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The Torch: Royston’s Shorts – a critical discussion

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In keeping with your classic auteur theory, with one or two minor twists to the formula, Royston Tan has over the years grown into a director of some international standing. Winning awards and being acclaimed by critics and audiences alike is a good thing. Causing controversy and being in effect “banned at home” as a consequence sure helps as well in triggering media exposure and garnering the support of the West.

The TorchWith the release of the playfully titled Royston’s Shorts, the Asian Film Archive’s second DVD collection of Singapore short films, international audiences like myself now have the perfect opportunity to discover or further explore Royston’s work. While this collection does not include his especially (in)famous works 15 or Cut, it’s still worth a closer look — not only for diehard Royston fans but also for an audience that is generally more interested in what is coming out of Singapore film these days and what is in fact displaying a remarkable level of quality, redefining its own standards.

Now on to the films themselves, in the order in which they appear on the DVD:

Jesses

Look up the usual references and you’ll find this one classified as an “experimental drama”. Frankly, I wouldn’t even try to classify it. Rather, I’d invite you to give this little piece of film 15 minutes of attention (allowing for a straight 5-time replay).

After that you may very well discard it altogether as some private joke or a jarring jumble of random footage no sane person could probably make any sense of. On the other hand, you could just as well experience a different sort of feeling — namely, the cruelly entertaining resurgence of some of your private and hidden memories of malicious behaviour towards someone in your own past. Couldn’t that be fun, and something worthwhile to be reminded of when watching a short? I leave it to your judgement what you think and make of it — as does the film itself, which I personally enjoyed for exactly this combination of distinctive style and openness to interpretation.

Sons

What is being achieved in this short film is not little, indeed. This portrait of estrangement and ensuing solitude renders these emotions visible and turn them into directly accessible pictures that will last. In addition, the touch of out-of-timeness the director has applied to it all, elevates the personal drama between an alienated father and son to a level of almost universal appeal, turning the singular into something archetypal.

It is not the first time that this kind of generalisation has been attempted in film — Royston himself repeatedly professes this technique — and not always does the result of such an undertaking strike as entirely convincing. With Sons, the right balance in the composition or juxtaposition of text and image is not always maintained throughout its 8-minute run. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the film would fail to incite in the viewer the very feelings it portrays, for at no point does it loose sight of its principal theme. What is most outstanding is how the film treats both protagonists with the utmost sense of respect, infusing the characters with dignity rather than artificial heroism.

One further word may be allowed for, namely the obvious genetic link between Sons (made in 2000) and Tan’s second full-length feature 4:30, which was completed in 2005. Sons is something of the nucleus which five years later would be fully developed into that other film’s masterful cinematography and dazzling images. As an aside to this review, let me add that this DVD therefore offers an intriguing opportunity to have a look at the director’s laboratory, so to speak, a work-in-progress peep at some of his major themes.

Hock Hiap Leong

A young guy hanging out in his favorite kopitiam begins to reminisce about the place’s history, then the film abruptly switches gears into a 1960s-style playback extravaganza, a charmingly choreographed tribute to cherished memories and past comforts. The in-style musical performance and background cast make for a happy nostalgia — and a collection of shirts that has to be seen to be believed.

At this point there really isn’t much more to say about this short film, other than that you should take this pleasurable little journey more than just once. Then you’ll come to realise the serious effort behind this seemingly lightweight piece of film. Hock Hiap Leong speaks volumes about Tan’s instinctive take on life, on the obvious and the marginal in everyday experience, and he confronts all of this with a sense of appreciation and optimism that one doesn’t observe too often nowadays. The two main strands running all the way through his work thus far — namely, melancholy and travesty as two equally viable ways of addressing our world — become one and the same, as it is precisely their shared capacity to bring to life what is most precious, most lovable about it.

