Student Voices: Here are five compelling ones from the National Youth Film Awards

Sitting through over 120 short films is a chore. Sounds like jury duty? Yes indeed. And I tried my very best to keep ‘viewing conditions’ similar for all short films. Like not snacking on ice-cream or answering my mum’s messages when viewing the films. I was once again on the pre-jury of the National Youth Film Awards in Singapore in which we have to shortlist films for the finals. But this chore had a mission, at least for me. I am generally curious about what new filmmakers are wrapping their heads around. And having sifted through numerous student films (I was in the media student category), the filmmakers could be clearly divided into two camps, the vocal and the fan boys or fan girls. Not to be shady, imitation is not entirely an artless affair. A fair amount of craft is involved. But nothing stirs the heart more than a filmmaker with an earnest voice, never mind the aesthetics. Here are five filmmakers who NEED an introduction.

She is a 'stalker'
Chew Yun Yan, LA SALLE College of the Arts, His Bottom Line

Filmmaker Chew Yun Yan found a friend in 57-year old bachelor Ah Guan and just would not let go of him. Thanks to her dogged obsession, we are given a window into the life of an ordinary man whose daily musings in between his mundane routines are more captivating than your typical over-featured documentary-worthy good samaritan. In fact, there is nothing noble about Ah Guan and despite being lonely and desperate, he remains adamant about his one key requirement for a partner - she must have a nice back. As determined as Ah Guan to find his sweetheart, Yun Yan follows him all the way to Vietnam where he does some heavy duty back inspection. It gets as close as speaking to him in his shower. It is awkward but it is precisely the awkwardness that makes this documentary a stand out.

How did you get to know the man in the documentary? And what made you decide to make a documentary on him?

My producer and I found Ah Guan online on Instagram when he was going semi-viral! He had his contact number on his signage, so I jokingly proposed contacting him as one of subjects for our thesis documentary film - but after meeting him, his eagerness and friendly disposition really made it easy to build a relationship with. He was so excited that we could promote his search for a wife by documenting it, so I thought that we could kill 2 birds with 1 stone and help him with his cause!

You obviously earned his trust enough for him to allow you to film several really private moments. Why the decision to get so close? And how did you build enough trust to get so close?

Becoming close to Ah Guan was inevitable for me. I had planned to follow him throughout his romantic journey and I really wanted to understand his reasons for his eccentric methods and most importantly, his obsession with a ‘nice back’. He just felt like the normal, kiasu uncle that every family had and was already familiar to me in that sense. I think the fact that he was lonely contributed to his excitement in the project as well. I’d like to think I temporarily became a sort of daughter/grand-daughter like figure for him. I am curious how you handled the scene in which you were conversing with him while he was showering? It was a tricky shooting that shower scene because our entire film crew was female except for our cinematographer! We had to position ourselves in certain spots in the hotel room, so we wouldn’t make Ah Guan or anyone in the team uncomfortable. All questions were asked after shooting his makeover to gauge his enthusiasm for his date. They were edited over the shower scene in post production.

How would you describe your personality or rather what makes your perspective different from others?

I’m a hoot. I mean, I’d like to think so. I’m very vocal about my opinions and my bad jokes. Most times I imagine a camera in the distance shooting my everyday life like it’s an episode of The Office. I love injecting humour into every situation and I think that comes from my dad. Humour is everything for me. Morally, we’re all steeped in this big grey pool of muck with no real solution for change sometimes. And when we laugh about it, it makes it a little better.

What do you think Singapore cinema should see more of?

More of absurdist comedies, fantasy and horror. Fun, crazy and memorable scenes for families to laugh and talk about for a long time. I still think back to I Not Stupid and the one scene where the spoilt brat Terry was kidnapped and yelled at his kidnappers for Pink Dolphin and white bread for his breakfast. That scene is magical.

Playing with fire, in the classroom
Gerard Nagulendran, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Kebelakang Pusing

This is another piece with odd ends and genre transfusions. A story about a group of students who take their history class reenactment too seriously, the film straddles between thrills, gore, psychological drama and absurdity. The fact that the film does not sink into a familiar construct makes the piece exciting. Three teenage NCC student cadets are asked to role play are Japanese soldiers during the Japanese occupation during history class and the taste of power proves so addictive that they bring the role play to the edge, giving Gerard the director a small window of opportunity to unleash some alternate universe sadism. For all its apparent originality, the irony in this is that the film is based on an actual happening in an actual secondary school. But of course, it is all about the, pardon the pun, execution.

Your film certainly straddled a few genres and breached several comfort markers. Take us through how your film's concept was born.

