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22nd SIFF Short Film Finalists – The Review

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Nothing Short of Spectacular
By Tay Huizhen

A total of 9 films out of 90 submitted entries make up the final list of the SIFF’S Singapore Short Film Competition. Of the 90 entries, ideas range from the fantastical in Ginseng Boy, to the edgy thriller overtones of Videotape.

With titles like Pang Sai Palace and Untitled Horror Project, we know the filmmakers went wild.

Despite the eccentric potpourri, many of these films seem to be rooted in the universal concept of individuals striving to break out of their circumstances or come to terms with their identity. There are also interesting portrayals of niche areas that are ripe for exploration, such as the idea of a Nude Beach in the eponymous film and the morbid intrigue of the funeral business in Facilitator.

Indeed, the intense competition is a testament to growing interest in the short film, and the final selection showcases an astoundingly varied range of filmmaking that each film differently captures with its own unique voice. Sinema reviews and tells you what makes these films stand out from the rest.

5 FILMS IN AN ANTHOLOGY OF A FILM A MONTH
Despite being a short, length seems to be a recurring motif of this film. Aside from the long title, a band entitled ‘Nine Inch Nails’ also provide the inspiration and music that are featured in delicate omnibus vignettes.

The effect is a pretty one. From the dreamy, Gen-X waltz of the potential lovers to the abrupt sudden techno riff that comically captures the wild fantasies of a housewife, the songs showcase a wide variety of emotions, from the solemn and forlorn, to the wicked and the enchanted.

Music is ingeniously paired with riotous dark humour in this piece, and like the finish of a full-bodied wine, complements the themes oh so well. The flourish of the audio-image pairing has the effect of a lingering, captivating aftermath. Despite the varied styles of the different tracks, the transitions between scenes are smooth, concatenating often bizarre plots almost instinctively.

DISTANCE
Distance takes on multiple meanings in exploring a grandmother-grandson relationship. A student reconsiders travelling abroad for studies when his grandmother meets with an accident. In case you were expecting a didactic snoozefest, this piece directed and acted by Ong Zheng Kai from the LASALLE Puttnam School of Film is anything but.

The focus is instead on the paradoxical frailty yet strength of the conservative Asian relationship between grandparent and child. Seemingly clichéd concepts of the generation gap are also delivered without excess despite how the weight of Zheng Kai’s dilemma is intensely projected through each scene. While there has been a tendency by budding filmmakers to reject melodrama by embracing extreme subtlety, many only skim the surface of what seems to be overly-diluted messages.

Ong however, strikes a sensitive balance in this respect, offering a valuable lesson in filmmaking. Simple, meditated close-ups that capture thoughtful acting conveys a heartrending poignancy that makes this piece a gem.

DREAMING KESTER
A child struggles against the notion of growing up, resisting the ‘adultist’ pressures of reality that threaten to impinge on the insouciance and creativity of childhood. Director Martin Hong’s choice for the film’s idea could not come in a more timely and apt fashion, amidst the backdrop of the stifling rat-race and cut-throat local culture of Singapore.

The audience follows Kester as he battles valiantly against ‘adultist tendencies’ which surrounds him. Assisted by a trusty voiced-robot, that seems to reflect the ‘child voice’, almost à la CJ7, the make-believe world that Kester is placed in is taken to extremes, as he infiltrates adultist institutions to rid the brainwashed ‘adults’ of their tendencies which in the words of Kester himself, has ‘made them so…cold’.

Dreaming Kester has an incredibly cheesy concept that works incredibly well. The employment of varied and elaborate film styles paints the imaginative, world of the child with stylish nostalgia of childhood innocence. The film is worth a watch just for the ending picturesque montage of Kester’s psychedelic childhood memories, which then transits into the mundane reality of growing up that he eventually faces. In daring to be different, and richly portraying the mind of a child helpless against the need to mature, the short film by Martin Hong is one quaint little bittersweet symphony.

