Short Films That Leave Us Thinking: A Conversation

Some films ground us in the action of the moment. But others leave us with lingering thoughts, even after many days after viewing.

Last month, we encountered a selection of contemplative short films that have left them musing about migration, family love and nostalgia for the past. Titled “Spirits of Cinema”, the screening featured shorts by the local collective 13 Little Pictures, with the programme co-curated by the collective and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (ICA), in lieu of Singapore Art Week.

SINdie writers Choon Ling and Sharanya chat about their experience watching these films under the stars at the special outdoor screening in LaSalle’s campus.
The Films:

KOPI JULIA (Tan Bee Thiam, 2013)
TICKETS (Sherman Ong, 2010)
A LION’S PRIDE (Wesley Leon Aroozoo, 2008)
ANIMAL SPIRITS (Daniel Hui, 2013)
AN AUTUMN AFTERNOON (Lei Yuan Bin , 2015)
SILENT LIGHT (Liao Jiekai, 2015)
THE MINOTAUR (Yeo Siew Hua, 2015)

Sharanya (S): Which film was your favourite?

Choon Ling (C): Tickets definitely left a deep impression on me. I liked how minimalistic it was in terms of visuals and sound. It only had two different scenes — one was the interview itself, while the other one was the protagonist tending to the ticket box — and it was scored with a natural diegetic track. Despite only presenting the barest of the film medium, it managed to pull us into the story. It didn’t feel like it was 10 minutes long!

Sherman Ong’s Tickets

S: Yeah, and I found the ticket box very interesting! It’s a rare sight in Singapore nowadays, especially how the protagonist manually takes the tickets from the drawer to pass to the customers. It’s not like the modern cinema where tickets are just printed out of machines, and you don’t even think twice about it.

C: That’s true! It’s fascinating, how the film was shot at the former Oriental Theatre. I think the director wanted to pay tribute to a forgotten time and place, where movie theatres promised dreams and magic for the people. And the actress was a natural. Even though we were just listening to her talking, It’s almost as if we’re in the room with her!

S: It was nice how the film plays on the concept of how everyday people have such moving stories. You don’t really need to look very far to get a good one. I think especially here, in Singapore, there tends to be a bit of resistance towards Chinese nationals. But while she was sharing her own hopes and dreams, it didn’t feel like she was of a different nationality.

C: Yeah! I guess that’s the point of the film, to highlight how the immigrants that some of us are prejudiced against are actually just like us, with the same kind of dreams. I suppose that’s why this film is my favourite of the lot. It had a strong message and managed to move me with the bare essentials.

What about you? What was your favourite film?

S: I would say The Minotaur. I was entranced by it; I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. The whole feel of it reminded me of short film, The Ghost King by Dick Chua. It’s a documentary about this annual ritual in a Malaysian town where they would burn the paper statues of the Gods. It’s also filmed at night and has very riveting, slightly eerie music. So this film really transported me back to that. I think I enjoy this genre of films!

Yeo Siew Hua’s The Minotaur

C: Like horror?

S: It’s a little horror, but not exactly. More like mythology. I find Chinese mythology very fascinating!

C: It is! Especially when they are about the 18 levels of hell. I like how the film started with the Ah Gong (grandfather) trying to scare his grandson through the myth.

S: Yeah! This is not the nurturing kind of Ah Gong. I like how the boy doesn’t cry. He’s not a whiney kid, he’s actually quite independent. And I think the sound really intensified the mystery of the whole storyline. Even without the visuals, I think it would have been just as impactful as an audio-story.

C: Yeah, I agree! What really stood out for me when watching the film was the venue. It enhanced the horror experience quite dramatically. There were moments in the film where there was silence and I could feel the entire atmosphere thickening.

S: That’s true! I think that made it even better. This film was very heavily stylised, kind of the opposite of Tickets. But it didn’t feel heavy-handed!

C: I thought that this was a very nice ending to the entire programme.