There was this Straits Times article from February 1999 I read online a couple years back regarding a real-life event that was almost too insane to be true- the Jin Tai Secondary School incident. It was a story about how 8 NCC Cadets (that were actually poly/ITE students) were enlisted by a Secondary School’s principal and NCC teacher to carry out a Total Defence Day exercise, to “simulate the Japanese Occupation of Singapore and teach students the importance of psychological defence”. But things got out of hand and they started punching & kicking the students and some of them even had to be hospitalised. (Meanwhile, the NCC teacher-in-charge was away on a workshop, and the principal only peeked into the hall for a while, thought everything seemed fine, then left.) There was no proper resolution to the incident, and the 8 NCC Cadets even denied ever laying a finger on the students. After I read it, I absolutely had to shoot something based off of this. It was too much of an incredulous concept (NCC Cadets of all people, getting drunk with power and beating other students up) to not film.

I see elements of various influences in your film include shades of a Battle Royale and other thriller or gore flicks. What are some of your influences?

That’s interesting, I watched Battle Royale as a kid but never actually considered it while writing Kebelakang Pusing. I wasn’t really looking for shock value when coming up with the script. I wanted to focus on a “Lord of the Flies” approach to portray young, untrained boys being put in positions of power and how they ultimately abuse it; not because they are intrinsically evil but because of the responsibility of said power. The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) was a film that portrayed a similar concept, preaching that just the uniformity and illusion of authority is enough for both ‘guards’ and ‘prisoners’ to truly believe that the former had power over the latter, even if it was meant to be a simulation.

Do you consider yourself rebellious?

Other than jaywalking a lot, I believe I’m rather mild-mannered, despite what this film implies.

How would you describe your personality or rather what makes your perspective different from others?

I guess I can only speak for my film school cohort….Compared to them, I find myself much more biased towards the audience’s experiences rather than what I want to see on screen. Throughout a project, I’m very self-conscious as to who is going to watch this and how I want them to remember it. I think I’m also frugal with how much I want to say in the script, because I believe a short film is at its strongest in its simplest form.

What do you think Singapore cinema should see more of?

Sensational concepts. I really want to see filmmakers in Singapore produce exciting works that make people HAVE to catch it in cinema. Push the boundaries of what is “okay” to show. I don’t want writers to conform to what they think is an easy screenplay to sell, like another depressing family drama or slapstick comedy.

Do you find yourself unknowingly practising self-censorship being a filmmaker in Singapore? How do you deal with that?

Self-censorship with how I speak, yes. Not so much when it comes to filmmaking, because I really feel that the arts should be entitled to free speech even in Singapore. With Kebelakang Pusing, I didn’t put much thought into censoring myself as I was more focused on the characters rather than what their actions represented on a social spectrum. I remember when my team screened the rough cut to one of our lecturers for feedback, and they were so shocked at how political the film was for them- so much so that they demanded we do not include them in the Special Thanks credits to avoid the “legal ramifications” of this film’s release.

Living in his own head 
Mark Chee, LA SALLE College of the Arts, GUNKWORLD 

I would be very careful to put the label ‘rebel’ on a filmmaker. Royston Tan was given the name enfant terrible of Singapore in the early 2000s for his bold and raw depiction of street kids in films like 15. But Singapore films over the years have shown that rebellion comes in many shades. Watching GUNKWORLD may lead one to conjure the R word again. With its riot of loud, colourful and compressed visuals blended together in a deliberate mess, one gets the impression that filmmaker Mark Chee is out there to make a scene literally. But this man is somewhat more geek than gungho, even though his film suggests otherwise. GUNKWORLD is about a horror cult cartoon series on TV where the main characters are cute monster schoolchildren who terrorise human characters. However, what takes place outside the realm of the TV show is more sinister, involving subliminal indoctrination on a global scale by the GUNKWORLD ad campaign. 

Take us through some of the influences in the style and treatment we see in GUNKWORLD. 

We can break down GUNKWORLD into 2 main styles: the 'cult cartoon style' and the 'real world style'. The motivation behind the 'cult cartoon style' segments in the film came as a personal response to the paralyzing pressure of the need to compete globally, chasing popular established ideas of technically sound and beautiful art as an entertainment artist. For my personal work, I wanted to explore ideas of creating appealing designs and stories from a different angle, with a focus on keywords like; crude, ambiguous, raw, cult, playful, simple, mascot and merchandise. I had been developing this 'GUNKMAN' style before plans for the film began, and naturally it continued into becoming the key driving force behind GUNKWORLD. Some big inspirations are Nekojiru, animations by AC-bu, Garo Magazine and Bikkuriman, these stories and designs resonate deeply with my current artistic journey. 