HUSH BABY
If one was looking for a film that was ‘out-of-the-box’. This is it. Clocking a total of only 3 minutes, Hush Baby is the shortest of the shorts—apt, however, as it conveys, in a flash, its cheeky, fun animation of a hand playing with a baby.  The film is cute, to say the least, and is a delight to watch.

However, there is more than meets the eye if one watches closely. As the baby rests on a blank sheet of paper, it appears almost to be the product of the creative impulse, full of whims and tantrums, echoed by its cries. In passing the baby its toy, the hand feeds the capricious needs of attention and cajoling that is so demanded in any work of art including this unique film.

LEAVING ME
In sharp contrast to the melodramatics of a soap on television, a mundane, taciturn couple is juxtaposed with the amorous on-screen pair. The heated confrontations of the couple in the soap parallel the female’s desire for greater intimacy, of which the male, unfortunately, is unable to pick up. The concept which may be novel to some, is anything but new, and smacks almost of a watered down, more straightforward version of Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye Dragon Inn (2003). This is made stark by a heavy reliance on this perceived novelty, as little attention is accorded in fleshing out the main tongue-in-cheek humour that is at times forgettable.

MADAM CHAN
Likewise, Madam Chan’s twist in the tale comes with little surprise that draws strongly from the melodramatics of Channel 8 primetime serials. A disgruntled old lady, Madam Chan goes on a local tour with the Wongs, and her incessant complaints of her ‘unfilial’ daughter, while heaping praises on her son proves distressing for the latter. While Mrs Wong strikes a sympathetic figure, Mr Wong is suspicious. Despite a relatively weak idea, good casting supports this film to the very end, and Madam Chan’s ennui and painful denial is conveyed through the moving images of the Singapore skyline, rendering the story heavy with pathos.

SHINGAPORU MONOGATARI
Monogatari is a literary form in traditional Japanese literature, akin to an extended prose or narrative tale comparable to the epic. The title of the short film is thus apt, as anecdotes of the war-wrecked period in Singapore history disinters the past era.

Shot in the monochrome of black and white, the film captures stills of Singapore’s past that are juxtaposed with the moving images of the present, which parallel the narration. A particular scene recalls the Sook Ching Massacre on the backdrop of ordinary modern-day Singaporeans fishing at Changi Beach. The effect is both strangely eerie and poetic.

However, just as an epic carries with it an aura of portentous distance, so does this ambitious piece of work, which falls a tad short in capturing the ideal puissance that the idea deserves.

SINK
Picture an upright sink at the shallow end of the sea. Then picture water flowing out from the tap of this sink. This bizarre sight forms the frame of many philosophical musings of director Kirsten Tan, as the audience follows a young boy’s interaction with the sink from youth to manhood and ultimate old age. What resonates strongly is not the boys’ actions’ alone, but how they are in stark contrast to those in his adulthood, that serves up a neat binary of opposites for contemplation.

While audiences may not always catch the embedded abstract metaphors and symbols that at times border on the recondite, the cinematography alone is breathtaking and rewarding in its elegant simplicity. The pensive, reflective quality accorded through multiple dissolves and cascades renders an appropriately serene grace to the images.

SWIMMING LESSON
Like Madam Chan, there is a twist at the end of Swimming Lesson. The presentiment of an incipient revelation manifests in how the grandfather repeatedly states his views on a swimming competition. A memorable scene depicts how, amidst the bustle of preparations for her trip, the stress of the daughter ultimately mounts as her father quarrels with her over-protective mother. Cuts to her first swimming lessons portray how her difficulty staying afloat in the water parallels the stress that is faced. Engaging throughout, family dynamics are interestingly brought to the fore in this piece by director Kat Goh.

The winner of the Short Film Finalists will be announced at the Silver Screen Awards on Friday April 24th.  This annual competition is part of the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival which is on from April 14-25.  Go to www.filmfest.org.sg for more information.

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