18 Levels of Hell at the Substation, certainly a Halloween to remember! (Part 1)

Held at The Substation on 23 & 24 October 2014, Nightmare on Armenian Street was a reinterpretation, reimagination and recreation of the 18 levels of hell in Chinese Mythology. 18 filmmakers came together to create a multisensory piece dissecting the filmic craft in a truly nightmarish interpretation of hell. 

Nightmare on Armenian Street was curated by Nelson Yeo and Chris Yeo, with live music by SA(
), and with support from The Substation Moving Images.

SINdie spoke with the 18 filmmakers to find out about their mad descent into the depths of hell.

Interview with Curators Nelson Yeo and Chris Yeo: 

How did you conceptualise Nightmare on Armenian Street? How long ago did you start preparing? 
The Substation approached us some months ago and proposed doing something collaborative involving other filmmakers. And although the idea had not taken exact form yet, Wesley had suggested the title, “Nightmare on Armenian Street”, which had a good ring to it. So the title came first, and it stuck. Naturally, the title also dictated the genre we were going to explore – Horror. We had a feeling everyone was secretly taking pleasure at the fact that it was going to be a horror anthology. Nelson came up with the theme of the Chinese 18 Levels of Hell and that in turn dictated the number of filmmakers we had to get involved in this.

How were the filmmakers roped in and briefed? Were they assigned particular "levels of hell" or did they have the freedom to choose? 
Apart from those whom The Substation had initially invited, we had wanted to work with some emerging filmmakers we felt were doing really interesting works. Everyone brought to the table their own flavours of horror and how they interpreted the levels, which were chosen by the filmmakers themselves on a first come, first serve basis. We were all feeding off each other’s energy and the process was very organic. The filmmakers were a varied bunch ranging in styles and practice. Some were also from video art and performance backgrounds, so it was a very interesting mix.

How did SA (the band) get involved? Had they seen the films before the event itself?
Aishah from The Substation had wanted this to be a different experience with a live band to play music accompaniment. SA has always had a close relationship with The Substation and was the first name to come up when we were thinking whom we should approach. Their music style which swings from Chinese fusion to heavy industrial was exactly what we were looking for. When we proposed the project to them, it was really encouraging that they were just as excited about it as we were and had no reservations on coming on board. They had seen the films beforehand (just so it doesn’t give them a scare while they perform) but they also did not watch it too many times so to keep things fresh. A lot of their reactions to the film were improvised, which gave it a certain immediacy that heightened the whole atmosphere when hearing it live. Even the filmmakers themselves were hearing it for the first time so the whole show was full of surprises.

Is there anything else in particular you would like to share: any memorable anecdotes, interesting takeaways, etc. from this experience? 

Since the band was mostly improvising on the spot, even the music for both days were very different which changed the whole experience of the films. It was great. The music accompaniment is also part of Aishah’s plan to create a more holistic sensorial experience. The Substation crew managed to set up the space nice and spooky while the filmmakers contributed some of their props to be placed on site. One other thing was that we were experimenting with not having titles in between the films so the films flowed from one to another like a dream. Of course, that might have caused some confusion, but we hoped it had added to the mystery of things.

Curators Chris Yeo and Nelson Yeo with the team behind 'Nightmare on Armenian Street'


"Chamber of Tongue Ripping" (Wesley Leon Aroozoo)

Folklore: In the 1st level of hell, the Chamber of Tongue Ripping, those who stir up trouble by gossiping will find their tongues being ripped out.

Filmspeak: "Twisting words to wind up one's ego, betray the organ of taste. Only after death will one be ripped off from the pleasure". An experimental and trippy film that kickstarted the evening on a loud note. 

  1. Why the choice to use yearbook-style "graduation photos"?
I found that the yearbook-style was an interesting concept to explore the idea of gossip, rumours and talking behind one's back. For me, the influence and habit of talking ill of another starts from school through one's desire to fit in with a certain clique or be accepted with a group of classmates who share a certain shared understanding. The positive and delightful graduation photos were the visual representation that not all was what it seemed in a school with back stabbing gossips. 

  1. How do you conceive of the relationship between words and pleasure? 
The words were written in the style of a morbid tongue twister, which were words being twisted with the intention to harm the subject. 

"Chamber of Scissors" (Fade to Salon) 

Folklore: In the 2nd level of hell, the Chamber of Scissors, Those who break the marriage of others will have their fingers cut off.

