by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin
Almost all of the filmmakers I’ve met at the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) agree that film festivals are a great starting point for new filmmakers and serve as a platform for films that wouldn’t have an opportunity to be screened commercially. Even the famous Amos Gitai feels that commercial cinema today is getting to be too commercialized and cookie cutter, which prevents the public from seeing some great art films. In SIFF, there seems to be a specific focus on local films as there are many Singaporean categories and awards. A section called Singapore Panorama, a highly anticipated section that was first introduced last year, is dedicated to discovering new and exciting Singaporean features and short films.
For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised with the direction that some of the seven short films took. Sexual themes seem to be prevalent in SIFF 2009, albeit with a few being censored or banned from screening altogether. The Singapore Panorama Shorts dealt with issues which are specifically Singaporean, such as the compulsory National Service in Blank Rounds, an experimental film by several directors, and common human attributes such as love, lust and longing.
Dirty Bitch, a semi-musical short film was an unexpected surprise, and not necessarily in a good way. Inspired by a badly censored VHS of Claire Denis’ Nenette et Boni found in the Singapore library, the entire 13 minute short revolved around a police constable’s sexual fantasy who was lusting over his “chubby” colleague, who unfortunately was in another relationship. He narrates distastefully his desires for her while the image cuts back and forth between him masturbating and her being in a sexualized state while doing everyday things. Strange sex, white bunnies, violence and polka music should make for a memorable film, but not in this case.
Five emerging local directors collaborated in a project called Infinity showing the never-ending cycle of certain elements of life. Still Life, a personal favorite of mine, was a compilation of ambient sounds taped by the sound recordist on various locations such as a bathroom, football field, closed room and bedroom. All the shots were still and we were able to see and hear what the man holding the boom was experiencing. What made this film striking was the use of static actors against a live background, as if the performers’ moves had been frozen and recorded in a similar way to the sound. A segment called “Untitled, 17th January 2009” showed a camera moving 360 degrees from the starting point of a Chinese calendar. As it panned across, the things in the room revealed that it belonged to an old Chinese woman. A shirt, box fan, talcum powder, back scratcher, satay fan and an old dresser appeared as the camera moved while a conversation between an old lady and what is presumed to be her granddaughter was heard in the background. As the camera returned to the starting point, the voices slowly faded and then disappeared. The camera’s 360 degree pan portrayed her life in full circle, and the cycle a woman goes through in a single day. Although it might seem long and mundane, I found the film absorbing and just when you think it’s ending, it starts all over again. Nothing is Forever had clever shots of a glass being filled to the brink but not spilling, toilet paper rolling down endlessly but never finishing, a chunk taken out of a piece of meat being immediately refilled, and a teller (presumably) quickly counting notes. The film finishes with the water level in the glass getting fuller; the person pouring eventually stops. The film suggests that the material things in life can constantly be refilled or replaced, but we should know when to stop when things have reached their limit.
Blank Rounds evoked a lot of emotions from the very start. Depicting the strict regime of the compulsory National Service that young male Singaporeans are required to participate in; the film tells the story of a participant who was belittled by his commanders and bullied by his platoon mates. Depressed and unhappy, Recruit Tien resorts to extreme measures to escape from the program. Desperately needing to “hang on to his sanity before losing it”, what happens next would churn anyone’s stomach as he consumes his own faeces. The unexpected twist in the final scene left me feeling uneasy and slightly disturbed. Tien’s facial expression when we find out that his insanity and depression is an act reminded me of the ending of Shock Corridor when the main character starts laughing hysterically.
In Garden Girls, a divorced and distressed photographer finds distraction in his female neighbour’s intimacy with her girlfriend. He is fascinated by them and follows them as he captures their pictures. Instead of being outraged when he is caught, one of the girls requests him to photograph her on a very sad day in her life. Somehow, this causes him to let go of his past and find closure. Garden Girls started with great potential, but a mix of unrealistic circumstances and poor acting made it mediocre.
Mosquitoes-Xiao Fu was described as a 10-minute gem, presumably because it was shot expressively using a Super-8 camera. This was the most technically accomplished film: striking in its use of colours, music, and hand-drawn images of flying creatures, but pretty and pleasant rather than ambitious.
Probably the hardest – and longest – film to watch was Love Lost. A man finding difficulty letting go of a relationship visits Taiwan where his former girlfriend resides. Painfully long shots and extremely stiff performances made the 45 minutes seem an eternity. If it wasn’t for the filmmaker who was sitting next to me, I would have walked out! His artistic attempts failed terribly and some were too cheesy. The director clearly wanted to depict the character’s loneliness, by showing that he would rather be amongst strangers than be alone. A scenario which would be simple enough to execute, without needing to have the man ‘stalk’ a Buddhist priest for hours, asking “is there still hope?” The climax of the film was when the former lovers momentarily reunited. Again, the director’s attempt at portraying emotions using still shots with complete silence was nothing but boring and lengthy. The stills lasted for 4 minutes. The film went on for 45.