STOP10 Oct 2017: 'What Has to Be' by Jerrold Chong

Watching this short animation film by Jerrold Chong is an unsettling experience that gets you under your skin. One could attribute it to the shadowy illustrations, the visual hyperbole, the intensely realistic dialogue or simply the gravity of the subject matter of a baby's mortality.

What Has to Be laps up every nuance in a short story from the book 'The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S Rajaratnam'. For those who don't have a clue, S Rajaratnam was Singapore's first culture minister and a long-serving foreign minister. In this story, a husband and wife share a conversation about the recent death of their first born child, at a point when the wife will soon deliver their second child. Caught in a cesspool of troubling emotions like regret, fear, paranoia and selfishness, the husband struggles to abandon a hefty baggage from the past in face of what is supposed to bring hope.

Jerrold's treatment of the story captivates with the use of POV-centric representation of the characters and an overtone of caricature on its drawings. The exaggerated proportions of the characters and objects, the burly husband, the impressionistic silhouettes, the mutating Orchid, the distorted body curves look right at home in a Picasso painting, sans colour. In one scene, where the husband is describing his 'excitement of a boy' as he waited for the arrival of his first son, his wife's pregnant tummy looms over him as he hugs her tummy from below. Metaphorical visual representations like  this abound in the film and extend its depth beyond the potential limitations of two-dimensional charcoal drawing. It would actually be interesting to imagine this in a medium Jerrold has used in his last few animation shorts - stop motion. Would it achieve more clarity because it is 3D and its form necessitates more minute details? Or does this chosen 2D form offer more clarity as the visuals utter (pardon the pun) some form of 'statement' from being stylised?

Of course, the film is also 'fleshed out' by the realistic dialogue. The husband's voice delivered aptly with a strong sense of world-weariness, by the actor who played the lead in Rajagopal's A Yellow Bird, Sivakumar Palakrishnan. Also, equally affecting was the vocal delivery by Rebekah Sangeetha Dorai who voiced for the wife. A strange observation to note though. Friends and peers of filmmaker K Rajagopal may notice Siva's voice sounds quite similar and in some moments during the film, one could get the uncanny feeling of the spirit of Rajagopal somehow lurking in the shadows of the film and living within the sensibilities of the main character.

Review by Jeremy Sing

We caught up with Jerrold to pry deeper into his work. Here are three questions for him.

Why the choice of a black and white charcoal sketch style for the short?

The use of the black and white pencil technique suggests an instability beneath the surface. The pencil technique introduced a harshness and an imperfection/chaos in the image that is impossible with a digital technique. This technique manifests itself as frenetic ibrations of the pencil lines upon the screen, and I feel helps add a sense of nervousness and anxiety to the mood. The black and white style also highlights the key motif of the orchid flower (which is the only colored object). Initially, I was inspired by the drawings of Georges Seurat, and wanted to reference the ephemerality of his characters and the way the characters are both in and outside of the environment at the same time. As we progressed, we realised the enormous physical work required to achieve the look, and began to discover that as draw, we vent our frustrations upon the paper and I believe the violence upon the paper can be FELT on the screen and this correlates with the theme of violence that is constantly being suppressed beneath the surface of the film, and the characters themselves.

Why the choice of this short story by Rajaratnam? Or was it given to you?

The filmmakers were given the freedom to choose their own literary text. I was mainly drawn towards S. Rajaratnam's writing due to the complex socio-political commentary through very simple, almost abstract narratives. Many of his stories, particularly​​ ​"​What Has To​ ​Be​"​, ​​can often be read as allegories, and I find that ​best ​suited for the ​abstract, surrealistic possibilities of animation. Even though the story is only ​5​ pages long, the language of the dialogue between the two characters are sharp​, ​indelible and ​it left me deep in thought long after I closed the book. ​The ending of the story is especially haunting and ​​it triggered thoughts and reflections far wider and deeper than the diegesis of the story. Throughout the making of the film, I constantly reminded myself of the emotions and thoughts I had after reading the short story, and sought to convey these feelings onto the screen.

What about the subject matter of this family tragedy appealed to you?

I feel that at its heart, the narrative examines the undercurrents that pervade even the most intimate of couples, arising from false assumptions and different and subjective experiences. Personally, my parents had lost a child (due to a miscarriage) before I was born. So that aspect was how I first connected my own personal experience and the story's narrative. I worked together with my fiance Jia Lee (who also co-wrote the script), and we soon discovered that much of the dialogue of the film is so universal for two people who are intimate, who have experiences of arguing due to unseen differences, regardless of the context of the argument. Another aspect of the story that appealed to me was the theme of memory and subjectivity. The story is dominated by the Husband's recollection of his personal experience of the newborn's death, while the Wife sits silently by. This offered an opportunity for me as a filmmaker to examine the subjectivity of memory against a backdrop of two characters who finds themselves in an unbalanced relationship (ie. the Husband takes on a more authoritarian tone in defining the memory/experience, while the Wife's own memory is, in a certain sense, suppressed).

Utter, under the annual Singapore Writers Festival (SWF), marries the best of literature and filmmaking every year. This year's edition, Utter 2017: Singlit Unearthed, showcases the poetry and stories of four highly-distinguished writers—J.M. Sali, Gregory Nalpon, Tan Swie Hian, and former deputy prime minister S. Rajaratnam. Their works have been adapted with nuance and sensitivity by director of A Yellow Bird, K. Rajagopal, established TV and film director, Lee Thean-jeen, as well as animators, Henry Zhuang and Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong.

Session times and dates as follow:
Friday 29 September
7.30pm – GV Suntec (Link to Tickets)
*Post-screening dialogue with K. Rajagopal, Lee Thean-jeen, Henry & Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong
Saturday 30 September
7.30pm – GV Suntec (Link to Tickets)
*Post-screening dialogue with K. Rajagopal, Henry & Harry Zhuang and Jerrold Chong

$10 standard
$8 for Singapore Writers Festival passholders and Singapore Film Society member
50 mins + 40 mins post-screening dialogue
In various languages with English subtitles

Here is the list of the 4 Utter works:

Song of the Waves
Adapted from the book by J.M. Sali
Written and directed by K. Rajagopal
Synopsis: This is a love story about an Indian man who meets and falls in love with a Chinese woman in Singapore by chance, but she discovers that he is actually married back home in India. Told from the perspective of the writer—who is played by more than one actor, and who also plays the character—the film blurs the lines between roles, reality, time and space. The words and text of the writer also interplay with the sound of silence and the actions of the actors and characters.

Adapted from the short story by Gregory Nalpon
From the book “The Wayang at Eight Milestones” edited by Angus Whitehead
Written and directed by Lee Thean-jeen
Synopsis: When Margaret, a kindergarten teacher, admonishes her six-year- old student, Ee Leng, for bringing a dog to school one morning, she is shocked to find a death threat on her desk at recess time. This sets off a chain of incidents that spirals into tragedy in a surreal meditation on the pressures of living in a contemporary urban society and the impact they have on both the young and the elderly.

The Giant
Adapted from Tan Swie Hian’s poetry
Directed by Henry & Harry Zhuang
Synopsis: A school of fishes is washed up on a barren island. While the other fishes choose to swim back to the sea, one redfish decides to venture deeper into the barren island.

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