STOP10 Apr 2017: 'Paper House' by Ler Jiyuan

Having its world premiere at the upcoming 5th edition of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival, Paper House is another short film by Ler Jiyuan, a director I have previously reviewed for his film The Drum. So first things first, if you liked that short, you will probably enjoy this just as much. I did.

Paper House is an empathetic film, which looks into the traditional Chinese funeral and customs through the story of a family, as they descend into disharmony after the death of their patriarch. The title of the film is in reference to the tradition of burning paper offerings for their deceased loved ones and in a way the short film itself is a eulogy to this colorful art form that is slowing disappearing in modern society.

One of the shorts many positive features is in the great acting talent on hand working with a good script, though initially it does border on some melodramatic set ups and cliché’s we would expect from a half or hour long tv drama. It is a feature I have noted before in The Drum. Fortunately it never fully strays in that territory here either but I am curious as to whether this is a style the director is cognizant he has.

Each character and actor has their fair share of time and occupies it well, showing a fleshed out reality that we buy into immediately. Added to this, the world of the Chinese funeral is vivid and deep. That said, in some instance the film slips into something that felt part corporate video, part documentary when we delve into the paper offerings workshop. Largely due to the heavy exposition by the paper-offering makers, the narrative almost disappears in this pace-sapping tangent.

Paper House does try hard to lead you into this specific culture. One of the methods is through the eyes of an outsider, an Indian film student and friend of the family, filming the entire thing. If this theme of exploring culture through otherness seems a bit passé, it is unfortunate that the direction handles it relatively safely, if not neutering it to redundancy. We never really see how the character is changed or developed after his experiences. Clearly he is a character designed for audience’s manipulation by having him as a proxy to our questions but then later is unfortunately neglected. What could have been a more challenging point of entry into the subject matter to talk a little about cultural differences never really goes anywhere and feels more like a distracting red herring.

As corny as it is to say though, Paper House’s visually bombastic and fiery ending did make me reconsider and contemplate my insecurities and anxieties regarding familial ties and the inevitable deaths of my family members and how our practices and customs reflect those beliefs. This is the main and endearing strength of Paper House, which is able to thread empathy with some finesse.

Ler Jiyuan is a director based in Singapore, including high-profile TV drama serials Fiends and Foes, Code of Law, The Pupil, In Cold Blood, Perfect Deception, Confessions of Crime, Anything Goes and Zero Calling.

The film will be screened under the Singapore Shorts section of the 5th Singapore Chinese Film Festival 1 May, Monday, 7pm. The screening will be held at the National Museum Gallery Theatre.

Written by Rifyal Giffari

For the full list of April 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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