7 Letters from Heaven - the best SG50 tribute you will ever get

‘7 Letters’ is like a showdown of superpowers between Guanyin Ma, Vishnu, Jesus Christ, Buddha and three other mighty gods. Pardon the melodramatic analogy but the 7 directors chosen for the movie ‘7 Letters’ do make a smorgasbord of the best of different genres. Each of these 7 directors are arguably masters in their mutually exclusive genres, which makes this omnibus particularly compelling because it is not just a kebab of big names but one of distinct experiences.

If each of these directors were a unique god, here are what they could possibly be called.
Stills from Eric Khoo's 'Cinema'

Eric Khoo is the God of Magic. Not only has he put up an impressive magic show with fire-eating and all in ‘My Magic’, he has also made a corpse act for the camera in ‘Mee Pok Man’. He even worked with another magician of sorts, one who wields the pencil and created some of the best Japanese comics, Tatsumi. His characters are colourful misfits who don’t talk much, and yet, they make you want to read them more than any other characters.

Eric’s segment opens ‘7 Letters’ and with a whiff of black (and white) magic, we are transported into 50s Singapore when Singapore had a thriving film industry and the screens were dotted with P Ramlee or Pontianaks (female vampires). In the case of this segment, unimaginatively called ‘Cinema’, it is Pontiananaks. A young village girl, decked in a sarong kebaya like she was going Hari Raya visiting, saunters into the majestic realm of the tropical forest, serenading an old song to the trees and creatures around her. It is not before long that we realize she is also a creature of the forest, a Pontianak in disguise. What follows is the familiar thread of hot-blooded men lured by her beauty and falling into her trap, ultimately having their blood consumed by her.

Leeching on to the natural spectacle this genre presents, the segment is more like a fanboy ode to this particular cinematic era with all the intentional clichés. It is also clear that the real story in this segment is the reunion of friends and colleagues from the golden cinematic era of the 50s and 60s. Unfortunately, this story turned out to be rather thin in its development. What essentially happens is the highly scripted coming together of ‘old timers’ of the film industry, to make a movie again. Without any deeper understanding of the different characters involved or why they are bound together in a situation like this, the film finds a convenient finale in a broad statement about the state of filmmaking among the races in Singapore. To think this segment boasts some of the biggest ‘money’ shots in ‘7 Letters’ including Juliette Binoche’s ‘paced’ cameo (as opposed to fleeting), it is a shame the segment fails to deliver beyond the conceptual.
Stills from Jack Neo's 'That Girl'

There are no prizes for guessing that Jack Neo might just be the God of Humour. Having tickled the funny bones of many Singaporeans from ‘Money No Enough’ to ‘Ah Boys to Men’ over a span of about 17 years, Jack Neo is undoubtedly one of the giants of Singapore cinema. No Singapore film encyclopedia can be complete without a mention of Jack Neo. Even the haters need Jack Neo somewhere to put matters into perspective.

Upon analyzing his recent works, there is a subtle duality about them. This applies to films like the ‘Ah Boys to Men’ series, the ‘Lion Men’ Series and of course his latest short film in ‘7 Letters’. On the onset, there is a sickening feeling that these Baby-boomer directors are unable to dabble in anything fresh. ‘Ah Boys to Men’ feels like convenient remake of ‘Army Daze’ and ‘That Girl’ Jack’s segment in ‘7 Letters’ is like ‘Homerun’ wanting to run an extra 100m that it failed to cover. But audiences who have watched ‘Ah Boys to Men’ can testify that this old dog (God, I mean) has picked up so many new tricks. He is the first director to popularize the ‘drone shots’ on a substantial scale. He is closest we can get to any Hollywood-scale action, having recreated a war scene in the heart of Shenton Way, next to your familiar CPF building! And the mish-mash of stories in ‘Ah Boys to Men’ feels anything but stale and when stale, is massaged with spot-on humour.

