'Fragment': Breaking it Down with the filmmakers

Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui on the set of her segment 'The Beautiful Losers'

A momentous confluence of Southeast Asian independent cinema sees the worldwide inception of ‘Fragment’, an omnibus film comprising 10 short films by 10 award winning Southeast Asian filmmakers. Made possible by Singapore’s Asian Film Archive (AFA) and in conjunction with their 10th anniversary, ‘Fragment’ unifies undeniable and diverse cinematic talent from Southeast Asia, with each story embracing the other's individuality through a common thread of vulnerability and fortitude.

“‘Fragment’ celebrates the courage, spirit and emotions involved in independent filmmaking. The stories speak of the average person’s frustrations, desires and hope in everyday life. Audiences will respond to the universal themes that connect everyone as human beings regardless of where we come from,” says AFA. “We wanted to have a good mix of established and up-and-coming filmmakers, with representatives from as many Southeast Asian countries as possible. Quite a number of the filmmakers (Tan Chui Mui, Sherman Ong, U-Wei, Lav Diaz) have been long-time supporters of the Archive right when we first started. Conversely, we have also witnessed the filmmakers’ journey in establishing themselves as distinct voices within contemporary Southeast Asian Cinema. AFA also wants to support the younger filmmakers and one of the ways is to provide a platform for them to share their creativity and imagination.”

The 10 filmmakers are Kan Lume (Singapore), Wesley Leon Aroozoo (Singapore), Sherman Ong (Singapore/Malaysia), U-Wei Haji Saari (Malaysia), Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia), Lucky Kuswandi (Indonesia), Phan Dang Di (Vietnam), Kavich Neang (Cambodia), Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (Thailand) and Lav Diaz (Philippines).

SINdie reaches out to a bunch of them to learn more about the climacteric, the respective short films, and being a filmmaker in Southeast Asia.

Kan Lume, Singapore, 'Making Art is F***ing Hard'

SINdie: With reference to your film’s title, you mentioned “making art is hard because while the costs can be calculated, the benefits can never be”; do you ever wish you had taken another, non-artistic path in life? If so, what would it have been?

Kan: I did start off as an accountancy student and I did work in accounting and auditing for a brief period. So I've tried that. And I can say unequivocally that I'd still rather suffer for filmmaking than suffer for those office jobs I took before. Suffering is inevitable. It's just a matter of where we choose to suffer. And if I had a choice what to stay up late nights for and what to have heated arguments about, it'd be for artistic pursuits. Even though, as I've said, you can't calculate the benefits of art apart from the narrow view of financial gains, I've seen people, including myself, nourished by art. How do you calculate the value of that?

SINdie: Can you tell us more about the female lead's character in your film?

Kan: The character that Faye plays is a surrogate for many people. She feels frustrated and betrayed by the system she's working for, she's desperately trying to maintain her dignity but in the end crumbles from envy and discontentment. I think the film offers up a spiritual solution. Though it's more a personal message than one I'd preach readily to others.

Wesley Leon Aroozoo, Singapore, 'Umbilical'

SINdie: Can you tell us some of the more interesting or challenging aspects in making this film?

Wesley: It was challenging to sew and make the umbilical cords from scratch. Thankfully, my wife was a wiz with sewing creatively.

SINdie: You mentioned that the film highlights a particular worrying social issue in Singapore, can you tell us what the issue is?

Wesley: The issue being highlighted is that of discrimination. One of my intentions while conceptualising the film is to share my views about discrimination using not only a balance of humour and drama but also an experiment with a reversal of the two. As the film progresses, the balance of humour and drama are intentionally reversed, where drama becomes humour and humour becomes drama. Discrimination is a sensitive topic and didn't want to approach it in a direct way, so I used this reversal method to experiment with how the audience and even myself would feel and later reflect after viewing the film.

U-Wei Haji Saari, Malaysia, 'Satu Nota Satu Fragmen (One Note One Fragment)'

SINdie: You wrote: “By realising our existence is only a fragment of a larger construct, one hopes we can belong to this bigger picture.” Does your film deal with existentialism and an inherent desire to do something meaningful with our lives? And why is that story important to you?

U-Wei: As we all are made aware, in one way or another, we are fragments to/of a bigger one. And having said that, we might be merely talking about the mechanics of it and as an artist looking into the humanity with the feelings are more fulfilling and important for me. Co-existing is important isn't it?

Tan Chui Mui, Malaysia, 'The Beautiful Losers'

SINdie: How did you develop the idea for this short film? In some way, it references your earlier film 'A Tree in Tanjung Malim', why the decision to revisit the themes in this earlier film?

Chui Mui: I like Kay Wee's curatorial statement: "What if you don’t fit? A fragment is borne to be isolated; it is often a result of an act of destruction...." Maybe I am interested in the "destruction" and failures in life. And I am more interested in losers, what their dreams were, what they wanted, how they fail.