24 hrs

Read Royston’s note to this film and you’ll see why I would argue that there isn’t anything better conceived than this one in this collection. On the surface of it, it seems to be a straightforward visual juxtaposition: text (with a final closing utterance in Korean) about a densely compressed in-and-out-of-love story against a backdrop of some unspecified travel encounter, paired with a looped montage of carefully selected Korean TV commercials. This doesn’t sound like much and in a sense, it is true: this is an expressively silent, not entirely mute, but very reduced, lean and intense piece of film.

I wonder if anyone would grasp the connection between the visual and the textual in this short on the spot. But if you take your time and let it settle for a while, you might very well notice a slight but lasting smile coming across your face. You’ll probably be asking yourself what kind of magic it is that makes you feel so comfortably unsettled about this one. You might just be sensing something weirdly familiar in this everything-except-self-explanatory juxtaposition of a little episode of love doomed by failed communication and the endless (self-)repetition of fractured commercials, however elusive and subtle at first.

At this point I shall leave it to your own discretion how far you want to follow this line of thinking. Personally, I revel in such things, in art that bends back on itself and thus virtually, synthetically becomes what it is about. I see that in 24 hrs. The language of desire and love, the oldest story, which has always been a game of make-believe and shared misunderstandings, mirrored in the language of advertising and consumption — how intricate, how revealing, how real.

Mother

While this film has already been included in the Asian Film Archive’s first collection Singapore Shorts, it gains perspective here in the context of Royston’s other work. The images — a montage of some 8mm home video footage — tell of a little girl growing up in the safe haven of her family, but the voice-over narration is instead a son’s frank account of his own failed life and, at the centre of it, of his disturbed relationship with his mother.

It is a masterful short film that doesn’t ask for much explanation, just for a feeling heart to measure its weight. After taking a deep breath, you might even feel inclined to compare it to Sons. Watch them both back-to-back and take the rest of the day off, if you can!

The Absentee

This was an experimental music video made for Singapore band The Observatory’s track “Killing Time” (both of which I admit to not being familiar with). We are treated to a sequence of ten faces, seen listening to the song via headphones first with their eyes closed, than opening them to reveal eyes without pupils or with pupils turned inward. This is framed by one girl who closes her eyes at the beginning and opens them again at the end of the video. Whether you take it to signify a direct translation of sound into images and an illustration of the song, or a variation of the mind being transported by sound with you looking on, that’s exactly what this clip doesn’t want to make a clear-cut statement about.

I would only add that in strictly focusing on the human face and playing on well-known patterns of commercial aesthetics as well as treating its own surface structure as an object within the film (or an additional layer), The Absentee indeed has its own subtle intricacies that call for attention and make for an interesting visual quality matching the music. It is however certainly not to be regarded as this collection’s central work.

Previous columns in “The Torch”: On real love, In the crux: subtitling, Can we sell it in pieces?, Bridging the gap, Introduction

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2 Comments

  1. Johnaturn
    3 March 2007 at 12:13 am

    hello there..

    Royston’s abilities as a director cannot be doubted. We all know him as one of the leading and most promising figures in singapore cinema.

    I personally think that Royston’s Shorts, is a great portfolio showcasing some of his many shorts, some award-winning, some not, but they are all unique and touch different audience in their own way.

    While I personally think that there is much a film maker wants to tell to the audience, shouldn’t a filmmaker tune his work towards his or her target audience?

    I am not hinting that Royston’s works are not target oriented but what I am trying to put across is, how Royston, through his shoots, which are not commerically released (minus those in “Royston’s shots”),reach his target audience or for that matter, the greater audience. We all know that many of his films are shown at international film festivals, local film showcases, sometimes on tv(a rarity these days), he does school visiting etc.

    However, I feel that many of the films, especially short ones, from most very talented local directors do not reach the general audience, well, relative to mainstream films(Jack Neo’s Jteam’s whole line of movies).

    Like I’ve mentioned above, I feel that a film would work only if it reaches the audience and instil in the audience, what the filmmaker wants to say. It is like a loudspeaker of sorts, but instead of vibrating the eardrums, it vibrates the mind, the heart and the soul.

    So.. where in the cinematic world, at least in the local scene, does arthouse masterpieces,like those by Royston, exist.

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