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Fooism: Carrot Cake Conversations

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This film rounds up this year’s selection of Singapore and Singaporean-made feature films, and 2008 is certainly a bumper year crop to many of us who’ve been observing the growth of Singapore cinema culture.

Carrot Cake Conversations is the first feature film foray by new filmmaker Michael Wang, and is reminiscent of American low-budget independent films with controlled locations, small cast and the universal story of living, searching, escaping and finding. All this is rolled into the mix with a dash of a local food favourite Chye Tau Kway. Oh wait, sorry, the international market will never accept nor understand that what I mean, of course, is Carrot Cake.

What we see is a well-produced, well-packaged film that is watchable, entertaining but exists as an obvious product of bi-cultural influences. The filmmaker has carefully and calculatively planned the film from the start, including getting a cast of well-knowns from within the Singapore media-circuit, which also acts as an asset to marketing, and I am glad that his choices are appropriate. The film’s sponsorship list would put some student films’ sponsor lists to shame; the website driving the film is clever, well thought-out and creates conversation. Even the film’s overall look and feel is also suitable for its story-telling, and this demonstrates measured discipline in both cinematography and direction.

Household acting name Adrian Pang does not disappoint at all portraying his role of Matthew, trying to overcome his lovely wife’s passing. We are treated to warm fuzziness of the love between he and his wife (cameo performance by Andrea De Cruz). The poignancy could have been portrayed visually instead of verbalized. But here, I rationalize to the filmmaker’s advantage that if you’ve crafted something that the audience want more of, you have indeed hooked them. Local comic impressario Alaric Tay is seen out-of-character as he portrays a cynical yet hopeful Daniel coming to terms with his wife’s affair and his boring but affluent 9-to-5 life. He plays Daniel straightforward, as most Singaporean salarymen are, yet perplexing to me is the last shot of the film where Daniel’s state of mind and actions renews a certain child-like innocence.

Malaysian beauty queen Andrea Fonseka is Ruth, a character plying the flesh and Fender trade looking for a reconnection to her mother. Somehow the tricky bits of delivery are in her pseudo-American slurs and monotoned Mandarin lines. But I will be fair to say that every actor has their natural glimpse onscreen where they capture the essence of their character journey, and when Ruth opens her piece of paper and crosses out her ‘to-do’ list, the glimmer of onscreen satisfaction and enlightenment is heartfelt. Additional eye-candy for boys is Danielle O’Malley who plays Kate. Kate is crafted as the token free-spirit that engages the players and affects a change in them. While her performance is credible, there is a doubt of consistency in the differing Australian and American accents in the delivery.

English-language Singapore films will always have the omniscient problem of portrayal and consistency. If they are too local, the critique is it demeans grammatically correct English and promotes Singlish (which foreign distributors never understand); and if they are too American-accented, it somehow disengages the storytelling in a local context. Any business-wise filmmaker would prefer to err on the latter, which is what this filmmaker has done.

Michael’s own film background hails from the USA, having studied in the Florida Film Conservatory and worked with the likes of the American Independent filmmaking circuit in New York. His working career in the film business has gained him much worldly-wise knowledge of the film-business, something I dare say many local filmmakers fall short of. I believe he is aware of the Herculean tasks of making his own feature film, even if he had support from family for the film to be made, the going is never easy for the film to be distributed and sold.

Craft-wise, the writing is stronger than the directing and the filmmaker is aware of this. He has balanced it with the careful and correct selection of cast, marketable packaging and a manageable storyline that is relatively easy to shoot. The hurdle to make a first feature is the most important for careers in feature filmmaking. For those who are lucky enough to be able to be supported – I always feel, will be pressured to attain a higher milestone in their next movie.

To sum up my reactions to this Singapore feature film is to say that it is a measured, credible and successful effort to gain entry into the much sort-after, ‘feature-film directors club of Singapore’. I have also observed two growing groups of filmmakers; one trained locally with a penchant for things local and the other camp trained overseas, with an awareness that there needs to be a mix. We will definitely see many more coming from filmmakers of this pedigree. ‘Carrot Cake Conversations’ is a credible first outing that will pave another stone along the way.

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