Review: 667 (2017)

Royston Tan’s recent movie, 667, is Singapore’s first ever dialect-film anthology. As executive producer, Tan brings together five short films by five local directors—Kirsten Tan, Liao Jiekai, Eva Tang, He Shuming and Jun Chong—where each short film was conceived as a loving tribute to a different Chinese dialect. No surprises there, given that the movie was commissioned by the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre (near Tanjong Pagar MRT), where it was screened to a sold-out cinema on 25 May this year.

Yet the real surprise is that 667 now threatens to be sidelined by its unavailability to the Singaporean public, much like the dialects to which it was meant to pay tribute. At the time of this writing, no plans have been announced for future screenings of 667 since its premiere in May. Perhaps its filmmakers intend to enter the movie or its constituent chapters into international festivals, or an island-wide release is still in the works. But we should all be dismayed at the lack of any further press on 667 since its one-off screening. It is a movie that deserves to be seen by a wider audience, especially a Singaporean one, given both the uniqueness of its subject matter and its showcasing of the idiosyncratic talents of five local filmmakers.

This review takes a closer look at each of their films, and at what each contributes to 667 as a whole.

NOCTURNE《夜曲》(dir. Liao Jie Kai)
Featured dialect: Hokkien

667’s first chapter opens on a deceptively simple sight: the unadorned bedroom of a hut in the 1970s, where a lone oil lamp crackles on the bedside drawer. As we soon learn, one of the main characters is a leftist who must flee in the night into the Malayan jungle. The film tracks slowly towards the inner window of the bedroom, through which we observe as the characters hear this fateful news. This first film, ‘Nocturne’, thus seems to be a historical adaptation of a subplot in the late Yeng Pway Ngon’s epic novel Art Studio, tracking the heartbreak of the lover who is left behind by these shifting sociopolitical circumstances.

But ‘Nocturne’ is helmed by Liao Jiekai (Red Dragonflies), a founder of the avant-garde film collective 13 Little Pictures, and so the film doesn’t merely tread the path of straightforward adaptation. Instead, it veers into self-examination, interrogating what it means to replicate history (and the use of authentic Hokkien) on film. The bedroom turns out to be a part of a film set, with fellow director Boo Junfeng (pictured left) in his acting debut as Liao’s stand-in within the story of the film. As they shoot the film, the characters get mired in discussions about how to translate particular lines of dialogue to better fit the colloquial Hokkien needed by the story. Boo’s character even has to navigate the tough choice between the translation that is right for the film and the translation desired by the film’s clients. (His producer’s long-suffering response: “They’re the clients, Junfeng.”)

‘Nocturne’ is thus a tantalising opener for the 667 anthology, showing us how each film can move outwards from a straightforward story set in the milieu of its chosen dialect, and into larger questions and more ambitious explorations of the anthology’s choice of theme.

WU SONG SHA SAO《武松杀嫂》(dir. Kirsten Tan)
Featured dialect: Teochew

If ‘Nocturne’ embraces a more cerebral approach, 667’s second chapter offers a more immediate feast for our eyes, ears and funny bones. Kirsten Tan is no stranger to bold comic spectacle, hot off the Sundance success of her absurdist elephant-led road-trip feature film Pop Aye. In ‘Wu Song Sha Sao’, Tan tackles the classic Teochew opera play of the same name, in which the legendary Chinese hero Wu Song avenges his brother’s murder at the hands of his sister-in-law. In Tan’s hands, though, this classic is brought to new life through a vibrant restaging in a modern bar lounge.

Tan’s characteristic love for quirk is emblazoned even in the chapter’s title sequence, which blares with techno music over a scarlet silk screen and fevered slashes of calligraphy. The same goes for her restaging of the Teochew opera. Her actors pop with colour—Pan Jin Lian in a jade robe, and Wu Song in a paisley brown suit—against the sterile and empty bar lounge, which might double as a critique of modern bars, and of the lack of audiences who seek out Teochew opera.

But the film offers no time to linger on such distressing thoughts. Not when there is more opera to be had, to which Tan doles out no end of comic touches: oddly serious translations (e.g. “these hands that have baked sesame cake”); slow-mo flourishes; abstract animations blooming in the background; and, at one climax, a ritual toast restaged inventively as a domino drop shot.
A common sight at a Teochew opera

As Tan has attested, she aimed with this film to “inject new blood into a vanishing art form.” While she has succeeded plenty, her directorial choices have not merely served to plaster an entertaining surface over a dull story. On the contrary, the marriage of established opera and rising director turns out to be a fruitful one, pushing Tan to explore new creative horizons, while showing us what drew so many audiences to this Teochew opera long before it was enshrined so memorably here.

