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SINdie: 5th Singapore Short Cuts: Week 1

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The 5th Singapore Short Cuts kicked off last Saturday at the National Museum of Singapore and with the new films were old favourites from the yesteryears curated by The Substation.

1.jpgLorong 27 by Kenny Tan
The story goes like this. Local boy picks up Ang Moh (British) boy from the airport and hosts him like in somekind of an exchange program – in the heart of Geylang. He is then swiftly introduced to various loud characters that make his imagintaion run wild, imagining that they would rob or kidnap him, so instead of keeping his bag in his room, he brings it along everywhere he goes. So, as a pretty expected plot development, he is robbed and beaten up. In the end, he learns a painful lesson – to look beyond the surface of people and appreciate them for who they are inside.

Yet, it is the`surface’ of the people in Lorong 27 that made this film interesting to watch. This is already a pretty old film; it must have been programmed in the 1st or 2nd Singapore Short Cuts; so it is interesting watching it now because you can look back and marvel at how local film acting has evolved, or perhaps how people are portrayed in local films.

Catherine Sng stood out as one of the loudest characters. She was the kopi-soh and actually the owner of the coffeeshop where Brit boy had his first culture shock. Like a machine gun, she punched her self-introduction across to him while serving him a plate nasi-lemak. In a nutshell, I think Phua Chu Kang was still popular then. She had a lot of Rosie Phua in her with her over-the-top but well-meaning crudeness. When you had too much TV in the collective social consciousness of Singaporeans, this is the kind of cultural assimilation you end up with. But with more and more local directors’ voices heard over the years, it is heartening to know that our characters have matured together with the growing filmmaking circle.

Equally remarkable was the leggy, rebonded-haired, porcelain-skinned Ah Lian who helped out in the coffeeshop. Reinforced by bottom-up camera angles, her drama-queen behaviour really belonged to the stage or again, Phua Chu Kang. Even in her quieter moments, like when she treated the wounds of our robbed Brit boy, she spoke through an adopted accent and timbre that her sound like she actually speaks good English in her natural self. It was not clear if she worked ‘night shifts’ in Geylang though the camera seemed to suggest that with close-up shots of her glossy shaven legs. But her ditzy behaviour worked against the possibility of her being a ‘social’ worker. This made her character very incongruent and even more difficult to bear since she was to deliver the moral of the story.

Halfway through Lorong 27, it was clear that this was more like a tribute film to the crass things we have grown attached to which have also come to define us as locals (hence, the use of caricatures and a `stagey’ mise-en-scene). By this I mean the funky titles over hawker food frames, music-video style jumpy cuts, red-washed hallucination scenes (a la `Eating Air’ by Kelvin Tong) and even the guy who rode the bicycle down that lane singing `Geylang Sipaku Geylang’. If you think about it, the style is very similar to `15′ and `Eating Air’, (both films were also made around the same time). I read last year in the Chinese papers that a Hong Kong director commented that Singapore films still lack ‘film strokes’ in their style and have too much ‘TV’ in their blood. He was watching the wrong film – 881. Honestly. I think we have moved on since the days of ‘Lorong 27’.

Having said that, there was one character that resonated with me in a very palatable way. It was the gangster leader. Timeless and almost an institution, this was one caricature that I feel would not look out of place in the current film scene’s context. The tacky dressing, the oily complexion, the exaggerated mannerisms and that ear-drum bursting voice had been consistently seen throughout our little island’s film evolution (more to be seen this August with Money No Enough 2). And this was a good gangster by the way, natural and able to deliver enough oomph, making me believe Kenny (though no Jack Neo or Royston Tan) certainly has a way with directing an Ah Beng.

2.jpgPontianak by Raihan Harun
Can you name one local short film of a horror genre that was actually scary to you? I can’t really. There are not many local horror shorts to begin with. In the recent 48 hour film project, the 2 team assigned `horror’ barely created a nanometer of goosebump on my skin. Pontianak is the first scary local short film I dare say!

