Centrality and Sidebars

by Lesley Chow

Even though its world premieres are generally limited to Singaporean films, the Singapore International Film Festival presents itself as a platform for discovering Southeast Asian cinema and launching the careers of regional directors: showing, for instance, the first retrospective of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Film festival theorists have often been critical of the way that festivals seek to individualise themselves through claims of specialist programming, while marketing all films in terms of a global humanist focus, as SIFF does in its publicity, asking us to “understand and appreciate life in its many facets” through films. However, in his work on European festivals, the critic Thomas Elsaesser (in the book European Cinema: Face to Face with Hollywood) refuses to glory in cynicism over the patterns and progressions that make up a festival’s identity. Unusually, Elsaesser is an undisturbed witness of paradoxes – tolerant of the way that an organisation might be led to articulate its own “uniqueness” in conventional terms, without an awareness of going through the motions. Elsaesser underplays, or evenly plays, the revelation of structural contradictions within the system: the tendency for festivals to “set different accents to maintain their profile and identity” whilst taking their cues from Cannes. Why wouldn’t a festival vigorously promote itself in contrast to existing alternatives – and also make a bid for international status?

In any case, SIFF has had frequent retrospectives on Filipino, Thai and Singaporean filmmakers rarely seen elsewhere, such as the ‘60s Singaporean director Hussein Haniff. In lieu of an Asian director retrospective this year, SIFF has elected to screen films that would be very unlikely to get a showing overseas: a selection from Thailand’s national cinema archive, including the oldest surviving Thai film, The King of the White Elephant (1940), notable mainly for its depiction of a leisurely, English-speaking kingdom of Siam and an elephant can-can. When I asked Rotterdam International Film Festival programmer Gertjan Zuilhof about his perception of SIFF’s demographics, he felt that international films were being programmed for the Singaporean audience, while local and regional films were targeted towards visiting cinephiles like himself. However, I assume that he didn’t mean slight, albeit charming Thai films like this!

In addition, SIFF has several enthusiastically attended programs of homegrown shorts, and one venue, the Sinema (which usually functions as a resource for independent filmmakers), exclusively screening Singapore films. However, one of this year’s much-anticipated local features, Sherman Ong’s Hashi, was a little disappointing; it was a series of women’s conversations about relationships and infidelity filmed in long takes. Judging from its bleached-out look and the recurring subject of dreams, I’m guessing Ong was going for an Altmanesque rumination on female consciousness, with identities drifting and merging into each other. It doesn‘t quite work, as a result of the self-conscious performances and the dialogue repetitions which come across as unfocused and hesitant rather than hypnotic. The film needed some kind of dislocation: a blotting, or darkening, of its themes and immaculately tasteful locations.

That brooding feeling was present in another local film, Kan Lume’s amazing Female Games, unfortunately censored and withdrawn from SIFF – let‘s hope it turns up elsewhere. After hearing a positive report from my colleague Farah Azalea – and imagining a glorious film from her descriptions – I watched a DVD copy in the festival lounge. With its synthesised sound and a camera which implies curious attitudes towards bodies – hovering just under the eyeline, or cutting off a speaker’s head to show the line of his leg – there is an odd tone to this story of two actresses trying to make it in Kuala Lumpur. One is Eurasian, the other Chinese, and in the contrast of their appearances, the film seems to be working off the frisson of two physical types, similar to the dynamic between blonde and brunette in Mulholland Drive (2001) or Femme Fatale (2002). However, while the Eurasian girl is immediately perceived as privileged and personable by casting agents, the Chinese one is neglected, resulting in the latter’s breakdown of identity. Meanwhile, the two women appear to be the subjects of a placid but voyeuristic gaze, which turns their smallest actions into a narrative of mystery, desire and loss of boundaries. I can’t think of another film which creates such a mood of eroticised amnesia, although possible reference points might be Mulholland Drive, Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman (2008) and the softcore of Tom Lazarus. The final, luxuriously slow scene casts the rest of the film as a sensual “game”.

For me, SIFF’s other major highlight was the delicious Malaysian farce Sell Out!. Yeo Joon Han’s feature begins by explicitly referencing the world of film festivals, with ever-more obscure events handing out awards in tiny areas of specialisation, and journalists trying to get quotes out of intractable auteurs. I can think of a dozen directors who might be satirised in the scene where a filmmaker insists that cinema “should reflect the boredom of real life” and hence tries to create authentically dull films. Even before its characters break into song, Sell Out! is a kind of “musical”, with its choreographed moments between a cast of entertainment reporters, arts workers and ruthless media moguls.† Characters move in and out of TV screens and theatrical scenarios; I haven’t seen such space-expanding possibilities in a musical, or any film, since Adam Shankman’s Hairspray (2007).