‘That Girl’ in ‘7 Letters’ is Jack Neo’s new take on life in the kampong, possibly like a prelude to his upcoming feature film ‘Long Long Time Ago’. The new portion is best encapsulated in how a boy remarked that the Goddess of Mercy’s hand sign was actually her nod to contemporary culture in saying ‘ok’. This segment is really good old-fashioned, slightly TV-ish directorial treatment which pockets of contemporary sensibilities leaking at a few seams. They are a few elements that make this segment surprising in its delivery. First, no more placements! Second, Jack Neo makes a departure from his usual preachy self and offers a more subtle interpretation of the common theme instructed to each director ‘Home’. A old Jack Neo might have flogged the idea of home quite to death but this one, about sacrifice and friendship, makes you loosen your defenses and embrace every inch of the moral in its fable.

About a girl who is infatuated with a boy and goes out of her way to help him without his knowledge, the film deals with the simple idea of teenage crush but breaks your heart eventually with its full-blooded treatment of the idea. The story is told with a consistent dose of humour, a strong grasp of comic-timing and confident direction. One may suspect this film was sitting on borrowed resources from his other feature film ‘Long Long Time Ago’ since he is working on both films together, but it does up the ante on production value and effort in this short film. To extend this note on production value, this film is estimably the most expensive of the 7 segments, primarily due to the use of Teresa Teng’s song ‘你怎能离开我’ in the scene where the girl bids farewell to the boy. Not sure where this film is going after its initial SG50-tied screenings but for the uncertainty over its road to breaking even, this is Jack Neo saying I want to taking filmmaking as an art seriously.

Stills from K Rajagopal's 'The Flame'

The films of K Rajagopal have often been pitched at a level of consciousness that is somewhat subliminal and dreamy. Disparate elements conjugate in his films and characters from different genres meet and find meaning in each other. It is with this element of intrigue that one prepares himself when going to watch a film by Rajagopal. Indeed, from the point of being restless with ‘I can’t sleep tonight’, his 1995 award-winning short, Rajagopal has been taunting our sensibilities through the years with often very cryptic work that involves some of the most enigmatic characters ever seen in Singapore cinema. These characters are never clearly fleshed out. While certainly not mere vehicles of the plot, their existence mirrors certain familiar feelings we harbor within us (or within Rajagopal himself). When one walks away from his films, his characters are better known as ‘the men in red underwear in the middle of the desert’ (‘Lucky 7’) or ‘the man who walked away from the murder of his master’ (‘Timeless’). Names are not important, experiences are.

That’s what K Rajagopal is, the God of Dreams.

But of course, like dreams themselves, his films are rooted in real-life issues and struggles. What’s particularly delightful about his approach is the distilling of pertinent societal issues into simple day-to-day interactions between family or strangers. His segment in ‘7 Letters’, ‘The Flame’, depicts a family in the 1950s reacting to news of withdrawal of the British administration from Singapore. This is a simple tale that sees a confrontation between a father and son over a decision to stay in Singapore or leave Singapore. The wife of the son, who was seemed like a helpless companion at first, then becomes a weighty stakeholder in this tense tug-of-war, echoing the punchline of the segment, and possibly the film: ‘Our child should also be born in this country!’

The film offers an obtuse tribute to SG50 in a way that it examines identity and belonging in a different era that still has implications for us today. It depicts a political situation but yet can be so unpolitical for the film addresses a simple question of choosing where to live. The visual treatment of this film stands out from the other segments in its black and white, clinical style, which is coupled with a clean and controlled sound palette. While black and white seems a convenient choice to depict the 50s era, the beauty of it extends beyond just being historically authentic. On closer look, there is also something contemporary about the clean, stylized mise-en-scene, as if it were attempting to draw connections with younger Singaporeans and offer a parallel to modern day issues. Amidst the stylized set, we also saw some of the best acting among the 7 segments. And perhaps, equally valuable, is the ‘Indian narrative’ in relation to Singapore’s independence. Too often, the Independence story is either a Chinese or Malay or CMIO one so Raja was thankfully well-placed to tell this story.
Still from Royston Tan's 'Bunga Sayang'

I took the longest time to decide what god Royston Tan, the creator of the project ‘7 Letters’ would be. To label him the God of Nostalgia is to underestimate a schtick that goes beyond making old things look pretty. To label him the God of Getai is putting him into a very small pigeon hole. To call him the God of Music is close call for his musical affinity but it lacks the punch and intensity so evident in his works. After several frustrating attempts, I decided to ask my own God himself who then asked me to throw a dice. He said the dice will reveal the answer to my question.