Filmspeak: In this film, a woman lies on a kitchen table and is being tended to by a nurse-looking lady who later on slices off the the finger of the 'patient'.

  1. Why is she lying on the dining table in the kitchen? Any reason for the choice of setting?
This is actually a kitchen, which has been vacant for quite a while. When we first found this place, we felt the sense of space fits into our vision of afterlife. Everything seems generally normal but hauntingly still. So we went ahead to experiment with this space.

  1. What is the film trying to express? Any significance in the lady who was executing the make up and cutting of fingers?
This project really made us think and talk about our idea of what the afterlife will be like. So this film is really a projection of that. As the Bible states that as long as the sinner repents and seek for forgiveness before death, forgiveness may be granted, we wanted to plant the judgement before death. This whole conversation in the film is happening when the sinner is bordering life and death.

The lady whom the sinner met is a neutral character who is trapped in that space, repeating the same action over and over again as sinners come and go. So her job was just to prepare the sinner for her deathbed and execute the judgement when the time is up. She is just like a tree in the ecosystem or a screw in a table, serving her purpose in the system.

"The Golden Bok Choy Scam" (Allysa Sing)

Folklore: In the 3rd level of hell, the Chamber of Iron Trees, those who cause discord among family members or other people will find their body being pierced by hooks and hung upside down on iron trees.

Filmspeak:  "The Golden Bok Choy brought great prosperity to the family but they soon realise it is part of a scam that leads to eternal condemnation".

  1. Why the decision to mix animation and live-action? 
I saw this opportunity to experiment with something that I have not tried before, and that was mixing animation and live-action.  

I tried keeping the narrative very short so that it would be executable in the short period of time. 

  1. Did you make your film intending to evoke laughter, or some other response?
In a way, I hoped that it would be funny! But I hope that at least it invokes like a "What?!". I worked with Melissa (animator), to incorporate her weird sense of humour into the story too. 

"Hall of Mirrors" (Koh Chong Wu)

Folklore: In the 4th level of hell, the Chamber of Mirrors, those who escape earthly punishment will find their true shape being displayed in the mirror, and the old karmic debt will have to be paid with high interest.

Filmspeak: This is the most sadistic film of the 18 films with the sheer indulgence of depicting what looks like crucifixion in a room with what looks like a $15 IKEA mirror.

  1. Did you think of the punishment yourself? Or was it from religious references?
The punishment was thought out by myself. When thinking about what punishment will be implemented, I asked myself what hurts the most? The second question I asked myself is, are these punishments relevant to the crimes? I like to talk to people to get inspiration, so after a few round of chats with people about pain, I came to conclusion that I want to start with a punishment that looks small in scale, but hurts like hell, like a paper cut. I had experienced something going in my nail before. Visually, it doesn't show much injury, but the pain is immense. From this point, I slowly built up the story. 

  1. Why shoot it in a typical looking bedroom?
Does it look like a bedroom? I was hoping it would come off as an empty, sterile and neutral space. I wanted the Hall of Mirror to be somewhere anywhere, like an alternative dimension pocket within our world. It could be a bedroom; it could be the toilet, in a car even in the open. It appears when it is time, but you just don't know when, like karma.

"Chamber of Steam" (Dzafirul Haniff)

Folklore: In the 5th level of hell, the Chamber of Steam, Instigators and hypocrites will find themselves being steamed in a steamer.
Filmspeak: A married couple has a tense conversation in the confines of a bathroom. They stir the emotional pot of their relationship and while their dissatisfaction simmers, it never quite boils over.

  1. Many of the films in this showcase had elements of horror, whether they were scary or gruesome. How did you interpret the broad theme of "hell"? 
I wanted to display the everyday 'hell'. The limbo of unhappiness and comfort that so many people fall into and in the case of my film, it was an unhappy monotonous marriage that is clearly unhealthy but neither is it bad enough that it would make either party break the commitment. To be honest, I had inclinations to craft a horror film initially but when I met up with the other filmmakers and curators and they were so open and supportive of any sort of personal interpretation of 'hell', I decided to rethink my entire approach and eventually made something I'm more keen towards, a dialogue-driven narrative drama. Once that was decided, I just began to explore the personal, everyday hell that I or any of my friends have found ourselves complaining endlessly about but never quite capable to get out of it ourselves. In that way, I guess, we're also hypocrites that ought to be sentenced to the "Chamber of Steam." Haha.