And here's a quote from a quote from Sebald's The Rings of Saturn: “The rings of Saturn consist of ice crystal and probably meteorite particles describing circular orbits around the planet's equator. In all likelihood these are fragments of a former moon that was too close to the planet and was destroyed by its tidal effect.” – Brockhaus Encyclopedia

Lucky Kuswandi, Indonesia, 'Serpong'

SINdie: Did you film in Serpong, or did you go elsewhere for a more nostalgic effect? And does your film touch on this changing landscape as in issue, or observation?

Lucky: I have recently moved to the Serpong area, and​ ​am fascinated with the urban expansion and gentrification that is happening rapidly. What was once a rubber plantation has been turned into a homogenised and privatised city. I have decided to film ‘SERPONG’ in Serpong itself, because I am fascinated with this changing landscape. Everyday all I see is land being destroyed and construction being built. The film is made with an all Serpong cast and crew, and we went to the remaining villages in Serpong to film its original inhabitants.

SINdie: What are your personal thoughts towards globalisation and gentrification?

Lucky: The expansion of Jakarta has forced urban development and gentrification to happen in its surrounding kampongs. Serpong is one of them. But gentrification without involving the lower-income residents in their own land has caused a bigger social and racial divide. These marginalised groups are forced to evict their own land and watch exclusive, privatised cities with gated walls being built. The irony is the fact that these new, upper class houses are mostly empty and unlived. They are forms of investment for the middle and upper class.

Gentrification is a complex issue. It is unavoidable, and many have said that it has created new workplaces and promises social mobility. At the same time, gentrification along with social ignorance contribute to further urban alienation and disconnection within its own people.

Phan Dang Di, Vietnam, 'Rain'

SINdie: While you mention that your film is “just a silly story”, is womanising especially prevalent in Vietnam, in particular within large factory businesses like in the film?

Di: One of the constantly trendiest topics in Vietnamese newspapers and online communities in the last 10 years or so has been ‘who’s dating who’. The image of a ‘playboy’ with his own collection of fancy cars who is seen with different girls on different days is something that really attracts public’s attention. It also reflects a very strange desire of the population, especially young people about a well-off and comfortable life where you are free to do what you wish, up to and including promiscuity. Of course ‘Rain’ is just a fictional story filled with the kind of silliness that I’m always fond of when I want to tell something about youth and love in modern Vietnam. And honestly, if you’re young and you drive a convertible Lexus like the cool guy in the movie; not just the female workers with pitifully low wage in factories, but many other types of girls would love to sit on that car; and that’s nothing to be sad about. What’s sad is before the temptation and appeal of such an image, love suddenly seems smaller than ever.

SINdie: As a filmmaker, what is your main purpose with the stories you tell?

Di: To make the audience uncomfortable with what they just watched and when they leave the cinema, some impression or image from the movie will linger in their heads, unable to be erased.

Kavich Neang, Cambodia, 'Goodbye Phnom Penh'

SINdie: Juxtaposing traditional and modern values of love, will this film be considered controversial in Cambodia? 

Kavich: ​I would say yes and no, it depends on audience how they see the film would be.

SINdie: Wh​a​t was the main challenge faced in making this film?

Kavich: I had some specific conversation in Khmer language, but my actress (Khmer- French) couldn't understand Khmer well so I improvised it into English and sometimes we changed the dialogue.

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, Thailand, 'Scene 38'

SINdie: You mention that your film seeks to discover that unseen moment with extras by placing them in the spotlight. How did you go about casting for this film? Were the extras actual extras, or were they professional actors playing extras?

Nawapol: The film is kind of experimental and I want it to be more of documentary so they were actual extras. I told the assistant director just called them to the set on shooting day like usual process. I didn't give them any brief. We just attached wireless microphones on them as ambient recording so they felt free to talk. We shot many takes and switched the microphones to different extras and saw what we got.

SINdie: As a filmmaker, what does beauty mean to you?

Nawapol: A thing that happens in good timing and composition, by chance, without directing.

Check out production photos from the remaining two segments, 'Ang araw bago ang wakas… (The day before the end…)' by Lav Diaz and 'The Warm Breeze of Winter (Kabus)' by Sherman Ong.
 'Ang araw bago ang wakas… (The day before the end…)'

 'The Warm Breeze of Winter (Kabus)' 

When asked to describe ‘Fragment’ in a sentence, AFA responded: “A fragment is broken or incomplete but can also be strong and fortuitous; this description speaks to elements of Southeast Asia’s history/people and by extension to its Cinema, a theme which is recurrent in ‘Fragment’.”

For more information about screenings, ticketing and each of the 10 short films, please click on this link.

Interview and article by Bruce Wayne
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