The 'real world style' in GUNKWORLD came out of necessity to create a contrast to the cartoon world in the film's story, while keeping the limited animation style and quirky atmosphere. Masaaki Yuasa's Mind Game (2004) and a motion graphic trailer for the Japanese band Maximum The Hormone were big inspirations for those segments. It was important to not be too realistic in these segments so that there was still space for a separation in style for the final segment of the film. 

How would you describe your personality or rather what makes your perspective different from others? 

I am generally a shy person, but sometimes I have this deep urge to go against what people tell me to do (I think maybe growing up in a Christian household with a bossy mother had a big part to play with that haha, thanks mom). This urge has evolved into me mostly wasting time on thought experiments, constantly questioning pre-established ideas and ways of doing things ... then questioning those new takes as well. I therefore live in my head a lot, filled with nonsensical ideas while awake and asleep. I also like cult manga! 

What do you think Singapore cinema should see more of? 

Honestly I'm guilty of not being too involved as much as I'd like to be with Singapore cinema. However, from my limited perspective, I think I'd like to see something entertaining and catchy enough as a brand emerging out from perhaps not only local cinema, but any local media in general that can be franchised and inadvertently represent Singapore as a global hit. "Oh I love that cute character from that TV Series/Movie/Comic made by that dude in Singapore! Look! I even have this **** key-chain! Also, I am from America." ... I guess I just want GUNKWORLD to be a reality hehehe. 

Adulting is not for everyone 
Lea Wong and Viency Lee, Nanyang Technological University, Breakfast 

Breakfast, an animation short by filmmakers Lea Wong and Viency Lee, has the uncanny ability to borrow motifs and aesthetics from a foreign genre and yet make it hit so close to home. The 2D animated film presents a chance encounter at a coffee shop that brings two childhood friends together for a meal. But instead of bringing them closer, the encounter reveals how far their lives have drifted. The stylistics of the film are somewhat foreign (yet familiar for anime fans) and borrowed. How Japanese can one get when your egg yolk starts moving faster than you can say Gudetama? The clean, blended hues and stylised texturing on objects are also reminiscent of the 2016 hit Japanese animated feature Your Name. Yet, its nuanced reference to real and familiar struggles of Singaporeans caught in the rat-race gives this film some unexpected depth towards the end. 

What was the inspiration behind your film? 

Our film and its conception took shape at a major moment of transition in our lives. It felt like yesterday that we had just entered University, but that point of our lives had flashed by so quickly and we were soon facing down another major transition into adulthood. With which comes all the things you never really had to think about before, like employment and planning out your future. And all around us were friends and acquaintances who seemed so driven and prepared to chase down the futures that they wanted, which simply added to that overwhelming feeling of being left behind. That sense of anxiety was something that we felt was universal to all, something worth talking about. 

If you could make an animated feature, what would it be about? 

Lea: If I could make an animated feature, it would probably be about daily life from the perspective of a student and how they see the world around them, completely filtered through their imagination. So, lots of crazy colours, imaginative daydreaming and looking out of classroom windows. I think there would be a lot to explore! 

Viency: I think I've always leaned towards something more magical and fantastical. As someone also with an avid interest in the representation of Asian culture in animated films, I'd love to work on a film that integrates that as well. It'd definitely be a mix of the two, very colourful and rich with worldbuilding. I'd love to include minority voices that are in dire need of representation in such a film too. 

How would you describe your personality or rather what makes your perspective different from others? 

Lea: I would say that I’m quite reflective by nature. I like to think about why I feel a certain way and how that is influenced by my surroundings or situation. 

Viency: I think I have a tendency to retreat and step back into myself, which I think offers me the chance to observe what happens around me. I like to consider the reasons why such situations occur, or why people act in certain ways. I feel like it allows me to stay more centered, and also helps me understand that there can be multiple perspectives and attitudes. 

What do you think Singapore cinema should see more of? 

Lea: Personally, I would like to see more films by filmmakers about regular Singaporean life. Just normal, everyday life and situations or struggles that we’ve all found familiar at some moment in our lives. It would also be really interesting if they were animated, because I think that you can tell a lot about how someone sees their world through their art. 

Viency: As someone who enjoys strong narratives but also a good fiction story, I'm quite partial to original stories with fantasy or sci-fi elements. I like the way fictional narratives can sometimes be used to very cleverly reference real world struggles. Whenever I see these two cross paths, I get really excited!

