Review: Fragment (2015)


Fragment is an omnibus film made up of a collage of ten distinct stories from Southeast Asia. With the titular word as the guiding theme, each film embraces the other's subjectivities through the collective sentiments of vulnerability and fortitude around the region. The omnibus, a commemorative project of the Asian Film Archive's 10th anniversary, completed and premiered in 2015, featuring the works of both established auteurs as well as newer voices in the scene.

These filmmakers include Kan Lumé (Singapore), Kavich Neang (Cambodia), Lav Diaz (Philippines), Lucky Kuswandi (Indonesia), Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit (Thailand), Di Phan Dang (Vietnam), Sherman Ong (Singapore / Malaysia), Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia), U-Wei Bin HajiSaari (Malaysia) and Wesley Leon Aroozoo (Singapore).

This omnibus made a comeback this year at the 28th European Union Film Festival at a special presentation of the film under an EU-Singapore-ASEAN special collaboration.

It is also now available on Blu-ray at the Asian Film Archive online shop - asianfilmarchive.org/shop For local orders in Singapore, please email info@asianfilmarchive.org


SINdieS Kathy Poh and Jeremy Sing meshed together random thoughts and figments of observations about the films in Fragment over a cyber cloud that floated along for two weeks to give you some food for thought about the film. Enjoy the read!

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Kathy: It’s hard to pick a favourite out of all the stories in Fragment, but one that I enjoyed a lot was Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Scene 38. I love art and movies that make the mundane interesting, and this was fascinating because Nawapol emphasises the artificiality of a romantic scene in favour of bringing out the genuinity in the background conversations. Maybe to put it in a simpler way, it’s as if the movie scene itself is a pair of curtains, and Nawapol parts these to show us reality and life the way we live it. Does this make sense? I think it’s an idea that suits the format of a short film perfectly, and it really captures the ironic disjunct between what happens on a film set, and the filmed scene in an actual movie. But then maybe this in itself is also ironic because Scene 38 becomes the final product that’s shown in the movie theatre.

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s 'Scene 38'

Jeremy: I guess you can say Scene 38 interpreted the theme in the cleverest way. It took a chip (or rather a fragment) off a block and created a new world out of it. It is also my favourite work of the omnibus. It gave me something I have never seen before. I must admit watching the omnibus Fragment requires some patience because many of the films deal with figments of a plot, story or character and leave you hanging there without a proper closure or transition to the next film. I do like how thematically, it explores the opposite of what the countries in this region are always trying so hard to ‘sell’ - harmony, melting pot, unison, togetherness. Fragment is the direct opposite of that. And perhaps through fragmented accounts, we could find common ground and moments of empathy. However, I felt the end product did not deliver in that aspect. Though, it is still interesting to view a patchwork quilt of different narratives with different strokes.

Kavich Neang's 'Goodbye Phnom Penh'

I would hazard to guess that people conditioned by Hollywood portrayals of Southeast Asia would find the Cambodian piece Goodbye Phnom Penh and the Vietnamese piece Rain most relatable due to the familiar shot of motorcycles against dinghy streets. But these stories are then punctuated with the rudeness of the banter in Umbilical, the dystopian worlds recreated by Lav Diaz and U-Wei Hajisaari and the navel gazing between two aspiring actors in Kan Lume's piece that makes you want to shout ‘First World Problems’.


Kan Lume's 'Making Art is F***ing Hard'

K: Yes, I agree with you about the fragmented presentation of Southeast Asia! I think that the opening short, Kan Lume’s Making Art is F***ing Hard, quite neatly encapsulates the whole experience of this omnibus: the contrast between posh cities and a more “kampung” way of life, disconnection between the rich and others in the shadows, as well as local experiences of dreams and desires. It’s hard to reconcile these experiences even as viewers, especially when we are approaching all of this from the privileged position of city-dwellers rich enough to access these films! But there are, for sure, many different dimensions to the “Southeast Asian” experience and I feel that this omnibus does quite well at revealing that.

J: It is really a patchwork of different stories with a mix of the conventional narrative style to the experimental and even to the outright kooky (Well, there was only one kooky one - Umbilical by Wesley Leon Aroozoo.)


Wesley Leon Aroozoo's 'Umbilical'

K: Umbilical was so bizarre. For some reason I felt really awkward watching it - this dystopian-fantasy version of Singapore is not one that I would want to associate myself with, even though I have to admit that there is some truth in Aroozoo’s caricatures of Singaporeans and the experience of immigrants here. Interestingly when I watched Lav Diaz’ The Day Before the End, I was reminded of “Western” versions of apocalyptic dystopia such as Mad Max: Fury Road and the Black Mirror episode Metalhead. It was also very fascinating to me how individuals on the streets were delivering lines from Hamlet; all these materials from Western popular media were being transposed into a Filipino context in an uncanny way. The imagery and symbolism in this film is disorienting, yet enigmatic. In the larger picture of the entire omnibus, I think this story works well as a complement to U-Wei Hajisaari’s Satu Nota Satu Fragmen, which feels like it took place after a massive event.