S: Yeah! And it’s interesting that they also started the programme with another horror film, Kopi Julia. Though it’s a very different kind of horror.

Tan Bee Thiam’s Kopi Julia

C: From the description it says that the film fuses two different genres — silent films and Malay horror. That’s interesting because I’ve never been exposed to Malay horror films. Maybe this is the gateway to a sub-genre. The film was a bit comedic too! Especially with the overacting and title cards and light plot. A Lion’s Pride is totally different! It was a fun eight minutes.

S: I still took it seriously until the lions started mating! I guess they were trying to mock those National Geographic documentaries!

C: Right! I think it’s interesting because it took a familiar cultural symbol and subverted its myth. It’s an alternate universe where nian wasn’t chased away and survived! I wonder how the elderly Chinese audience felt about it…

S: I think they might have been a bit horrified by the humping.

C: They probably were!

S: I think it’s good that they put it in the middle, after a very serious one like Tickets. That was more introspective, and this one just makes you laugh! And then after that is another introspective one: My Father After Dinner, which won best local short film at the recent Singapore International Film Festival.

Gladys Ng’s My Father After Dinner

C: This felt the most local out of all the films. It’s the most relatable one.

S: It actually reminded me of my mum. She used to work night shifts, and like the father in the film, she would prepare food and remind me and my sister to eat. And we wouldn’t see each other most of the time, as though we were living in different timezones!

C: Oh! And you’re living that life right now, because of your night shifts!

S: Yeah! Even in this film, the girl only meets her father when he comes back home. It’s something I’m experiencing now, so it’s quite relatable. When I see security guards working night shifts at my office, I always wonder what their story is. Some of them look really young, some of them look like they’ve retired. I think they all have interesting backstories that bring them to this job.

C: That’s true. I like how the director uses food to symbolise the father’s love. He cooks this sumptuous feast for the family every weekend but he just keeps the leftover rice for himself to fry the next day. You could tell he really loves his children.

S: It’s like Tickets, they didn’t have to look for an exotic story to make a compelling film.

C: Yeah! And the film features the director’s actual father, so that’s interesting. I guess this is really a slice of the director’s life. But the next film, Animal Spirits, is not directly inspired by the filmmaker’s own life. Instead, it’s a Singaporean filming an American and Korean story in America. I like how international it is.

S: I guess for me, it was less relatable, maybe because it was set in America. So there might be certain nuances that are just lost on me. But I thought the contrast was nice, between a native and an immigrant. Immigration seems to be a big issue in many local films.

C: Especially because we have such a high volume of people coming in! This film is interesting because although it’s talking about the same issues — moving, sacrifice, hopes and dreams — it’s from the perspective of an American lady moving to another state and a Korean immigrant who’s living and studying in the US.

S: I guess the common theme for them is that they kind of believed that they had gotten their big break when they moved. Just to realise that things are not as rosy. And I think that’s something immigrants everywhere experience. You just move somewhere and realise this is not what you signed up for.

C: That’s true. I find this surprising, but I actually really liked An Autumn Afternoon. Mainly because even though I watch slow films, I’m not particularly attracted to them. But for this film, even though there was no human protagonist, the place and space dominate the screen, like the cemetery and train station setting. That was really interesting to me! It felt like a documentary without narration.

Lei Yuan Bin’s An Autumn Afternoon

S: Even for me. Before this, I was very bad at appreciating slow films. This film was inspired by Ozu, and I’ve watched two Ozu films — Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And I have to confess I initially found it very hard to concentrate during the long, static shots. But eventually, I learnt to stay with the director as he explored different elements within the frame. And it was a similar experience watching An Autumn Afternoon. The director chose very interesting locations and objects to explore, like a tombstone.

C: Right, and it was oddly peaceful!

S: It really was!