I loved this joyous film, especially its old-school pairing of a boyish hero with a fast-talking newswoman, and its utterly personal and unusual humour (Yeo says he “didn’t make the film for people outside Malaysia, except maybe Singapore” and wanted it to come across as “a slightly confused work.”) The film’s budget and publicity were so low-key that extras often failed to turn up, and ended up being replaced by, say, the cameraman’s wife. But Yeo made improvisation a virtue on set; apparently he raised the pitch of the songs every week, and constantly changed dialogue to weave a coherent world out of singular encounters. Everything harmonises.

The most lively venue of the festival was the Substation, its lounge a buzz of viewing stations and filmmakers discussing projects in a kind of mess-hall environment. The sense that this was an existing community being expanded to include international participants was appropriate given that one of SIFF’s two festival directors, Zhang Wenjie, is a former programmer for the Substation’s Moving Images, an invaluable program which provides exposure and mentoring for local directors of documentaries, shorts and experimental films. Screenings at the Substation came across as less of a cultural spectacle than at the National Museum or Arts House. The place seemed an extension of the local filmmaking environment, but with the feeling that via SIFF, an experimental scene was being pulled from the periphery onto centre stage.

The Substation was rowdy during a panel session for the Malaysian director Amir Muhammad, who has had several films banned in his home country, but enjoys critical support at SIFF. The informal, chatty atmosphere lent itself to a discussion of Muhammad’s work, especially since his films question the consensus on political events – this year’s Malaysian Gods investigated the arrest of Anwar Ibrahim – and make use of diverse voices to explore surrounding issues, such as the dissemination of information and the way in which people’s memories converge on certain details. Muhammad commented that he finds Singapore’s censors to be less restrictive than those in Malaysia, which is why he chose SIFF for his premiere.

That said, programmers in Singapore continue to face problems with censorship, particularly in relation to sexuality. Before the festival opened, several films I was looking forward to had already been withdrawn after cuts from censors, for reasons of “homosexual content” – for instance, the scenes of lesbian intimacy in Female Games. One film with “homosexual content” which did get a screening was Filipino director Francis Xavier Pasion’s debut Jay, about a gay male teacher who is murdered. Initially I was disturbed that one of the few remaining gay-themed films in the program featured its eponymous character only as a blood-spattered corpse, but this is a wild film with unpredictable shifts in tone. It has a stunning central performance from Baron Geisler as a suave reality TV producer covering the case, who is also gay. His machinations and wit leave everyone – including himself – unable to reflect on their social relation to the crime.

As with Sell Out!, Jay shows us emotion and extroversion ironised by the context of reality TV, while subjecting us to extreme bouts of humor and charisma. The film is too broad to make us question our reactions to the psychological conflicts generated by television, but it’s possible the director has another agenda in mind. Pasion may be mimicking the media presentation of homosexuality, in that a narrative which begins with a gay hate crime turns into an all too effective camp comedy. That the perverse transition is seamless is due to Geisler, who is as memorably glittering and smarmy as Tony Curtis in Sweet Smell of Success (1957). SIFF deserves credit for picking up this debut work, which starts off as a sledgehammer satire in its first third, before morphing into a rather more mysterious film on the nature of performance and beguilement. Overall this has been an adventurously programmed festival, with four outstanding mixed-genre, multi-language films – Sell Out!, Female Games, Jay and Malaysian Gods – defining its hybrid character for me.

† As the film shows us, there are many creative ways to sell out, such as hiring a medium to exorcise your idealism, or through a director’s selection of actors. By featuring the half-English Peter Davis as the male lead, the film addresses the issue of “pan-Asian” casting; as in Female Games, Eurasianness is seen as a commercial signifier, satisfying the public’s desire for “fusion” products in the form of multiracial actors and models.

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4 Responses to “Centrality and Sidebars”

  1. Dina Iordanova Says:

    Hi Lesley, the opening comments of your post are truly interesting to me, as the issue of sidebars and, more generally speaking, ‘festival architecture’, is of true importance. I thought to give you a reference to an interesting article which was published last year in the special issue of Film Internetional which I edited (this is the Summer 2008 edition). The text is by South Korean Soo Jeong Ahn and discusses sidebar panoramas of the work of national directors in the context of Pusan Film Festival. Check it out, my feeling it you will find some quite interesting aspects that are in dialogue with your observations on sidebars. Dina

  2. apmartin Says:

    Hi Dina

    In terms of navigating the “architecture” of the festival, it did seem that several sections, such as the Asian Feature and Singapore Short Film competitions, were in the main thoroughfare (with short films being given a surprisingly prominent place), while other programs like the Australian Film Focus came across as odd diversions or one-off architectural features, not really related to the structure as a whole.

    The question of how to place retrospectives so that they resonate with other parts of the festival, as discussed in Soo Jeong Ahn’s article, is also a difficult one. I’m not sure if it was addressed by this year’s selection of Thai archival films, or the Amos Gitai program, which both had relatively low attendance.


  3. Thoughts on Female Games | Sheylara.com Says:

    […] still is, of course, the expected love and hate reactions. But I get the impression that, on the whole, people don’t know whether to […]

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