Posts Tagged ‘Farah Azalea’

Where is the Sex?

April 25, 2009

by Farah Azalea

Up until my last day in Singapore, I was still preoccupied with the idea of the films which had been banned. I wanted to see for myself how offensive a sex scene could be for a film to be taken out of a festival filled with sexual themes. I was trying to see if I could spot any double standards in regard to homosexuality, race and religion. From viewing Melancholia, Blind Pig Who Wants to Fly and Boy, I felt the reasons for banning could be justified given their over-the-top sex scenes.

But Female Games was an exception. I was so grateful that I decided to persist in viewing this film, since it was totally booked out at the festival lounge the day before. It’s easily the best film I saw at this festival and it totally changed my perception of Singaporean films, which I found mediocre up to now. Not only did I fail to understand the reasons for the ban, I felt sorry for SIFF audiences who were denied such a pleasure.

As was the case with the other withdrawn films, this film is said to have prolonged and explicit homosexual scenes. However, the only lesbian scene in this film didn’t happen until the last ten minutes or so, and it showed two women in a candle-lit room dancing romantically and making out semi-naked with Mozart in the background. It barely lasted two minutes, and was supposed to depict a romantic loving relationship. The very few other “sex” scenes were merely suggestive (as was the case with the short films I saw at SIFF) and hardly had a lasting impact, unlike the ones in the other banned films.

What left an impact was how incredibly brilliant the entire film was, from start to finish. The plot wasn’t uncommon but incredibly realistic. What stood out for me was the style. The locations were outdoors, with dialogue drowned out by the ambient noise, as though we were witnessing a real life conversation. The shot compositions were carefully choreographed and each one carried a specific message. When a character revealed a secret to the protagonist, his figure was in half frame and his face could not be seen although his words were loud and clear. The protagonist then looked sideways towards the camera, as if responding to us watching from the other side.

Director Kan Lume breaks many Hollywood codes. Often the camera was placed on a tripod and the subject would move in and out of frame. The pace was slow but not painful, every step filmed without seeming redundant. The dialogue sounded free-flowing and natural – it was hard to imagine it being scripted.

Often the scenes were interspersed with a video interview of the protagonist, but this wasn’t cheesy or predictable. If anything, this technique threw the film off-balance a little, making it more intriguing. At the very end of the film, I was so taken aback by the progression of the plot that some minor details escaped me; I had to re-watch it to satisfy my doubts. Many plot points listed in the blurb never occurred – the director later told me to disregard the blurb, as he had no say in its wording. The film leaves you intrigued, hungry for more but at the same time completely satisfied. It was the best way to conclude the festival.

Digging Up The Trash

April 25, 2009

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.

Singapore Panorama

April 21, 2009

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.

Malaysian Gods

April 19, 2009

by Farah Azalea Mohamed Al Amin

Controversial Malaysian independent director Amir Muhammad is no stranger to the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF). He has screened most of his films here and this year he personally chose to premiere Malaysian Gods in Singapore over Rotterdam. Unlike his two previous films which were completely banned by the Malaysian censorship board, Malaysian Gods passed without cuts but was not allowed to screen. Muhammad is the first and only Malaysian to have screened at the Sundance Film Festival, and in 2006 he had the luxury of premiering two films in Berlinale. However, in his own words, Muhammad would choose an Asian premiere over a European one any time, and Singapore was the most obvious choice for him. When Malaysia banned his infamous Last Communist Standing in 2007, Singapore gladly screened it uncut, and from then on, Muhammad has often been featured at SIFF.

Muhammad challenges the norm in a conservative country like Malaysia. While most people in the arts would be very wary of addressing government controversies and political issues such as racial segregation and distribution of rights, Muhammad chooses these as his main themes. Malaysian Gods is a first for Malaysian cinema, in that Tamil is the main language featured in this film. The majority of the cast were from the ethnic Indian Tamil minority group (with the exception of a Tamil-speaking Chinese woman), who are barely represented in Malay films. The introduction of the film is a list of facts about ethnic Indian groups, which might confuse audiences expecting a film in Malay.

Prior to the screening, a panel member from the discussion led by Muhammad stated that Muhammad’s films are never to be judged based on their titles or descriptions. This film was to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the biggest street demonstration in Malaysia as a result of the sacking of the then Deputy Prime Minister on corruption and sodomy charges. While the event was a serious one that left a huge impact on Malaysian history, the film explored peripheral and at times unrelated issues rather than just focusing on the event itself. Although Indians are a minority group who are often sidelined, their small and powerful voice in the Hindu Rights Action Movement (HINDRAF) gathering last year resulted in the worst election results the ruling government has seen in 50 years – therefore Muhammad refers to them as the Malaysian Gods.

The irony in this film extended to its soundtrack, which featured a popular Malay love song being played on an erhu (traditional Chinese stringed instrument) by an Indian man in Kuala Lumpur. The next thing we hear is upbeat Bhangra music in the background as we read details of historical events followed by live footage of the demonstration. The film ended with the statement: “we must not mistake perfection for progression”.

Interview with Amir Muhammad

April 19, 2009

by Farah Azalea and Lesley Chow

A very vocal guest at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival was political documentary-maker Amir Muhammad, who has had two films banned in Malaysia, including Malaysian Gods, his current feature on the furore surrounding the imprisonment of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim. As a result, Muhammad often takes his films to SIFF; his films have also screened at Berlin and Sundance, as well as a career retrospective in Pesaro. We were curious to find out how Muhammad’s career has been shaped by the international festival circuit, especially since his work is so culturally specific, drawing heavily on local vernacular, humour, culture and politics.

Q: How important have film festivals been in establishing your career?

A: They’re good because we get money and publicity from them. But at the big festivals you become a flavour of the month and it’s difficult. If you have a small film your work can get lost in the huge selection of movies. In Berlin it’s a bit different because they have a whole section of small films. People tell you all the time, “Go and meet this white curator,” but that’s not my priority. Sometimes, though, you have to be pragmatic rather than just chasing the festivals you happen to like.

Q: So other than financially, European and US festivals are not a big part of your agenda?

A: It was important to me that Malaysian Gods have an Asian premiere, which is why I’m having it in Singapore rather than Rotterdam. You have to make a film that communicates with the people around you, even though some might think it’s an old-fashioned way of working. If you make films only for international audiences the work becomes more and more diluted.

Q: But given that most of your public screenings are for audiences outside Malaysia, does it worry you that some of your films’ political context may be lost? Do you adapt your films for a foreign audience, eg, by adding more explanation and background information?

A: I think it’s inevitable that the context may be slightly altered as I don’t think there is any such thing as a universal film. There will always be nuances that a foreign audience doesn’t pick up on; even in Japanese melodramas there are details that I’m sure only a Japanese viewer would understand. It’s a matter of striking a balance between a foreign audience and an audience who knows the subject and doesn’t want to see it explained from scratch.

Q: What has your experience at the Singapore International Film Festival been like?

A: There is a community here and I’ve met so many other filmmakers with whom I can discuss and compare issues. From what I gather Singaporean censors are a lot more “market-savvy” than the ones at home. In Malaysia if you direct a schlock comedy that makes a lot of money, you almost have more independence than a so-called independent filmmaker.

Q: What sort of criteria do you look for in a film festival you’re considering submitting to?

A: For a small production like ours, we do rely on the screening fees from these festivals and of course we would be looking for those with the right kind of exposure. But to be totally honest with you, there are times where I submit them for “vanity reasons.” The bigger the recognition the higher your chances are of getting screened at prestigious festivals.