Told in a non-linear fashion, Pontianak opens with the death rituals of a woman (the protagonist’s wife) performed by the relatives. It turns out that was set a few years back and it is a stubborn memory that is haunting the male protagonist. And so, his untameable conscience takes him on a spooky trip that unravels his dirty secrets and misdeeds to his wife when she was still alive. What made it so scary? Let me recount it for you.

The eerie drone of the religious death ritual chants draw us straight into the grief of the situation. A woman has died and her mummified body is reposing in a room on a straw mat. A small group of ladies wrapped in their hijabs are deep in silent prayer. The camera shoots point blank at the corpse whose pasty white face is the only thing revealed in the mummified body, like a Russian doll. Against the chanting, it is a spine-tingling sight. The mother surreptitiously carries out a few superstitious practices like putting a nail in the corpse’s mouth to prevent the deceased from turning into a pontianak (female ghost). This does not escape the sight of the husband who starts an argument with the mother. This is the point where we learn of his dark infidel past, an establishment of a guilt-ridden conscience that is the basis of the film.

Years later, the daughter whom his wife had risked her life giving birth to has grown up. But she is another part of the fear-factor. The combination of trained hands in make-up and cinematography together with rather sensitive directing made the diabolical state of the daughter very believable. The same applies to the Bomoh scene, which logically should be the scariest scene in the film, but it was also very liable to ending up like TV, which milks the exotic in order to hold your attention. Exotic it certainly was, but tacky it was not. The Bomoh, adeptly played by Gene Sha Rudyn, went from embodying the spirit of the infidel husband’s wife to convulsing in a sudden state of struggle. Without excessive interference from the all-too-common horror ambience music, the scene was quite disturbing.

I am not a frequent watcher of horror, so I get spooked easily. The last time my friend shared with me about ‘The Ring’, I avoided TV sets late at night, without actually watching the movie. But from the rare few horror movies I have watched, I am inclined to believe good horror is a combination of the back-story and moments (of scare). The latter is always easier to create because it is about generating a reaction. The former is a little harder beacuse it is about planting a thought that would haunt over a longer time. The penultimate scene in Pontianak dishes out the dirty secrets of the husband and makes him remember that his wife died in grief knowing of his infidelity. My only grouse is that this back-story could be even more vividly explained or dramatised. Instead, it took an convenient escape of putting it into a frenzied montage culmintaing a repeated motif – the husband’s nightmare.

How do you end a horror story if you only had 15 mins to tell it and try to scare people? Well, I think Pontianak’s got the answer – end it with a question. And to do justice to the film, I will speak no further about the ending.

3.jpgLim Poh Huat by Lee Wong
The documentary Lim Poh Huat has demonstrated one distinction between films and TV. Films can change lives. Fans of local independent films who followed its development through the years would be familiar with Lim Poh Huat. It belongs to an era of films like My Secret Heaven by Sun Koh, 15 by Royston Tan and Birthday by Bertrand Lee. His name first became familiar to us through this documentary, and the fame he recieved from the documentary proved to be the turning point of his part-time `kare-leh-fare’ acting career.

Lim Poh Huat has a full-time job. He works as a security guard in a building and has settled down in his job with a mixture of ownership and resignation. He lives in a spartan-looking, shabbily decorated HDB flat all by himself. What keeps him alive and glowing with a palpable sense of child-like charm? I would not say it is his part-time acting escapades, but rather his ability to cherish and celebrate the little and sometimes banal achievements in life, like winning a bronze medal for blood donation.

By the time I was halfway through the documentary, I could fathom why it worked as a classic that is worth rehashing. My guess is in the choice of subject. If you work in the media production circle, Lim Poh Huat is both an obvious and not-so obvious choice for subject matter. He is obvious because his eccentricity and comically skinny frame makes him stand out. But he works in an not-so-obvious sense as well because he is just an extra – an overlooked commondity in show business. Lim Poh Huat is more than eccentric. He is devoted to a few good-natured beliefs about life and beneath the constricted rib-cages, he has a big heart.

