STOP10 Jun 2017: 'The Manifest' by Sanif Olek

In the year 2185, Singapore would actually have a space mission but we would still be eating good old Nasi Lemak in outer space, with plastic spoons. We love how crisp the plastic Nasi Lemak container sounds when Commander Kyle opened it. This is the world envisioned by filmmaker Sanif Olek as he tells his tale of racial and social integration set in the future.

The Manifest is Sanif’s contribution to the ‘diversity-celebrating’ Project Lapis Sagu Anthology of short films, with the other two films made by K Rajagopal and Kelvin Tong. With a touch of Star Trek and a lot of worldly wisdom, it serves you racial tension on an unfamiliar plate. Yet, when you consume it, all the original flavours are still there.

The film is essentially built around the native versus Foreign Talent (FT) tussle that we are all so familiar with. But the interplay of so many issues and elements like fighting for jobs, death, memories of dead loved ones, and not forgetting, Nasi Lemak, has made this film richer and more ‘Lemak’ than just a simplistic depiction of xenophobia and cultural tension.

Kyle is the Commander of a space mission who needs to dispose a large piece of waste and has a conversation with Orion, a ‘Siri-ous’ lady (an omnipresent robot essentially whom we do not see but only hear) about dumping procedures. That’s when we learn through Kyle’s punchline-worthy rant that littering is still prohibited countless miles away from Singapore. At the same time, he is also having a heated conversation with his colleague Morgan or Murugan (apparently his real Indian name). Morgan is accusing Kyle of not knowing that he is in a privileged position, mentioning how his own batch mates were passed up for the mission and that he thinks Kyle has been made Commander of the mission, despite his more junior rank, because Kyle’s father is William Barrett, Chief Scientist of the NASA equivalent of Singapore (a future incarnation of A-Star perhaps?). Kyle is obviously not taking it sitting down (though technically the only time he got up was for his Nasi Lemak). He claims that in fact he had to work harder because his father is William Barrett. He also defends the fact that he actually has a pink IC, contrary to what Morgan thinks.

The thorny conversations with Morgan feed into Kyle’s identity-questioning and a flashback scene on earth in which Sanif addresses the origin of Kyle’s torn loyalties between Singapore and William Barrett’s motherland, supposedly Germany (though that surname sounds British!). William chose to settle down in Singapore because of his Malay wife, Kyle’s mother. He has grown attached to Singapore and hopes Kyle would feel the same. This is when we realise the film’s use of non-linear storytelling is both dis-orientating and yet so beguiling at the same time. Like a good Sci-fi flick, the film titillates with the dropping of various elements like gadgets, procedures and technology (such as Orion’s tear-detection capabilities). At the same time, the non-linear storytelling feeds us the plot only in fragments. We need to follow Kyle right to the end to see how the jigsaw puzzle fits together, down to the bag of waste Kyle wanted to dump at the beginning.

Sanif has maintained an artful balance between making both the machines and the meat look good. Machines being the spaceship set-up, production design, down to the ‘can-pass’ spacey sound design. Meat being the human-interest component in the film. On that note, actually, Morgan speaking in full-fledged Singlish peppered with colloquial terms (it’s wonder he did not use Hokkien swear words if going on a space mission is like being in an army camp) is all the story needs to humanise and localise. And to remind us that the future doesn’t look too cold or out of this world.

You can watch The Manifest here.

Read more about the Project Lapis Sagu Together Apart Anthology and watch behind-the-scenes videos on the Project Lapis Sagu website.

Written by Jeremy Sing

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