-flexing! Finger-sucking! Yup, all in there.

Moving on to the shorter, well, shorts. We have the WAYS OF SEEING, the one film from the first weekend that I truly considered a misfire. Synopsis, not that it’ll matter much: Some Guy (no, he doesn't actually have a name) walks around the wilderness and stops occasionally to observe his environment. He then stumbles upon an abandoned building where a hooded man is tied to a chair with a camera rolling in front of him. Nameless guy proceeds to take the hood off the man and puts it on himself. The shot is then held for like one zillion seconds. Then the film cuts to shots from different angles of the same scene. Finis.

In the Q & A session, actor/director Terry Ong mentioned that he set out to make a narrative film, and that didn’t work out; Ways of Seeing is what he ended up making instead. I’m sure they set out with good intentions, to make a film that is supposed to shine light on the directorial process and act as some sort of oblique self-reflexive interrogation. But for me, none of it worked.

And dealing with abstract ideas is certainly a worthy endeavour; most experimental short films grapple with those on some level. But even while gesturing towards the abstract (which the film does right from the start by quoting Bresson- something about a person needing to direct himself before directing others- hence S.P.E.L.L.I.N.G out what the film wants to be about), the film’s images are painfully literal. The directors try to get the point across by getting the “protagonist” (played by Terry Ong) to sit down on a chair, face a man with a covered head, then take the hood from said man’s head and putting it on his own. And that’s about it – the film says nothing more. It may have wanted to be a director’s self-portraiture and an interrogation into his process, but while that rightly requires some form of distance, drawing a blank does not a self-portraiture make.

Of far more interest to me was the 90 second long CONSTELLATION, an animated short film simple but effective in its delivery. It's a perfect example of how risking absurdity to pursue sublimity can sometimes pay off. Animated with sparse brush strokes, its un-showy execution belies its ambition: the film reaches back all the way to the beginning of time to ponder our evolutionary beginnings while also contemplating our future. It opens up a ton of questions, but it neatly avoids an overload of pathos by employing – and sorry to use some terribly hackneyed terms – “quirky” and “whimsical” images to dial up the charm. What could have resulted from pondering such deeply unsettling existential questions was a pessimistic, cynical film fixated on the inability to know the answers. But the film's fragmented structure and its lovely, gentle music give it a dreamlike quality, filling the journey with wonder and magic. Far from wallowing in dread, the creature looking into the telescope at the end of the film opens us up to the wonders of existential mysteries. And if there's anything this film says, it's that there's danger in seeking to understand ourselves and find meaning in our lives, but there's also so, so much beauty to be found.


Also, the entire 1 minute short also doubles as an allegory for cinema! Creature (the audience) goes into a brave new world to search for... something, sees a whole bunch of new things, comes out the same - but not quite. His journey has subtly but unalterably changed him. That's what good art does to you. Now onto you, Colin.

Colin: WORMHOLE: Given the consistent polish on display in this year's Short Cuts slate, I'm surprised that the truncated, clearly shot-on-the-fly Wormhole rose out of that crop as your favorite. With a little thought, it's clear what plot they're trying to convey: the narrator used to be able to hear earthworms when he was younger, but while others like him still do the same, he no longer can. That strange plot has the potential to be moving, but the impassivity of the lead actor, his stilted Mandarin voiceover, and the way the film treats his character's loss as a mere ending punchline just saps any poignancy that it might offer.

Nonetheless, this premise leads to some strong moments, including an unnerving shot where the narrator holds a needle up to a worm, which shocks us into having a fleshly concern over the threat of violence to the little wriggling thing. There's also that mysterious, impeccably sound-edited sequence where a bunch of people hold up worms to their ears and hear a melange of otherworldly sounds: Are they all hearing the same thing? Is it all in their heads? Can they understand what they're hearing as anything other than language-less sounds? Is the narrator, due to his loss, projecting their ability to access something sublime that he cannot? That a three-minute film about earthworm fetishists can inspire such questions, which border on the theological: that's impressive.