C: The title definitely put the film in perspective. The film really captured the essence of what an autumn afternoon in Japan feels like. The quiet setting, the warmth of the sun, the unnoticeable passing of time… The venue again complemented the audio-visual experience! I remember it was really windy that night, and we were sitting there admiring the calm beauty of Japan. It really added to whatever’s on screen.

S: And it’s really nice because the film is outdoors, and you are outdoors. I thought there were really nice little subplots happening within the frame. It mimics the experience of just sitting somewhere and observing your surroundings.

C: Just people watching, like looking at the trees moving. It really encapsulates times passing. It’s real time. And you hardly get that in a lot of recent films because they are usually narratively driven.

S: Yeah, they usually try to manipulate time.

C: And this just presents time! I think nowadays with everyone being so busy, you don’t actually experience time yourself.

S: Actually, there were a lot of people at the start. I realised towards Animal Spirits and An Autumn Afternoon, people started leaving. In a way, these kinds of films test us. Are we so busy that we can’t even afford the time to just sit and stay with a film? I guess the thing about slow films is that it requires trust in the filmmaker, and when your trust is not betrayed then you feel very happy!

C: Yeah, you’ll feel like you are rewarded. I guess with slow films, the directorial vision is very prominent. You are forced to see what the director wants you to see. Without words! Which is really hard, actually.

S: I’m wondering if the ordering of the different locations had any significance.

C: Actually, it’s true! I don’t really remember the exact ordering, but now that you mention, it feels like he started off with quieter and stiller shots, like a secluded area with minimal movement, before slowly introducing civilisation.

S: It’s a bit like Silent Light!

Liao Jiekai’s Silent Light

C: Yeah, because it’s also talking about time, but in a completely different way. Because it’s about his grandmother’s funeral, and you can tell that he’s missing his grandmother, but in a very subtle manner. Even the use of old film. Initially I thought this was made like ten, twenty years ago. Because of the film texture.

S: Right, 16mm.

C: And it’s expired film stock! I feel like this was chosen deliberately. Because he’s with his grandmother’s passing.

S: How do you know that it’s expired?

C: The texture. And then you see the noise in weird areas. And there was this part where they had the black lines.

S: Right! I think there was some discolouration as well.

C: Yeah! That’s why I thought it was something from so many years ago. And it was interesting because the film was very voyeuristic. Observatory. Like shots of the empty funeral parlour and stuff. You could really feel that this film is like a tribute to his grandmother. The woman recounting her memories, growing up in the early 1960s… You can almost imagine that her story is his grandmother’s story, even though this is not her talking.

S: Yeah! I watched another one of Liao Jiekai’s short films at SGIFF last year, Darkroom. It was a documentary about this photographer who still believes in using the traditional darkroom technique for her experimental photography. And the film used a technique very similar to Silent Light; he overlaid shots of the darkroom process with the conversation he had with the photographer. I think he likes to experiment with how narration doesn’t necessarily have to sync with what he’s showing you, but how it creates a different feel.

C: He’s really using film as a medium. Kudos to that!

S: Yeah! He believes very strongly in using traditional film. Singapore films always make me feel very nostalgic. I mean Kopi Julia is nostalgia, Tickets, maybe a little.

C: And I guess like the overall programme was really really interesting because you got to see so many different kinds of genres. And the entire experience was very varied, which I really liked.

S: I was quite surprised there were a lot of people there.

C: Yeah especially because it was short films! Like usually short films don’t get an audience. And the variety of people that were there! It’s interesting how older people were also drawn to the programme. When I saw the programmme on Facebook, I didn’t really know what to expect even though I had the lineup, because not all of them have trailers.

S: I think it’s so hard to make a trailer for a short film, because it’s already so short!

C: It’s like how much can you show without showing the entire thing! And I guess the thing with short films is like, it’s a screening. For movies you have the synopsis, trailer for you to get to know the film before you watch it. But like for short films, you don’t get that kind of introduction. So when you go there you are trusting the filmmaker, and the curators. You are trusting their taste.

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