Lav Diaz’ 'The Day Before the End'


U-Wei Hajisaari's 'Satu Nota Satu Fragmen'

J: I am extremely curious about how U-Wei Hajisaari cleared an entire street for that scene in which the main character left the building to find out where everyone left, only to find the streets barren of activity as well. You know in some strange way, Satu Nota Satu Fragmen, was a respite from the other pieces because it had no one else in the film. There were no cultural, social complexities to take in. We see a dystopian Malaysia, set somewhere in an unknown future, far removed from the chaos and dissonance associated with it, if current news is anything or everything to go by. Not forgetting the ‘We Hate You’ chorus seems so chillingly familiar in the context of real news today! (Wink)

K: So much is unexplained in Hajisaari’s story! I think that our understanding of what goes on relies very heavily on our reading of the film’s visual cues, which aren’t always overt or universal to all audiences. I felt quite distanced from it actually, maybe because it took me a while to catch on to what was happening! I think this distance enhances the alienation of the main character, which is an approach that perhaps works better in concept than execution.

J: Another one of my favourite pieces is Tan Chui Mui’s The Beautiful Losers. Conceptually, it is a very watertight film. I like the way she drew a common thread between her subject of losers or failures with the idea of Saturn’s rings being fragments from an exploded planet. But I feel the film also succeeded on a more pedestrian level. A hark back to an earlier short film A Tree in Tanjung Malim, The Beautiful Losers echoes it with a similarly smirky banter between a young girl and an older man with the conversation maintained a few notes away from flirtatious. Though I am not too much a fan of that atonal song at the end, I thought that chance encounter hit a few notes right.


Tan Chui Mui’s 'The Beautiful Losers'

K: Yeah, the song took me out of everything that the film had built up to beforehand! For me Tan Chui Mui’s story wasn’t just about failure in the sense of not living one’s own dreams, but it also touched on that Chinese concept of “face”: of having to keep up an appearance of a good life untainted by failure. In the case of the girl in the story, she seemed to want to wipe out all traces of her past aspirations in the public eye - that moment resonated with me, and I think it is something that many others will also find relatable too. The story seems to want us to question why we tend to associate failure with embarrassment - and I think that this is something that we should keep thinking about.

J: Random thought: I think finishing the film Serpong in monochrome served a very important purpose. I would have thrown up my dinner if I sat through the no-holds barred bowel porn in full colour.

K: I actually really, really liked Serpong. The black-and-white cinematography served it very well, I think! Because the main point really wasn’t so much about the gruesomeness of the fecal matter itself, but about the close and visceral contact between these people and their poo in ways that we often treat for granted when it comes to hygiene issues. I found it fascinating how when we align ourselves with the film’s main characters, the shopping mall with its polished facade becomes a futuristic, alien, and inaccessible place - perhaps this is the closest we might get to standing in the shoes of people who live in serious poverty. There is a moment in the film where the man and woman, looking from afar at the shopping mall, envision their child becoming a shopping mall security guard as their ultimate dream. It was a poignant and humbling moment because it hit me that this occupation wouldn’t be something I would even think of aspiring towards.

Lucky Kuswandi's 'Serpong'

J: I agree watching Serpong was actually pretty enjoyable and despite the black and white footage, the film is filled with warmth! In Lucky's piece, humour and everyday affections distract us from the gravity of their sheer poverty. And when you say it feels humbling to see how the couple envisions their child as a future security guard in the new mall, it is irony at its most powerful. Oh yes, you gave me a great idea there - poo and ruminations about life….

A mini burst of laughter.

K: I had a lot of questions about Sherman Ong’s The Warm Breeze of Winter. Why use the metaphor of “winter” when this is a story about an imagined future where Singapore and Malaysia are re-merging? How might we link the mother-daughter relationship to the ties between Singapore and Malaysia? The dance scene that was in black-and-white was interesting to me too, because the dance style and music felt very contemporary and distant from the nostalgic mood that dominated the earlier portions of the film. What was your impression of this?

Sherman Ong’s 'The Warm Breeze of Winter'

J: Unfortunately, as much as the film tries to tell a story about reconciliation, I felt emotionally distanced by the piece. The film is stuck in a no man’s land, pun intended, between trying to be surrealistic and realistic, narratively-driven and stylistically-driven and wow, it wants a bit of everything - naturalism, lyricism, poetry, dance, history, form what else?! Winter too!  But to answer your question, I guess winter is used to denote the state of separation between Singapore and Malaysia (even though it is no longer perceived as a sad and ‘wintry’ thing today) but it is also about a warm breeze in winter, which I guess is a metaphor for the reunification, as imagined in the story. I think what the mother-daughter relationship is trying to symbolise is lost connections and a wasted romance between people who ended up on either side of the Straits of Johore. There are plenty of complex emotions the film tries to deal with, many have political undertones to them but the film’s rather stylised depiction of the homecoming, fails to elicit the real weight of the issues at stake. It is the visual arts’ world’s equivalent of impressionism I guess. One of those exhibits that attempt to depict some wisdoms about humanity but all you see is splatter of red on a white canvas.

K: Would that be a Warhol or an Ai Wei Wei?

Get your Fragment Blu-ray at the Asian Film Archive online shop

SINdie ran an interview with the filmmakers of Fragment 2 years ago. Click here for the full interview.

Kathy Poh is a second-year Arts & Humanities student at Yale-NUS College, with interests in modern history and Orientalism. Like Emma Stone, she has watched ‘La La Land’ nine times; since then, she has moved on with hopes to become better acquainted with world cinema.

Jeremy Sing is the founder of SINdie.

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