KOPI JULIA: In some ways, your description of Kopi Julia as "a queer (revenge) fantasy" says it all, although the association of queer sexuality with vampirism can be a dated homophobic trope. To the film's credit, it boldly takes on Ikram's point of view in gazing at the boy of his desires, and his involvement in his stepmom's murderous villainy only occurs with victims who have physically bullied him at school. So the film is on Ikram's side in a substantial way. It isn't just rehearsing the old homophobic tropes, and using the sheen of silent-film techniques (however updated) to justify that rehearsal by posing as ironic.

For the most part, anyway. I am concerned with how Kopi Julia displaces monstrosity from the queer Ikram only by an ageist focus on the stepmom as the evil seductress who is trying to hijack a comparatively "proper" love between two youthful peers. Furthermore, when Kopi Julia ends on Ikram's cackled line "Because I want him for myself," the film feels like it is yielding to the outmoded tropes that it has resisted for so long. Especially since the line seems so unnecessary: the camerawork and editing have already told us what Ikram has been feeling all along, so the awkward ending line just makes us question Ikram's blamelessness without any real payoff.

These reservations don't stop me from admiring the many things you and I have mentioned are worthy about the film, especially its replication of silent-film techniques and its gutsy eroticizing of sticky threads of condensed milk, bleeding fingers, and classmates' abs. Rather, you can take it as a compliment that I wish Kopi Julia had taken its daring premise and aesthetics to a fuller, longer, more richly thought-out extreme.

CONSTELLATION: My main worry about Constellation is grading it on a curve, knowing that it's a school art project conceived, drawn and animated by a single teenager. At a technical level, director/animator Yuki Pan handles an impressive array of art styles, and even animates a deceptively simple shift in visual focus. (That can't have been easy to pull off!)

But the film has an odd sense of deflation, where the ending just seems to peter out: a repeated close-up through a telescope doesn't yield the film's most interesting or jaw-dropping image, as you might hope it would. And when the little protagonist finally climbs into the telescope, it does so from a compositional angle that implies it is closed-off from us, so that we feel a sense of anticlimax rather than of its exploration coming to fruition. Hence despite knowing the context of the film's making, Constellation doesn't feel complete or even pointed in what it wants to say. I wish Pan had taken more care with that, especially because of what remains so promising about her drawing and animation work.

Raymond: WORMHOLE: I mostly agree with your observations about the actor, Colin, but while I suspect his shoddy Mandarin intonation and pronunciation will be jarring for anyone familiar with the language, I don't think that the leading actor's impassivity necessarily saps the film of emotional poignancy.

In the voiceover, the actor says that he was able to hear sounds from an earthworm as a kid, an ability now eroded by ...age? The loss of innocence? I think part of what the film was attempting was to allude to man's fall, and his subsequent expulsion from Eden - that "lostness" that results is concisely reflected by the actor's "impassivity", as you put it. But I won't say he's unemotive - there's a kind of deranged grandeur that results from the way Nelson Yeo and Yeo Siew Hua chose to direct him, the actor's bulging eyes hinting of both curiosity and sadism. Isn't that what man's pursuit of knowledge (and transcendence) requires? The more you know, the more you realize how much you don't know, the more you want to try to know, and so on and so forth.

This may just be my reading of the film - the film's oblique structure lends itself to many interpretations - but that "lostness", and the awareness of not being able to access what once was (for reasons unspecified) have not drained the protagonist of his will to discover. He tries to listen to the earthworm, failing which he contemplates hurting it. He then spots an entire group of earthworm enthusiasts (fetishists?) struggling very hard to listen to earthworms and he looks on in wonder. The protagonist is wondering: do they hear anything? Why do they keep listening if they don't? Why do they do it together? It raises important questions about the human condition and our collective pursuit for transcendence and meaning.

