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The Torch: “Royston’s Shorts” – A critical discussion (part 2)

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Read part 1.

To resume, my review of Royston’s Shorts …

The TorchThe Blind Trilogy

This film derives its imposing name by being composed of three long takes: “Cosmopolitan Theatre”, where we see a cleaning woman enter the empty rows of a cinema and look at the blank screen at the front; “Old Parliament House”, where an elderly man takes in the atmosphere of that awe- and thought-inspiring people’s chamber; and “Blind Girl”, with its young woman standing in a park.

Each of these shots is particularly well-composed and distinctively coloured, and each features just once in the four rounds of visuals. How they make an impression is largely by the musical score or sound that accompanies them: an old-fashioned Chinese musical theme hovering through the air of that nostalgic cinema, bits and pieces of sound-clips from past debates and speeches lingering inside the walls of Parliament House, and the “green noise” of a precious moment in an urban park, a spot of nature preserved from the encroaching city and pierced only by the noise of an aircraft.

One certainly has to acknowledge the sheer beauty of these scenes in themselves, the almost synesthetic quality that they are imbued with as sound and music converge with their images and let us partake in the protagonists’ musings, feelings and perceptions. At a deeper level, they can also be seen as three very clever emblems of the incongruous powers of sight and imagination.

But in the end I have to say that the montage as it is fails to convince me of its inner logic, and I’m not speaking here of any straightforward rationale. It is simply that I am not sure whether this arrangement of some very likeable pictures in blank succession is connected to some sort of latent necessity, some undercurrent or self-sustained force other than its aesthetic measure of refinement. The Blind Trilogy’s isolated parts hardly complement each other to achieve the state of wholeness that I expected — such as you have in the unfolding of a masterly crafted fan, which only in full display reveals its higher state of completeness. To me the segments sometimes even seemed to lose some of their intrinsic appeal by being split up and aligned in this artificial manner.

In order not to give an altogether negative impression of this short film, however, I have to admit that it fascinated me a great deal. It was only on repeated viewing, when trying to determine the core substance of the film, that I felt that it didn’t make a point of anything. I have no problem with films that lead us exactly nowhere or require association rather than understanding. But when I’m pouring a good wine into a glass, I want to know beforehand that it will hold its contents, and not discover only later that it was bottomless from the start.

Careless Whisperer

Here you have a spectacle of serious fun — that is, if you’re one to enjoy slapstick as well as travesty and are blessed with a genuine sense of absurdity. All these are key ingredients of Tan’s brand of humor, a very entertaining display of which can be observed here.

A teenage boy of splendid inauspiciousness hopelessly, helplessly falls for Pinky, who is as proper a girl as you could wish for — the two of them every bit as much the impossible couple as they would make a perfect match, according to the dazzling logic of this film. Following his friends’ advice to apply some workable magic to his efforts of showing his beloved how he feels, the protagonist turns to singing a song for her: “Sing song!” — a very uncompromising instruction, indeed. The film’s a bit mean, its style is recognisably Royston’s and it’s damned funny.

Here at last seems the right place to point out the director’s commentaries to you, as they offer interesting or helpful footnotes to the films. On this occasion, you will learn about some technicalities of making the film. What it doesn’t tell you anything about, however, is that one very special detail that you better had take a close look at yourself — namely, the best way to make efficient use of your film’s (limited) cast!

New York Girl

This film is a close-up and personal recording of a young Singaporean actress’s dreams and aspirations for her professional career as she is confronting the camera in an audition. It works to the effect of capturing her perception of self, her affected attitudes and vanity. As her performance runs on, the individual beneath the conceited public persona starts to shine through, giving us more of a credible character than there was at the start.

In emotionally unravelling in front of the camera, her representation of self gains considerably in depth as well as in detail, rendering her three-dimensional in a sense. And at this point you could, if you were so inclined, begin to read this 10-minute monologue as a paraphrase of some of the defining elements that in the era of mass media constitute modernity. On viewing New York Girl, you will feel tempted to ponder just what exactly the relationship is between self and your image thereof, how much of who you are and what you do or wish for actually originates in your own innermost being or is defined instead by borrowed dreams and somebody else’s reading of reality.

