SINdie: SIFF Review: Singapore Shorts Finalists – Part 1
Keluar Baris by Boo Junfeng
Think about this, isn’t it amazing that people in unequal circumstances can feel the same level of happiness. In the comfort and safety of living in Singapore, we may not feel any happier than a person trapped in poverty in Afghanistan (think The Kite Runner).
Closer to home, when national service was first introduced in Singapore and our fathers marched under the command of the imported Israeli trainers, people took to it with a sense of purpose, perhaps because 1945 was not too far away. Today, when military defense seems more distant in relevance to our lives, national service may slowly become more the personal freedom issue that the film Keluar Baris embodies.
In Keluar Baris, a young man returns after six months of exchange studies in Spain and has only two days before he enlists. Right at the point of arrival, he is already bombarded by the helplessly comic nagging of his Ah Ma (grandmother). In her uncontrollable ranting about the negative effects of alcohol consumption, it is discernible that she was just being herself – a pretty shrewd directorial decision. Having warmed up to the home ground, he began on a little journey of reacquainting himself with people and old feelings. In the car ride home, he cannot hold back his excitement to show his Spain photos to his grandmother. But the film wastes no time in establishing his nemesis, his father. Like a cold blanket, he trivializes his intentions by saying ‘don’t bother’ with showing. And he continues to burst his son’s Spain-sick bubble at home, offering militant reminders of things to prepare for enlistment.
But the young man continues his journey of reacquaintance the following day by visiting a soon-to-be-torn down National Stadium with a friend. The friend has enlisted before and bears a very different view towards serving the nation. Gazing over the weather-beaten stadium galleries, they chat about Spain, discuss Spanish swear words and then gradually return to the topic of national service. His friend recalled the times when he performed at the National Day Parade and cried patriotic tears, a feeling not fully comprehended by Daryl. If you followed the conversations carefully, it is a very complex basket of emotions. Daryl feels a little apprehensive about his impending enlistment and perhaps skeptical about what his friend has shared. At the same time, he has fond memories associated with the stadium. Coupled with knowing that after he enters the army. the stadium will also vanish together with the older chapters of his life, there is possibly a sense of helplessness. Like the older you grow, the more you can’t control things even though by measure of independence and maturity, you would imagine the opposite.
A lyrical downpour over the stadium and a contemplative final stroll through the pasar malam offer some crucial screen time to make sense of the intertwined emotions. They build up to a short-lived moment of drama between father and son. The pressure is difficult to bear and son eventually breaks down in his own room. So it seems embarking on a little emotional journey has unleashed more than he could handle. Along the journey, there were many captivating moments. Many of them had a kind of melancholic beauty, like the drizzles on the windscreen, the cascading waters on the stadium steps and the tiny whizzing plane in the distance at the end. The choice of moments reflect a strong directorial vision. However, the film faltered a little in terms of characterisation (or could it be casting?). Most glaring of all, the father seemed to serve a plot role more with his nagging presence. And army issues aside, the relationship between father and son seemed a little shallow.
But very importantly, I had trouble fully understanding the character and what he stood for? I pondered over why he had such crippling fear of serving the army especially after only spending a few months overseas? Then again, it could be simply missing the freedom. While I do not question the reality of such a strong aversion towards enlistment since it is a relative thing, I am not at all convinced of the sobful event he’s made out of his pre-enlistment hours. Perhaps if the value of the freedom he experienced in Spain was better explained in the film, then this fear would continue to live in my mind.
My Home, My Heaven by Mohd Eshyam
My Home My Heaven was my favourite at Kinofest this year actually. This is the second time I am watching it and definitely understand the story better than the first time. It also helps me remember what I liked about the film – honest feelings and vulnerability.
My Home My Heaven is about a teenager and his adjustment back to his family and religious life after his release from the prison. The story is circularly structured with a smoking conversation with a prison mate marking the beginning and ending of the film. At the beginning between them, the protagonist is awaiting his release. On the day he leaves, he looks back at his mates struggling with their push-up punishments while he heads for the exit. Then through an interesting transition playing on the similarity between the push-up position and the religious prostrate position, we at the mosque. So the concept of the transition somehow hints at the idea of religious constriction as compared to the prison.
He meets his father who is a leader at the mosque. Then after a brief acknowledgement, he returns home to spend a tender moment with his mother. In the scene with his mother and younger brother, you get a sense that still water runs deep. They communicate with hmms and the occasional monosyllabic terms, the rest are gestures that are simple yet telling. While all these were very heart-warming to watch, it was a tremendous pity about the poor lighting in the indoor scenes.
From the house, the scene returns to the mosque where the teenager has decided to work for his father. In this scene, where he is sweeping fallen leaves in the mosque. Once again, Eshyam demonstrates the magic of silent communication. In a moment when father sees the son dililgently sweeping, he strolls over. Then, with a look and momentary twitching of his body, he registers an gesture of approval.
It is not sweet but has the ability to exorcise any ill feelings they had mutually. But as the story goes, trouble has to rear its head again and it is in the form of his younger brother. They meet outside the mosque and his younger brother proudly shares with him his ‘courageous’ acts of stealing motorcycle spare parts and selling them for money. We are not sure if he is influenced again but it gives enough reason to pre-empt a soon-to-come disaster.
They continue their banter in the mosque. A donation box near them accidentally falls off the table and out spills the notes and coins. Between them, one loses himself to temptation while the other battles his own moral conscience. While the young man decides not to take the money, he finds it difficult to fend off his younger brother’s request to keep the notes for him. But they run out of time because their father soon emerges down the stairs and smells a rat.
Interrogating both brothers, he demand them to empty their pockets. With this, there was no escaping. The story then brings us back to prison and we even return to a familiar smoking scene. In this scene, his mate brings out the issue of the younger brother who if really at fault and asks him why he did not attempt to explain to his father the truth. “He(father) will not understand,” he says.
Though the camera pulled away a tad too fast for that thought-inducing statement, the meaning of it still grew on me. It condenses his feelings of being a misunderstood son and in an ironical way, sheds light on how misinformed the father is despite being one who devotes himself to religion and all the values it represents. With this film, Eshyam maturely blurs the lines between right and wrong, good and bad, allowing us to understand the nuances in a journey of redepmtion.