The director made him cover a fair amount of ground. He began by sharing what he has done as a part-time extra, drawing a few initial ice-breaking laughs about his roles as a criminal and rapist. Then, it got deeper when he started on why he has been a part-time extra for so many years on top of his security guard job. Simply, it’s his social outlet and a form of self-improvement. And why not? it’s free. No, in fact, it pays (peanuts though). And from his account, for negligible screen time, he has to wait hours for the actual take. And very obediently, he chooses to wait till the whole shoot is over to follow the chartered air-conditioned bus back to Mediacorp. Though never questioning the arduous effort he puts in for a bit of screen time, I cannot help but notice a sense of bittersweetness in his account. Or perhaps this is accentuated by the fact that the documentary has established him as a slightly oddball character. Undoubtedly, the documentary succeeded in creating a poignancy of this nature.

Life is still fair in the long term for he has found episodes of fame in his life when he was interviewed by the press. In the documentary, he proudly holds up his press cuttings and shares the details of what the press has written, including his accounts of sperm donation. We are once again reminded of his pride in little achievements, possibly the moral of the story in this documentary. At a certain point later in the docu, he explained in a composed manner the reason for his sperm donation – that if he did not marry, he hopes to someone else will pick it up and somewhere in this earth, a child or two will bear his likeness. Embedded in this explanation is a sense of resignation as well. A few scenes before this, with a straight face, he shared the qualities that his ideal wife should have, only to burst his own bubble with an acknowledgement that many girls these days hold degrees and will not go for lowly-educated people like him.

At the prize-giving dinner for blood donation, while his brothers sang praises of his donating act (rather comically), his mother had nothing better to say other than to hope he gets married. I have an inkling that the girls who would give him a chance would probably not read a review like this or watch a documentary like this, but for those who watched it, don’t you think he’s actually quite handsome from certain angles?

4.jpgEmbryo by Loo Zihan
The gentle balmy pulsations of water leads us into a mysterious world, seemingly forbidden. A young girl in a school pinafore finds herself in the dimly-lit confines of an old school. All around her is just bare walls that seem dank and mouldy under the superimposition of the sound of pulsating water. Somewhere down that echo-ey corridor is a room where the first sign of life has permeated through a small opening. A turgid, broad-leaved, crawling plant arches itself into a slide that barely kisses the concrete in the room. Fresh, juicy and virile, it hangs there, waiting for attention. And this is where a journey begins.

Embryo is symbolic visualisation of a process of discovery. Sexual innuendos aside, I believe the director left it ambiguous to retain a space for more personal interpretation. Like a pandora’s box kind of fable, she discovers, she touches, she gets her hands wet, she experiments and soon find herself in more surprises than she can handle.

From the confines of the room, she find herself out in the open next. Making a titular reference, the girl discovers a grass-lined courtyard dotted with eggs. Her natural instincts compel her to collect them like they were her babies and in a rather maternal gesture, she uses the skirt of her pinafore as a basket to contain the eggs, visually undermining the modesty of her uniform. Then comes what I thought was the most brilliant and image of the film (possibly the one I would remember it for). Still cupping the eggs with her skirt, she briskly treads through the a door with a series of shut classroom doors. But one by one, water gushes out through the slit at the bottom, like a malevolent tide that is about to engulf her. And there was a clever shot at the end when the camera shot the water at ground level, accentuating the tide.

I had a question towards the end though. The girl finds an old-fashioned basin of water in another room and she starts soaking the eggs in it. Shortly after, she colours the water with drops of red paint, making the eggs look like they are soaking in blood. Did it symbolise an attempt to nurture or to destroy? I thought it could work both ways because the different ways you could manipulate the imagery of blood.

Interestingly, Embryo is a piece of contradictions. It is visually bland but suprises with the occasional burst of colour. It walks the thin line between innocence and taintedness. And finally, it is thematically ambiguous though if you analyse, narratively very straight-forward.

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