My God is so smart. Royston Tan is really the God of Numbers! Think 15, 430, 881 and soon-to-be-seen 3688. No film can be as fruitful as watching a Royston Tan film because you will never walk away without ideas for your next 4D lottery. But on a more level-headed note, Royston never fails to ace a musical number. His segment in ‘7 Letters’ is essentially a musical number wrapped around a simple narrative of an encounter between strangers. A young boy reaches home from school discovering that there is no water and has beg his neighbours for a place to shower. His luck brings him to an old mackcik making kueh upstairs who is humming to the tune of Bunga Sayang. While he is busy washing off the soap suds in her bathroom, the graceful does not escape his ears. In the same spirit as ‘Hock Hiap Leong’, Royston’s early musical ode to a coffeeshop, the lady breaks into a song which the little boy joins in singing.

This segment stands in contrast to many of the other segments in its singular fixation with a song and almost nothing more. While the plot’s state of ‘underdevelopment’ may be a let down, the stylistics achieved are bizarrely breathtaking. When the song reaches the chorus, the scene, through a slick sliding door transition, morphs into a figurative representation of the relationship between the strangers. As if Royston Tan had just collaborated with Salvador Dali, the makcik is seen weaving happily, the soap suds that engulf the boys sitting above like a cherub. In another moment of bizzare aesthetics, the song ends with the makcik’s old-school radio lowered down to the boy’s flat, playing the final reprise stanza of the song. Any attempt to rationalize the extraordinary confluence of Royston’s ‘streaks’ like the 1980s reference or the flawless nostalgia in art direction, would end in agony. One should sway along and feed on the rich colour palette that none of the other directors are as attentive to. To end on a strange note, this musical number is not an original Malay song. It was written by Dick Lee for a musical in the 90s called ‘Kampung Amber’, in which the original lyrics were in English. Guess, this gives new meaning to the word ‘Retrofitting’.
 Still from Tan Pin Pin's Pineapple Town'

Tan Pin Pin’s Sainthood needs no guessing. Events that have happened in the course of the past year in relation her film ‘To Singapore, With Love’ being banned have put her dedication to documenting Singapore and its stories under the brightest spotlight. It makes some of us want to create a hashtag like #JoanofArcofSingapore. Over her entire filmography, Pin Pin has demonstrated a curiousity for the truth behind some of the most under-noticed and ordinary things we encounter, and whose investigation always yields fruitful surprises. In ‘Singapore Gaga’, she drew stories out of familiar sounds. In ‘Invisible Cities’, she extracted stories out of seemingly ordinary spaces. In ‘To Singapore, With Love’, her pursuit of her subjects was so thorough and relentless, you know she pulled all the stops to make the film happen. She truly is the God of Knowledge.

With the same streak of dogged curiosity, she approached what is possibly her first attempt at narrative fiction, titled ‘Pineapple Town’. This short film follows the journey of a young Singaporean mother who tries to trace down the birth mother of her adopted daughter. The protagonist, Ning, is like both a character and a manifestation of Pin Pin, the documentarian. She bears the anxieties and vulnerabilities as a mother but yet has so many ‘rationale’ questions for her agent in the run-up to meeting the mother. While the other segments bear strong visual stylistics, this film is as functional in its treatment as a documentary. Yet still water runs deep and the film turned out to be highly nuanced in its delivery and deeply thought-provoking in its storytelling.

Pin Pin’s mature treatment of the relationships and understanding of the stakes involved in the child-adoption are evident in the film. Ultimately, one never always gets the answer he or she wants and there are many players in the information game. Ning fails to see what she hopes to see and her view of Pekan Nanas, ‘Pineapple Town’ remains as distant as a tourist’s gaze. But on the other hand, the audience gets to see truth behind the absence of the birth mother and the irony of this is as haunting as the discoloured giant pineapple that sits right in the heart of Pekan Nanas. 
Stills from Boo Junfeng's 'Parting'

While many of the segments in ‘7 Letters’ celebrate the past through re-enactment, Boo Junfeng, the youngest among the directors, pays tribute through a past that drifts in and out of the present, never really full-bodied in its representation, but never short of being poignant. Standing up against the older directors, Boo plays his cards well with a tale set in contemporary times which dallies with figments of the past. His segment ‘Parting’ is a film about an old middle-aged man from Malaysia who comes to Singapore in hope of revisiting a episode he left behind in Singapore - a romance, to be exact, that unfortunately had to come to an end in the 60s, as the political reality of Singapore’s separation with Malaysia set in.

