Reviews: Singapore Shorts '18 Day 03 (2017-2018)

5 Rehearsals of a Wedding

Here are our bullet reviews of some of the films screened on Day 3 of Singapore Shorts, an annual film screening organised by the Asian Film Archive, of some of the best new Singapore short films, reigniting a yearly tradition started by the National Museum. Singapore Shorts has been an important first platform for filmmakers like Boo Junfeng, Kirsten Tan, Anthony Chen and many others to showcase their early works to the public. Some of these films are available on Viddsee. Or you may catch them in the immediate future at a screening event in town. 

5 Rehearsals of a Wedding (2018), directed by Kray Chen
The final day of Singapore Shorts opened with director Kray Chen’s 5 Rehearsals of a Wedding, a stunningly lit 28-minute short feature breaking down the archetypal Singaporean Chinese wedding into five rehearsals, “Gatecrash”, “Tea Ceremony”, “Photoshoot”, “Solemnisation”, and “Banquet”. Chen plays himself as the somewhat disaffected groom, undergoing a practice run of key moments and psychological states associated with a wedding. 

Each “rehearsal” delves into the specific behaviours and cultural expectations so deeply interwoven with what is so arguably thought of as a rite of passage in one’s adulthood. It’s your wedding day, after all—a day dedicated to celebrating the ceremonial bond between you and the person you’ve chosen to spend the rest of your life with yet somehow determined by external influences. How is it that this incredibly meaningful day has so many people involved? How has it become the case that it’s all been decided for you? From repeated actions that are inherent to the day itself, to an upholding of tradition, without a bride the solitary nature of the groom’s journey gradually begins to expose the inherent banality and performativity of the day’s rituals.

In his dissection of these moments, Chen effectively destabilises ritual and tradition, turning it on its head whereby the most meaningful moments become laughable caricatures—but are we laughing at the ridiculousness of it all because it seems all too familiar or is it a sad laugh at how mechanical a wedding can start to seem? We see this best in “Tea Ceremony”, where the groom reenacts a typical tea ceremony with his friends. They form an assembly line, shifting down the couch until they face him, wishing him well and hoping that he soon has a child; the simulated movements of exchanging a teacup, the repeated well-wishing, and joining the back of the line only to start again. The mechanical repetition is interspersed with insipid chatter about what they’d like to have for lunch.

5 Rehearsals of a Wedding is a thought provoking exploration on the power of ritual and tradition, how that drives the expectations that come to shape the most meaningful of moments. In so doing, it becomes bittersweet: as one of the characters asks, “if this is not a real wedding, then what is this?”

White Carnations (2017), directed by Tang Wan Xin
White Carnations explores the struggle of motherhood, specifically espoused in a single mother, coupled with the negative perceptions of mental illness in local Singaporean society—both of which remain stigmatised today. The eleven-minute short film directed by Tang Wan Xin is a stunning portrait of a descent into chaos as we observe the tense, fragmented relationship between a mother and son as it gradually begins to crumble.

“My son is normal,” insists the single mother (played by Karen Bee Lin Tang) as she implores a principal to admit her autistic son to a non-special needs primary school. Her pleas are delivered with a magnetic ferocity, evocative of a mother’s love and indignance that she knows what’s best for him. Despite her son’s troublesome behaviour, she is relentlessly and exasperatedly patient with a genuine determination to not give up on her son even when tested time and time again. 

This determination is reflected in everything she does as she subsists on little sleep, painstakingly making the paper carnations throughout the night by hand. Her meticulous, delicate crumpling and folding of these fragile tissue paper blossoms and the care so evident in these movements are juxtaposed with how roughly she is forced to handle her son yet both evocative of the assiduousness in her efforts to care for and provide for him as she needs to do, no matter how challenging.

The star of the feature however is Jeffree Cheng who plays the young son, his energy hyperbolic and appropriately so; he plays the role so instinctively, so much so that at the post-screening Q&A, an audience member was compelled to ask if he was an autistic child himself (he is not). When we first see him onscreen, he is playing with the toy car that he has in his possession for most of the film; he is focused, lost in his own world, as he refuses to allow his mother to dress him in his school uniform, stretching the fabric of his already-torn shirt, screaming as she grapples with him, trying to hold him still.

The ambiguous ending prompts a great deal of questions—gasps did emerge from the audience in the final few minutes of the film. It sheds a light on a poignant realisation that we all eventually come to at different stages in our lives, that as a child, you can’t choose your parents; in the same way that as a parent, you can’t choose your children.

Inspirational Ghost (2017), directed by Sissi Kaplan
As the third and final instalment of a trilogy of short films, Sissi Kaplan’s Inspirational Ghost chronicles a deeply intimate meditation on a relationship that never fully materialised. Preceded by The Incident (2012) and About Emptiness (2014), Inspirational Ghost is the most ethereal of the three, with slow time-lapse shots, natural textures overlaid on still images, time seemingly suspended as though trapped in a dream. It is a dream about the other half, a man, in this unrealised relationship that Kaplan recounts in her final film, as compared to the previous two which borrow directly from incidents with the same man in reality—one in person and the other a virtual conversation.

Punctuated by a minimalist score of synths, bells, and haunting vocals by collaborator Vivian Wang, the resulting atmosphere is beautifully somnambulant, indolent in its pace. Kaplan’s narration is more musical in the sense that it perfectly coalesces with Wang’s score and sound editing, her tone lacking the conversational nature she had in The Incident but instead oscillating between reflective, though relatively matter-of-fact musing and soft, punctuated, ghostly whispers.

The dream involves Kaplan and the man on separate boats as they travel down a river. The narrative is symbolic – perhaps intentional or otherwise—as the turbulent journey down the river speaks to the ups and downs in their romantic feelings and friendship and the realisation that “they needed to get to know each other better” speaks to the stifled communication and distance explored in About Emptiness. As she recounts her dream, the accompanying visuals depict natural scenes from Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, derived from her travels, meant to represent the dreamscape where the dream is set. This is interspersed with shots of a bedroom overlaying a shot of rippling water, where the dream-making takes place and where the two worlds meet; the faded caesious hues add to the hypnotic, listless quality of her imagery. 

“From a frisky incident in Berlin, to moments of emptiness in Singapore, you always inspired me and taught me how to make films,” reflects Kaplan at the end of her film. Her final musings are realisations that we all hope to come to at the end of any relationship (realised or otherwise), in that we hope, no matter the outcome, that there was something to be learned and gained from the experience as a whole. The act of dreaming thereby becomes the site of acceptance and reconciliation, and in this case, the site of fruitful creation. 

Reviews by Melissa Noelle Esguerra

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 
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