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SIFF Review: After The Rain by Royston Tan

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As a fore to the documentary Keronchong For Pak Bakar, SIFF screened one of Royston Tan’s latest short films, After The Rain. Although it has been accessible for quite a while now at the Army Museum of Singapore (ARMS), there hasn’t been much coverage so far; and that’s a mistake.

atr1.jpgI wasn’t expecting this 13 minute piece to be much, I have to admit, a commissioned work done on the sidelines rather – or so I thought. But let me tell you that this one short film is a must-see.

A young boy, Peng, is pulled away from his little world, the small scale Pulau setting of animated wonders framed by unperturbed greenery. It is a paradise of sorts that he has to leave behind as his father, who serves in the army, and the whole family with him are to move to the city one day. On parting with virtually all the world he knows, his father shares a piece of wisdom with him: there is always sunshine after the rain. About eight years later, when himself enlisted into the army and his father now ailing in what appears to be a serious condition, he vividly remembers those words; and with them, and the reinforced meaning they’ve grown alongside the boy’s own adolescence and current situation, a light happens to shine through. And that’s basically all the story there is – minimal, but certainly on par with the very best Royston Tan has done so far.

atr2.jpgI am really awed by this one, the radiant beauty captured in every single frame, beginning to end. Don’t let yourself be fooled by all the obvious tenderness in this short, or the photographic softness plus very dramatic score of some elaborate strings accompaniment: a taste of sweetness is originally meant an indicator of all things good in life – and becoming, if not excessive. Here it is never excessive, because the way this is done, the masterful handling of subject and, more importantly, the treatment of memory formation on visual terms is simply too good. So good it is that you might think the kind of insight it offers has been with you all along – when truly it has not?

After making his round of good-byes to his best friend Ming and the places dear to him, when he is obviously already adapted to his new environment a while later as children easily can, the young boy is seen joyously rushing home. And then there is one of those flawless wipe cuts quite typical of Royston Tan’s style, which is well timed and makes for a swift and easy, a remarkably understated transition a few years ahead in time. Now he’s a grown-up, cutting a fine figure as a freshly uniformed soldier in National Service, and confidently heading the same way: back home to where he belongs. There is nothing sentimental about it, just a very simple truth rendered visible in a perfectly balanced and controlled manner, which gives you a sense of importance, no weightiness, but the kind of deepened awareness of things you may come to register only on the rarest of occasions. It is one of those moments when you can almost watch yourself grow as you become more understanding and appreciative, a little more of a mature man. And it is captured beautifully, with an astonishing ease and very natural.

atr3.jpgWhen you watch closely you will notice how there is a real effort behind space representation, which is more than just the mere placing of things and people, but a key composition element. In After The Rain the treatment of foreground and background relation is always an issue, allowing for that meticulously timed shift of focus which generates depth as well as a feeling of embeddedness, the impression of an image interior inhabited by the protagonists.

Overall, it is striking how evenly paced After The Rain is; the editing is tight and always making meaningful choices. Frame composition is classy, more like scrupulous photography, with precisely chosen lines of sight which are in essence directorial lines of access into the picture, and an occasional tempered camera movement, just a single minor pan here and there – all of it done in a modest way that doesn’t betray the simplicity of theme.

The level of refinement that’s gone into After The Rain is very impressive but not blindingly so, and that’s the beauty of it. Blending and crossfading plus a measured layering, or superimposing of images (like you had with a matte cut effect when they still used real film stock to shoot) are used to pointedly bring out inner thought and emotion processes without flattening their complexity. In fact, the very intricacy of the cinematic expression effectively visualises just that; and for the connoisseur can add a tasteful patina even, side-referencing the digital age ramifications while renewing the history of the art of filmmaking. And it doesn’t stop there; many more elements of the filmmaker’s well-assorted repertoire can be easily identified, and without fail they are being put to good use to relate the film’s content.

atr4.jpgIn After The Rain it is the distribution of such techniques, the very delicate and intelligently informed way of doing it, what makes all the difference: this short film is engineered with true mastery of skill; it has always what it takes to achieve the aimed-for effect and never a bit more. It is never showy, just perfectly done. And yes, we’ve seen all that before – only never so gracefully applied. This kind of assured instrumentation is rare and carries the entire film almost by itself, like a mighty river running well and secure in its meandering bed of carved out rocks.

After The Rain is simply beautiful; it shows Royston Tan at the top of his craft. To me, this is his best take on narrative cinema yet, the most mature he’s come up with to date, the closest he’s ever gotten to assorting his skills into a visual plot. He now seems irresistibly headed for the bigger, more sweeping composition. Moreover, this short film in my estimation bears the very hallmarks of his future style; and the first time we saw it, the first time that it was fully displayed (not just a glimpse) was in After The Rain. If he is set to become a narrative director, then this is a breakthrough for him and a turning point in his career as a filmmaker; probably not recognised by many – but you reading this review!

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