Nobody’s made Kumar sound more serious
Nevin Jacob, Nanyang Technological University, Unite in Laughter

Filmmaker Nevin did not need to go very far to find the taboo and the uncomfortable in exploring Singapore’s social fabric in a film. They are just on the flip side of what appears flawless and glossy in sanitised Singapore. Tragedy and comedy are two sides of the same coin. When the the curtains drop after another stand-up comedy set, Kumar has some real issues to talk about. Nevin’s film Unite in Laughter engages the audience not just because it gives us an exposition on three larger-than-life characters, but because it is able to pick out jokes, deconstruct them and expose some of the thorns beneath without sensationalising them and frame the issues in relatable ways. All in all, a documentary about the skin we are in, that is more than skin deep.

Your ironic exposition of the comedian psyche reflects a mature sociological understanding of Singapore. What led to the idea behind this documentary? It seems extremely well-thought through and layered.

Well the idea of this documentary was planted through a quote I read that the late Lee Kuan Yew had said during a post-independence speech in 1965. He metaphorically coined Singapore like a durian as the fruit that has this hard exterior but also this soft flesh in the interior. I wanted to explore this dichotomy between our interior and exterior identities. While thinking about this contrast, I realised that comedians innately carry this dual identity on and off stage, and they take a leap of faith in their identities. While coming back to Singapore’s identity, I think Lee Kuan Yew took a leap of faith in our identity in 1965, and today I think it's time we start looking at what is the leap of faith we take today, reflecting on our interior and exterior. This was the start of the documentary when I first pitched it and it of course has evolved since then over the year we made this film. Fun fact, the documentary was first titled “The Durian Identity''.

Quote: If they could have just squeezed us like an orange and squeezed the juice out, I think the juice would have been squeezed out of us, and all the goodness would have been sucked away. But it was a bit harder, wasn't it? It was more like the durian. You try and squeeze it, your hand gets hurt. And so they say, "Right, throw out the durian." But inside the durian is a very useful ingredient, high protein. And we will progress.

Lee Kuan Yew, Former Prime Minister of Singapore, 1965

One of the achievements of the film is getting comedian Kumar to open up. I have never ever seen a more serious side to him. How did you do that?

Kumar, is one of the most honest and funny critiques of Singapore and Singaporeans. His ability to connect on such a grounded level really brings people together and just allows us to laugh at ourselves about who we are as people. I have worked with him on a documentary titled Laughing Till it Hurts, which was made in 2016, and that allowed us to explore a more personal side of him. While pitching Unite in Laughter, I met up with him a few times over a meal and we would chat about Singapore, and I realised that more than being funny, there was a critical side of him that made a lot of sense for us to just reflect. I made sure I could tap on that through the interview and allow that to be the voice narrating the story. And a lot of times, we don’t recognise what goes beyond the stage for performers like Kumar. I intended to explore that person beyond the stage which allowed me to show the personal side of his life.

Since your documentary also touches on identity, what's your take on the recent debate on race in Singapore during the GE and what's come out of it?

Race has always been a topic that has been on my mind as I made this documentary. I think innately we pride ourselves as a multi-racial and religious society, and definitely we have come a long way in our identity as a nation. Being a minority in Singapore, I have gone through periods of racism and I always wondered what it would take for us to see beyond race and the skin colour. I think the GE has allowed for a discourse on race issues, but at the same time it is clear that these are difficult conversations then we need to have more often and not avoid them.

How would you describe your personality or rather what makes your perspective different from others?

This is a really tough question. I think I’m someone very observant and I love people watching. I learn so much from just sitting at a coffee shop or cafĂ© and watching the people in these places and learning about the idiosyncrasies about ourselves. As creepy as it sounds, this allows me to just look at the society we live in and the stories around us. I think we don’t spend enough time reflecting on who we are as people. Being observant and relentless has allowed me to believe that there are good stories out there to be told.

What do you think Singapore cinema should see more of?

I think there should be more documentaries made about our country and the people that live amongst us. Being a small country is no excuse to say that we don’t have enough stories. While travelling, I have also realised that many people don’t know where Singapore is and the diversity we have as a society. I think cinema is a gateway for people locally and abroad to just look at our society and observe the imperfections along with the beauty.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

The National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) is a national award in Singapore that celebrates excellence among youth talents who are highly adept in their respective fields across the various aspects of film-making in Singapore. It seeks to instill a greater appreciation of film, fuel the passion for filmmaking, and generates opportunities for further development in their craft. 

Here are the nominees for this year's awards: 

The National Youth Film Awards 2020 will be online for the first time in 6 years. Catch the announcement of the winning films on 25 July, 2 pm on Facebook Live. Till then, stay tuned to the National Youth Film Awards for more updates.
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