The genius in this segment is Boo focussing on what’s available in the present and building layers of meaning around it. And what’s available today? A Singapore in transition – buildings coming and going, people coming and going. Through Ismail’s inconvenient journey to find his old flame in Singapore, we pick up little nuances about the changing society here, provoking us to think ponder about the relationship between the past and the present and not just to romanticize the past.

A look at Boo’s previous works, including his feature film ‘Sandcastle’ will tell you Boo has a knack of dealing with history whose scale is sometimes beyond his scope of experiences. I guess he just knows where to connect the dots without going too deep into it, or ask the sharpest questions without needing to find an answer. Films like ‘Tanjung Rhu’ and ‘Sandcastle’ both attempted to relate to a past without demanding answers for the future. ‘Parting’ in ‘7 Letters’ too tangoed between the past and the present, enough to stoke up un-extinguished flames from the past but never intending to put a definite closure of the relationship between Ismail and his old flame. No other director could deal with change and transition the way Boo does, so I guess you could call him the God of Time.
Still from Kelvin Tong's 'Grandma Positioning System'

Kelvin Tong proclaimed himself to be a specialist in horror films so let’s call him the God of Horror. Sounding a bit like an oxy-moron, this God of Horror is really quite funny too. Over the span of his career, Kelvin has directed and produced movies in quite a wide array of genres, from comedy to romance to horror. He is best remembered for ‘The Maid’, ‘Rule #1’, ‘Men in White’ and ‘It’s a Great Great World’. On closer look, he is really a versatile director who has a stubborn fascination with horror but really has a lot more up his sleeves than we are prepared to imagine. He is also possibly what filmmaking aspirants could see as a role model in the world commercial movies, having an impressive track record of commercial films and even a Hollywood movie under his belt, The Faith of Anna Waters’.

On the flip side, the ‘Kelvin Tong brand’ seems slightly disruptive to the independent nature of ‘7 Letters’ the project. With a snazzy commercially-appealing title like ‘GPS – Grandma Positioning System’, one cannot help feel a little more defensive entering into this final segment of ‘7 Letters’. However, the film’s ingenious humour emerges as a winning trait in this segment. A typical family makes a trip during Ching Ming to pay respects to their late father but their mobile GPS system fails them. Ultimately, it was grandma to the rescue as years of visiting her late husband has made her remember the route by heart. Amidst the comedy is a struggle of motives within the family. The father is fixated on his property viewing appointments while mum needs to make sure the kids attend their weekend lessons. As a result, everyone except Grandma and son are anxious to get the praying over and done with. Grandma is busy dictating road directions to her husband’s spirit from her own memory, trying to ‘bring him home’.

There is a lot that is deliberate and orchestrated about this segment, from the little plot twists, the scripted characters (some even caricatures), to the art direction and even the use of familiar TV faces Hong Huifang and Huang Shinan. But it seems to have avoided an overkill of too many strong elements by finding a delicate balance between theatrics and subtlety, and between laughter and a lesson. (except for a bout of melodrama at the end when all family members take turns to recite road directions while holding back tears.)

Indeed, ‘7 Letters’, driven by our own cinema ‘Gods’ was a ride that cut through so much content and conscience. The project succeeds not so much on the novelty of the omnibus structure, but on how true each director stayed to his or her craft in their segments and found a unique voice in saying ‘I love you’ to Singapore.

Review by Jeremy Sing

View the trailer of '7 Letters' here.

7 Letters will be screened across 7 Golden Village Cinemas from 20 to 26 August! Tickets will be available from 5 August onwards. Head over to www.gv.com.sg for advance bookings of tickets.
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