In the end it is up to you to decide how far you want go in taking this as a serious effort on the director’s part to create or capture something that transcends the obvious. Placed in context with Tan’s other works, I have no doubt that this film is not denouncing its character or viciously making her into a cheap target for outright ridicule. That would be a complete misreading of pretty much all he’s done, something well without his capacity as an artist. Whatever degree of voyeurism there is in this film (or in 15 for example), it is never self-serving or defamatory but always imbued with an acute awareness of dignity and humaneness on a very personal, almost intimate level. At times he can be drastically naive in this — something that for me more than anything else accounts for what I love most about his films.

Monkeylove

This film is a visualisation of some of Tan’s recurring themes set in the wintry landscape of Hokkaido: an abstraction of sorts on loneliness and displacement, of love lost and the painful awareness of the impossibility to make good on a failed human connection. The characters in this film are pared down to mere vignettes, coming at you in the shapes of (or passing for?) monkeys and rabbits. All of this makes for a very convincing and entertaining inner landscape of something probably best described as an emotional cartoon.

A “Monkeyboy”, as he is called, his heart lost to someone whose name he doesn’t even know, is ambling about in the snow, searching through the garbage, running around with a red flag and holding fast to a lighter. This particular item and the little story around it forms the core symbol of the entire piece. Without betraying it entirely, let me just say that it’s simply wonderful how something that is sad can be that funny at the same time. On top of that, the scene in which the red monkey and his counterpart, the white rabbit (well known to those familiar with the Royston Tan universe), are trapped in their respective cages is for me is probably the most memorable scene in this entire DVD collection.

There are two aspects of this masterful short that I’d like to point out. First of all, there is a striking variation to be observed in the way that an emotional setting which the director has explored before is presented here. The experimental style of two different visual strands of representation in this film, alternating between rather glossy passages and shaky shots taken with an old handheld video camera, have been conceived by the very landscape they were taken in. Clearly Tan is reassessing and working on his concept of visual beauty — and challenging ours along with it.

Secondly, it is worth commenting that this time around the director actually chose to enter the picture and become a part of the tale he is telling. The bringing into view of the director and his old Canon handheld camera, together with quotations from his earlier works, serve as a powerful point of self-reference that virtually doubles the film’s essence: never before has he posed the question of the relationship between the artist and his work, between fiction and what it is grounded in (and relates to!) with such striking force — although something like this has never been too far away and has in fact, in his earlier films, already been latently present as a possible further dimension to his directorial style.

To sum it all up: together with Sons, Monkeylove is in my estimation the best work included in this DVD.

Afterthoughts on the DVD collection

Be it Tan’s peculiar sense of humor, his natural use of music and sound, or his genuinely subversive approach to what he observes and renders into film, there can be no arguing about the enormous creative force apparent in almost every single one of his films. Besides, they are extremely entertaining at that.

Tan’s films call for a reaction. With all the variety they offer, and despite one’s personal preferences, it is hard to imagine that anyone could remain altogether indifferent to them. They are simply to powerful to not impact or even impress you on some level.

At the end of this, several questions ultimately come to mind: Is there anything in this collection that binds it all together? Can one convincingly distill an overall essence out of the disparate pieces? Does Tan have an agenda? Is there a distinctive, unique style that makes his films “recognisably Royston”, so to speak?

Well, in my view this is too early to tell. Of course there are recurring themes to be found in the entirety of his work and in his best works, he manages to complement and enhance these by matching them to images of outstanding beauty and power. At the same time, a great and simple joy, a readiness to cherish life as it is (or once was or should be, for that matter) cannot be overlooked; Hock Hiap Leong or Careless Whisperer come to mind. And most of all, a willingness to take it all on as (child’s) play is equally part of the full picture, and poses no contradiction at all to the seriousness of the effort.

In all of this, Tan always achieves to make the fullest impression when being most direct, most straightforward in his telling. Maybe in some years’ time, some of that will come out more clearly. It will be interesting to see how his seemingly sound belief in the consistency of surfaces and the significance of the apparent further develop, and how he will expand character-building and the use of narrative plot in his films in the future. Certainly there will be a great deal of interest in identifying any form of political statement in his work, since all art has to answer to the conditions under which it is conceived.

Finally, I have to say that I didn’t expect this DVD to be quite that good; and at this point I haven’t even said so much as a word about the bonus material that it also provides, which runs to a total of an additional 30 minutes. I leave it to you to discover the wealth of information offered there.

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