I respect the film's guts and ambition - namely, its charting a path to the philosophical - even spiritual - by way of turning the banal into something otherworldly. It may not have been entirely explicable at times (and that is kind of the point), but it was never confusing, and opens up to broad interpretations instead of closing off with its own abstraction. As you've mentioned, it being able to raise so many theological questions in a span of three minutes is commendable.

Still from Animal Spirits

ANIMAL SPIRITS and THE STORY I FORGOT TO TELL: Speaking of 13 Little Pictures, another one of its members has a new film screened during the SSC. From the few Daniul Hui films I've seen, they seem to be mostly exercises in/examinations of phenomenology. He's concerned with the nature of images, particularly, exploring the idea of reality vs "reality" and questioning the relationship between images. Some of his films come across as overly cerebral and oblique to me, and sometimes I can honestly only hazard a guess as to what they're about. ANIMAL SPIRITS is his first film that's accessible and easily explicable, at once bearing some of the concerns found in his previous films and exploring something entirely new.

 In his review, our very own Jeremy Sing notes that "The term ‘Animal Spirits’ is a term coined by influential economist John Maynard Keynes which means human emotions and irrationality that could affect consumption behaviour. It is ironic how science attempts to structuralise feelings and moods but it is with the same sense of irony that the short film Animal Spirits is characterised – one that gives a refreshing take on the universal and familiar themes of longing, separation, love."

While "animal spirits" (the theoretical term) is an attempt to give meaning and structure to something that is ephemeral and difficult to quantify, Animal Spirits (the film) is likewise a similar attempt to shine light on and understand the intricacies of human behaviour in the face of changing economic forces. The film appropriates and claims the irony of the title for itself.

I like the programme booklet's description of the film, especially this segment:"The confessional dialogue and images from these two interviews offer frank examples of how human desires and connections can co-exist and in fact fuel the paradigm of financial servitude within capitalism", and though I strongly disagree that it was that exhaustive or comprehensive an exploration of Capitalism and its discontents - it's only a 9 minute film after all! - there were clear, straightforward - maybe even overly obvious - ideas about how economic circumstances do dictate or heavily influence our actions and emotions. I'm guessing though, that there are layers to the film that may have eluded my understanding, and films like these (as with many other experimental shorts screened during the SSC) often warrant repeat viewings.

THE STORY I FORGOT TO TELL is the second film by Nelson Yeo at the SSC. Very clearly inspired by Chris Marker's films, it being largely a meditation on the nature of memories and images, it is essentially made up of a voiceover playing over a series of images - but such a bare bones description of the film does it no justice. The film's a mesmerizing confessional travelogue of a commuter that, as the programme notes, "revolves around the mythology of a man who steals people's dreams on the train". It's also a "mapping of topographical feature which embody the movement and fluctuations of memories". There are quite a few WTF elements going on in the film: there's the stream-of-consciousness voiceover; there's otherworldly mythology of a dream-stealer; the neon-bathed nightscapes; the haunting super-impositions - all of which made me so thrilled to watch this even if I was also baffled by it.

Memory, like quicksilver, is ever shifting and changing. It's also often fragmented. The super-impositions, the shots of commuting trains (very 2046-esque) and the dreamy music and voiceover all work in tandem to bring this idea across.

My only slight point of resistance is that while I'm impressed by how clearly Yeo presents his ideas in THE STORY I FORGOT TO TELL, I think the precision of the editing does undermine the film's ideas a little. It feels almost too over-calculated, too smoothly executed to truly feel like a dream. But even when I was a little distracted by parts of the film that came across as overly-neat, the weirdly enchanting music and voiceover would then come back on and plunge me back into this fascinating tone-poem.

