6th Singapore Short Film Awards: Thoughts on Best Director

Contending for Best Director at the 6th Singapore Short Film Awards are Bon Voyage, Destiny, Last Trip Home, Pifuskin and Stranger by Night. The five nominated films vary in genres from documentary to realist drama to surrealism to animation and to a kind of ad-style film-nugget.

Last Trip Home (Han Fengyu) (production still above)
Han Fengyu’s ‘Last Trip Home’ is the surrealist addition to the nominee cohort. But honestly, more like a tribute to Tsai Ming Liang than anything else. The film portrays a father and son duo trying to get back home on a car and home, from their accents, is probably miles up north in China. Following desperation in its opening scene where the father decides not to sell the car off for money (presumably the money was meant to pay for the air tickets home), the characters go through a transition of determination and then uncertainty again. While nothing much really gets going in the film, as they never manage to move the car out of the building they started off at, the point of the film is the exploration of dynamics between the father and son characters. Even that, the film fails to establish an authentic relationship between the two characters for the reason that its focus on stylistics seem to override everything else, like the mutual showering and the mimicking of musical instruments. The car wash cum shower in an empty carpark with the festive lights in the background did create some semblance of visual poetry but its deliberate, oddball style also made it awkward at the same time. The director must be credited though for the visual stunts he made his actors undergo, though getting more support from a credible script would have made the film more substantial.

Bon Voyage (Alvin Lee)

This film feels like the most classical example of directing among the nominees with its dedication to details and nuances. Bon Voyage is a relatively languorous piece about a young man about to leave for overseas studies, spending a ‘farewell’ afternoon with his grandmother who cooks him a humble meal. Thanks to the director’s eye for everyday details and a ear for conversation, the film presents a rich untainted ambience of its humble HDB setting and the understated farewell, which seems more important than what happens in the story. The film’s realist portrait of the humble farewell is also discernibly reminiscent of the strokes of directors like Hou Hsiao Hsien and Ang Lee (ala ‘Eat Drink Man Woman’), whose earlier films dealt with family traditions and daily life with the same sensibilities. Which makes this film border slightly on being a style-tribute.

Destiny (Grace Chew)
The documentary ‘Destiny’ is an eye-opening documentary that brings us into the world of the marriage market in Vietnam and Vietnamese brides. The film exposes the motivations of these girls behind their desire to be married to foreign husbands, particularly Singaporean men, who are perceived to be financially stable and able to provide. Unfortunately, the choice of subject matter necessitates a feature-length treatment and the short form of this film tends to be merely a fact-dropping exercise, without any real point of rupture of progression. Nevertheless, the film still succeeds in its honest interviews with the stakeholders who sometimes offer frank opinions point blank, like saying which of the three girls featured have the best chance of finding a husband. The film has also aptly interjected the talk of the girls’ marriage dreams with the everyday scenes from their humble rural origins, demonstrating the directors’ eye for capturing the larger picture, which of course carries so much weight in the moderating the tone of the film’s message. 

Pifuskin (Tan Wei Keong)
The power of sound design is proven in Tan Wei Keong’s ‘Pifuskin’, which mixes visual drawing fragments with lucid sounds that served to evoke feelings. Exploring the concept of skin, this animation film breaks genre and narrative boundaries by crossing between the dream-like and the real world and sometimes making the lines blur. A boy is addicted to scratching himself and with through effective juxtaposed foley sounds, and symbolic imagery, the film digs a little deeper under the skin to explore what seems like issues of identity and self-awareness. Bordering on a kind of ‘scratching-gore’ porn, the director succeeds in making the audience uncomfortable and yet eager to watch the limits the boy would go to on his self-peeling adventure. A pity the film is a little disjointed as the images only seemed thematically joined but not narratively well-strung enough.

Stranger by Night (Clare Chong)
This is a clever, ad-sized filmlet with a near-punchline that is both entertaining and slightly evocative (largely due to the black and white style). Three characters each, take turns to visit ask for directions from the security guard and they turn out to be going to the same place. Other than letting Singapore’s favourite security guard, Lim Poh Huat, be himself, the film’s execution is mediocre and bland. The genius of this film is in its plot and its mirroring look at filmmaking and the characters involved. Take away these, the film is essentially resting on the thin grounds of a weak cast and perfunctory delivery. Ultimately, they all had to be saved by the eccentricities of Lim Poh Huat, the only authentic character in the film.

My vote for Best Director goes to Alvin Lee for Bon Voyage, for direction that is focussed, singular in its aims and natural in its execution.

Review by Jeremy Sing
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