Featured dialect: Hainanese

With its third chapter, 667 takes yet another tonal swing, this time into the deeply heartfelt. Unlike the prior experimental chapters, ‘Letters from the Motherland’ opts for a more forthright treatment of its biographical story. The film centres on the 30-year-long correspondence between director He Shuming’s Hainan-born father who retired in Singapore, and the caretaker of his ancestral home back in the village of Qionghai, Hainan.

Over the course of the film, we hear these letters read out in voiceover, learning of the decisions and sacrifices made by two men across thousands of miles. Meanwhile, the film lulls us into a reverie, plying us with gorgeously composed images of life in both places. There is a lot to savour here, including dream-like shots of the grey ancestral brickhouse adorned with firecrackers and Lunar New Year decorations, and unusually pensive shots of people ekeing it out solo in the big city.

The title for ‘Letters from the Motherland’ might seem like an unusually Chinese-nationalist one from a Singaporean director, until you learn that the director grew up in Singapore with an aversion to the Hainanese that his father spoke. The film is thus his corrective to that aversion, delving with a more openhanded curiosity into his father’s personal connection with the ‘motherland’ of Hainan. ‘Letters from the Motherland’ thus offers the most earnest response to the anthology’s Mandarin title, 《回程667, which asks for its directors to excavate and rediscover their roots.

KE《客》(dir. Jun Chong)
Featured dialect: Hakka

As the most untested of the filmmakers represented in the anthology, director Jun Chong must have felt he had a lot to live up to in ‘Ke’, his debut film. Perhaps it is no surprise then that he found relief in a tried-and-tested story: that of a visitor to Singapore seeking a place that is no longer there, as in Troy Chin’s early Resident Tourist comics or Boo Junfeng’s chapter in the SG50 film anthology 7 Letters.

Chong’s film, simply titled ‘Ke’ (a pun on the Chinese terms for ‘Hakka’ and ‘guest’), features a Hakka visitor to Singapore searching for her late grandfather, whom she believes to be buried in the urban Shuang Long Shan cemetary in Commonwealth. The rest of the plot is, unfortunately, no stranger to any Singaporean who might have seen Tan Pin Pin’s documentary short ‘Moving House’, or even glimpsed ‘Ke’s’ premise with a basic knowledge of how Singapore’s urban planning system works. Yet the sight of the cemetary itself is ‘Ke’s’ greatest asset. Its massive rows of graves, like mahjong tiles, are set against the backdrop of an MRT station and the built-up HDB estates flanking it on all sides—reminding us of the ways that our city presses on, and the things that we might leave behind as a result.

THE VEILED WILLOW柳影袈裟》(dir. Eva Tang)
Featured dialect: Cantonese

Last but not least, 667 ends with ‘The Veiled Willow’, the name of a now-vanished Cantonese dish in which bamboo fungus is stuffed with green vegetables. As the film’s title might suggest, its focus on Cantonese culture has one particular target: Cantonese cuisine, and specifically the iconic deep-fried yam ring.
Made in Singapore. Move over, chilli crab

The yam ring has two competing origin stories, between two of the four ‘Heavenly King’ chefs in 1960s  Singapore: between Chef Hooi Kok Wai of Dragon Phoenix Restaurant and Chef Tham Yew Kai of Lai Wah Restaurant. Eva Tang’s film focuses on the latter, and specifically on the not-quite-love story between ‘Chef Tam’ (named after the Tam family for whom he worked) and a maidservant for the same family.
Tang gives herself some difficult plates to juggle. She tries to evoke the almost-romance between two inarticulate people who are eventually separated by their working-class needs: Chef Tam must leave to work for a restaurant, while the maidservant remains steadfast with her family, despite the family's attempts to match-make them both. Amidst this tragic love story, Tang tries to keep things light-hearted with a couple of Cantonese-mispronunciation jokes (‘Carrie’ vs ‘curry’, ‘cheese’ vs ‘pig shit’). Whether you think these hold together tonally, no one can deny the majesty of the film’s central sequence: the two love interests standing together as a yam-based roll of dough is kneaded with love, shaped with care, and then lowered slowly into a wok of golden oil.

Eva Tang has already celebrated one local Mandarin tradition with her xinyao documentary feature The Songs We Sang. Here, with ‘The Veiled Willow’, she proudly celebrates another.

Review by Colin Low

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