Colin: Two of the bravest, thorniest and most hard-hitting films screened in this year’s Singapore Short Cuts slate were Michael Kam's DETOUR and Ang Geck Geck's BROKEN CRAYON. Both hinge on the sexual assault of a child, although the circumstances of the assault in either film differ greatly. In Detour, a boy waiting in the cubicle of an empty public toilet for his elder brother’s return is barged in upon by a stranger. In Broken Crayon, a girl is co-opted by her slightly elder male cousin into passively re-enacting the pornographic videos that their grandfather introduced to him. The films thus diverge on their victim’s gender, their assaulter’s age and blameworthiness, the two’s prior acquaintance with each other, and the publicness of the assaults. Taken together, both films force us away from making easy assumptions about what childhood sexual assault might look like, instead offering a richer, less unified sense of how it comes to pass.

I'm impressed that both films expose what is futile about the idea that you can protect children from sex. Not just in the sense that you can’t always be guarding children against being assaulted, since the films show how grown-ups and elder siblings can get stuck in traffic, wander off for a moment, or be busy eating or sleeping or watching TV. (Worse, they might catch the perpetrator in the act but brush it off as child's play, as one shockingly believable voiceover in Broken Crayon suggests.) But protecting children from sex is also futile in the sense that kids discern more than you can hide from them, even if they cannot consciously express it. The sullen, heavy silences of the post-assault victims in either film suggest that neither child needs to have been told about sex in order to have the intimate knowledge that he/she has been violated.

Still from Broken Crayon

However, I'm worried that both films leave room for audiences to draw the easiest, most counterproductive conclusions about childhood sexual assault and how to combat it. This arises from their depiction of sex as something lurid that occurs behind closed doors, or just offscreen from where a child scrunches her face in pain. By presenting sex as something that cannot even be put onscreen, these films suggest how Singaporeans can't even begin to denounce acts of sexual coercion when they haven't first gotten past their fear of letting sex be a non-sensationalistic topic of viewing/discussion.

This is unfortunate, because the endings of both films venture into dark, complex territory that some audiences' sensationalistic view of sex can cause to interpret too simplistically. Raymond, I believe you had a pretty good impression of what Detour's ending had to offer?


Raymond: In DETOUR, Michael Kam’s eliding of the actual act of sexual abuse is a canny - not timid or neglectful - choice. Beyond seeing the abuser pushing the victim into the toilet cubicle, there is no overtly depicted physical contact. After the abuser – ostensibly a middle-aged man – goes into the young boy’s cubicle, the cubicle door is closed, and the camera tracks away slowly, silently. We don’t see the abuser’s face; we don’t even see the victim cringe. This may have a negative implication, as you’ve already pointed out, but I think it takes a brutish will not to fixate on such a traumatic act. Such an atrocity invites rage, despair, and even hopelessness, and it takes a mammoth force of will by Michael Kam not to succumb to what must seem like the most intuitive way to elicit sympathy for the victim – that, to me, seems like a genuine act of grace, hope,  and forward-looking.

That is not to say we don’t feel sympathy for the victim. In the aftermath of the elided act of sexual abuse, we see him, in the film’s most heartbreaking scene, naked, devastated, his innocence snatched from him. It's a harrowing image, and one that could potentially invite maudlin excess. Yet Kam deftly steers clear of that. Detour is less concerned with victim blaming or being an exhaustive study of how sexual abuse is perpetuated; it is, rather, a portrait of how one can heal from trauma. At it's core, it's a film about hope. The aforementioned refusal to show the sexual abuse (and the abuser’s face) makes the entire incident play like a blurred memory, and the film quickly shifts its focus to the aftermath. Kam isn't so much shying away from sex. He is making a statement about willfully choosing to forgive and forget.

What's truly remarkable is that Kam does all this without trivializing the monstrous act of sexual abuse. In the film’s moving, ambiguous denouement, we see the abused kid putting his hand on his brother’s lap immediately after witnessing his brother sticking up for him to his father. The shot is held just long enough to come across as both innocuous and slightly amiss. Is this the gesture of a boy reaching out to his brother out of gratitude and love? Or is this a boy re-enacting his abuse? To me, that shot is possibly implying both; and by doing so, the film acknowledges the horrific effects of abuse even while finding hope and grace out of it.