  1. Why the decision to set the entire film in the bathroom?
For practical reasons, I wanted to inject the Steam as a motif realistically into the story. Hot showers came to mind. On a deeper storytelling note, I felt that the bathroom is the most honest and 'naked' place that a couple could be. We try to be the best version of ourselves outside our home, we ready ourselves as hosts in the living room or kitchen, we put on airs for each other in the bedroom but in the bathroom, I think, each person in a couple is separated back into two persons revealing their individual inner self instead of one entity that is 'the couple'. That's what went through my head anyway.

"Forest of Copper Columns" (Russell Morton)

Folklore: In the 6th level of hell, the Forest of Copper Columns, arsonists will get themselves stuck to a scorching hot copper column.

Filmspeak: In this film, a malnourished elderly man who looks like a WWII prisoner of war starts destroying household items and breaks the TV set. He then tries to start a fire in a forest like some kind of ritual.

  1. The man looks like a prisoner of war with his malnourished frame, where did you find him and why cast him?
Ribbot Singh is the lead protagonist in my film. He is a retired heavy vehicle driver and does odd jobs here and there. This film is my second collaboration with Mr. Singh. My film documents a man doing very precise and calculated actions. Very much like a ritual. As the film is textless, visual references and aesthetics were integral for a narrative to flow without being overtly expository. I felt that Mr. Singh’s physique embodied a natural, interesting history (as demonstrated by the assumption of him being a POW), a history so consequential, that it would have initiated this ritual to have taken place precisely there and then. 

  1. What was the significance of the copper-tone plate from the television set?
I treated copper with a sort of holy reverence. It is an element with almost magical transformative qualities and is used commonly on the domes, roofs or detailing of religious establishments. In the film, it is the last object he finds in the room and the only object he does not burn in the forest. As such, I felt that this object belonged in a holy vessel; a sacristy and therefore I felt as a filmmaker, the holiest of holy vessels to place the object was inside a TV. 

"Mountain of Knives" (Nelson Yeo)

Folklore: In the 7th level of hell, the Mountain of Knives, those who kill sentient beings with a knife will find themselves climbing a hill of knives.

Filmspeak: A boy stabs his female schoolmate and gets his retribution in the most bizarre way: stabbing by both his parents in front of the "hell" exhibits at Haw Par Villa.

  1. How was it like shooting in Haw Par Villa's Hell exhibit? Spooky? Fun? Surreal?
It was stressful because of the number of visitors going in and out of the cave most of the time. And also because of the time constraint. But we did managed to get what we wanted before the two guards chased us out.

  1. Why did the murdered girl wake up?
I'm not sure if I can answer why the girl woke up. But maybe this will help: the plot of the film deals with the teenage boy insisting that he broke out of the karmic cycle. Being unstuck in time, he could exist in any time and space. Or perhaps all these were just in his mind.

"Hill of Ice" (Koo Chia Meng) 

Folklore: In the 8th level of hell, the Hill of Ice, cold-blooded schemers and ungrateful suckers, including those who ill-treat their partners and elders, will find themselves naked in this freezing cold environment.

Filmspeak: A son who decides not to attend his mother's funeral gets strange bodily pains and menstrual looking blood.

  1. What was that on the toilet paper? Menses or foetus? And why?
It was a piece of flesh from the body. This is the start of the delivery process that the main character needed to endure, which was the punishment inflicted on him for being the ungrateful son.

  1. What was the last scene with the long tube and blood trying to depict?
That was the 'delivery' process. There is no baby, so he only feels the pain of delivery. The pain of bringing him to this world is now experienced by him as a form of punishment.

"Play Play Only" (Kobi Bing)

Folklore: In the 9th level of hell, the Cauldron of Boiling Oil, sex offenders such as rapists, lechers and adulterers will find themselves being fried in boiling oil.

Filmspeak: This film has nothing to do with original hell description. A young girl converses with the strangest objects in her midst trying to look for an answer, including a miniature gnome, and in various international languages.

  1. So, that "tough new case"…is it about what we think it's about? (What the showerhead talked about. :P) 
It’s for you to imagine.

  1. What inspired this film? 
I collaborated with writer Pooh Yang, to come up with the basic idea of the film. We had fun improvising during the shooting of the film, and it’s the synthesis of all our ideas.

Interviews by Aditi Shivaram and Jeremy Sing
(Interviews to continue in Part 2 of this story)
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