by Farah Azalea
Unlike some blurbs which appear to have been written by an advertising agency, the descriptions of films in the Singapore International Film Festival catalogue were reasonably good. They were mostly brief but succinct, highlighting potential events of interest in the film, and how the film came to be selected for its particular section. I would say that the catalogue blurbs played a large part in my selection of films: that, and the director, country of origin, and the programming strand (as in, Singapore Panorama, Asian Feature Film Competition, etc.)
My colleague and I made our selections before heading to Singapore, but a few days before the festival started, the website announced that six of the films in the list had been withdrawn. To my disappointment, three of my film choices had been taken out. For the most part, these films were disallowed or passed with edits as they contained “prolonged” and illicit sexual scenes. I was lucky to be able to watch four of these films at the festival lounge, and as I ended up loving most of them. It frustrated me that the festival audience didn’t get to see such great films, particularly Female Games, which I will discuss in a later entry.
If anything, the bans just made people more curious, and I had to queue to see the withdrawn films. Blind Pig Who Wants To Fly, a young Indonesian director’s attempt at combining identity politics with pop culture, and marital issues with homosexual fetishes, would have intrigued anyone who read the blurb. My guess was that the film was withdrawn partly for religious and race issues, since Indonesia and Singapore have a similar mix of ethnicities and religions, but apply different concerns and approaches to them. But ultimately, it was a terribly uncomfortable and disturbing 11 minute ménage a trois (witnessed by a daughter of one of the participants) between grown men with fetishes for army gear that I believe was the reason behind the ban. It’s unfortunate, since a scene that could have easily been cut out prevented SIFF audiences from viewing an honest portrayal of citizens who feel foreign in their own land. The director explained the significance of a Chinese-Indonesian girl eating firecrackers as a citizen who is constantly waiting for something to blow up. He represented the fear, paranoia and confusion of minority Chinese-Indonesians who do not know how to be themselves and are constantly searching for answers. He used non-linear storytelling and built up his stories in segments, offering audiences a total panoramic experience, rather than just a beginning, a conflict and an end.
Next I moved to Boy, a Filipino story of lip-synching drag queens and dancing rent boys. The reasons for the ban of this film were not stated, but if I were to judge it by its ten minute sex scene between a young boy and a rented dancer, I would say that the reasons were similar to the other banned films. Aside from that, full frontal nudity, foul language and the continuous discussion of penis sizes and hard-ons might have seemed inappropriate for a festival like SIFF. Yet if all those scenes were taken out, it would severely affect the plot of the film. Although there isn’t anything extraordinary in a story of a boy who falls in love with a stripper, the performances were convincing and the film’s witty poetry was something to remember.
When the notes on Melancholia stated that it was 450 minutes long, I was almost certain that it was an error in the program (as was the case with a few other films), but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Shot in digital black and white, the film sounded promising from its blurb: the story of a prostitute, a pimp and a nun in the provincial town of Sagada in the Philippines. And judging from some unexpectedly amazing Filipino films I’ve seen at SIFF, I decided to give it a go. But I found the film incredibly painful, with endlessly drawn-out shots à la Andy Warhol’s Sleep. The eight hours turned out only to contain a few scenes. A character would light three cigarettes in turn, with the scene still not ending when the third one had been put out. The two sex scenes were also interminable – fifteen minutes each. Prolonged and illicit indeed.