Jow Zhi Wei's Waiting

AFTER THE WINTER: Jow Zhi Wei has been slowly garnering a reputation as the boy wonder of local independent cinema, winning a screenplay prize with his second short film, WAITING, and then having the privilege of having his shot, After The Winter, premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year. He’s clearly a talented director with a vision (however blurry it is right now), but not all his films are equally estimable. While the sparseness and the stripped-down emotional core worked for OutingWaiting came across as a truly pretentious, po-faced film that wasn't really about much at all. His two main characters in Waiting hardly behave like human beings, unless you consider perpetual moping, brooding, and silence to be the kind of normal interaction a father and son have. No, they aren't characters; they are Sadness personified.

These characters barely speak, articulating and physicalizing their emotion (because it’s really just one emotion here... yup, you guessed it) with blank stares, sullen looks and heavy-footed trudging. The film uses its own title to validate its hollow effects – but there really is no rationale for any of them. What are these characters waiting for? Why are they waiting for what they’re waiting? These are some questions that are barely explored in the film, let alone answered. The conceit of the film is that it makes you wait along with the characters. Yet, it's clear by the end that our wait was entirely for nothing.

Jow Zhi Wei's After The Winter

So, to my surprise, I found myself completely mesmerized by AFTER THE WINTER. The film, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, chronicles the day-to-day life of an elderly couple living in the rustic villages of the Penghu islands. The film seems to be a positive indication that Jow’s vision is starting to come into focus. Here, Jow retains his abiding obsession with lonely characters drifting along the fringe of society, even while relocating the drama to a rural area in Taiwan. What worked for the film, which didn't for Waiting, is how the formal experimentation actually fits the subject matter at hand. In After the Winter, most of the aesthetic strategies seemed purposeful. Using a succession of long takes – and Jow is clearly inspired by Hou Hsiao-Hsien here, his Golden Horse Film Academy mentor - he captures the mundane, the longueurs, and the dignity of an elderly couple’s existence. 

This elderly duo, full of unspoken pain and loneliness, eat slowly, give each other massages, have meals with their children, using daily chores and other banal activities to mark time, to structure their lives. They mill around their house, their boredom itself a numbing opiate. Their boredom is so unaffected, so real, so natural to them, that it's easy to actually feel sorry for them. Here, Jow, with great poise, refuses to sentimentalize their plight. As the camera lingers on the old couple, still and unflinching, we see the dignity and discipline that these elderly folk have – that, in spite of their pain and loneliness and possibly jadedness, they believe in being “good people”, upholding their sense of propriety with conviction, as is common in Asian tradition.

There is a shot in the film which I’m not comfortable with, though: after dinner with her daughter, the elderly woman, seated and staring into space, breaks into song, her cracked voice so full of lidded sorrow that it’s heartbreaking to watch. But it also seemed to disrupt a sense of “realism” that the film had painstakingly constructed beforehand. I’m aware some elderly folks love to sing but there’s something about the rigidity in that scene that seemed unnecessarily showy, and it struck a false note for me. (This judgment is based on my absolute lack of insight into how senior folk in rural Taiwan areas behave, so take it with a grain of salt.)

Not that it completely mars the otherwise poignant film. In the beautifully restrained and utterly heartbreaking final scene, we see the elderly woman’s daughter and son-in-law bidding farewell to her. As they get into their car and drive home, the camera, perched in the backseat of the car, slowly tracks away from the visage of a lonely woman about to go back to the dullness and loneliness of her life. There’s a sudden cut, and in what is a clear juxtaposition, the daughter and her husband are now back in the city, the camera tracking the busy, bustling traffic. The existence of the elderly couple is now but a distant memory.

Text: Raymond Tan and Colin Low

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