White Days – Review
Are you feeling blue? Depressed? Or is it rather black-and-white, with a little more contrast to show? The latter in any case is what you will be treated to in Looi Wan Ping’s directorial debut, White Days, which screened at SIFF just recently. But don’t jump to conclusions too quickly about what to expect from this picture. If anything, it is strictly formula-defying. Not in a spectacular way, but laid-back and conveniently unpolished.
Two guys, Chris and Daniel, one girl, Vel, and an absence: the friend who Daniel had planned to travel to Taipei with but who got killed in a road accident such is the catalytic moment to set off a motion. It is an intervention of fate and fate’s blindness, the aftereffects of which we are made to see in this film. In White Days the result is no triangle. Rather, the film’s protagonists move in parallel and only converge temporarily over their lost friend. Soon enough it becomes obvious how Daniel is the most affected and heavily depressed by the loss that gets measured by a routine: he keeps revisiting the site to lay down flowers and seems too consumed to engage in much of a conversation besides. But there are hidden dynamics at play that continuously hint at a plot which isn’t there, and the ensuing tension is really in the picture (not the story). These three in their early twenties are matched by friendship; they bump into each other or sit down to talk the arrangement is varied and not always entirely natural; but it is intriguing to watch even so.
What fascination White Days holds for the viewer, it really originates in the extensive dialogues and occasional sermons delivered in the very local, struggling quality that so defines Singlish among the generation portrayed. Talk is dominating whatever else contributes to the meandering story, and slowly we get to know some detail about the three, their background, situation and aspirations. Vel wants to make a trip to Taiwan for it seems an attractive place she’s seen in the movies before; Chris reveals his Christian faith and he begins to explicate his motivations for what appears to have been a surprise pilgrimage to Jerusalem not too long ago. All the while, Daniel keeps silent but company with his friends nonetheless.
There are many conversations in this film. In fact, they are what it is almost entirely made of, and not all of them are terribly sharp but funny at times. They largely revolve around themes of death and faith and this small group of friends seems bound by a need to converse and console, albeit in very different fashion. Chris for one evolves into an excessive talker over the course of the film. His speech follows in the vein and phraseology of Christian evangelical push-talk, or some crude version of it, as he elaborates and improvises about his views at some length over a number of prolonged scenes. True, these can be tiring to sit through. Only, on hearing him go on and on it becomes apparent that he clearly needs the others to join him in prayer for his own consolation, and this mismatching situation is just light enough to be bearable although in between you inevitably will want him to simply shut up. As they sit crouched on a sidewalk you can also observe Daniel (the actor) struggle with his part and trying not to laugh, and since the scene is not meant to lead anywhere, anyhow, it seems oddly fitting.
Later, Chris and Daniel are flipping through a pile of pictures that Chris brought back from his very personal journey to have a first-hand look at some prominent religious sites in Israel. At some point in his monologue those images come under scrutiny for being the touristy snapshots they are and upon reflection some very rewarding doubts are voiced. Towards the end of the film Chris will be sitting on the ledge of his room’s only window, and it will be another comment on taking a leap of faith; or the camera does it for him. This is because there is some subtle widening of the shot in this one; as in an earlier scene, where there is a slow dolly movement to track Daniel’s struggle in letting go of his pain and attachment to mourn the tragic loss of his friend. These are two of only very few directorial interventions, and they are pointed, effective and clear. They compliment the temperature of a film that is not as random as it may seem, but intelligently lends itself to the play and interaction of its cast with a minimal amount of calculation and guidance.
Let’s not forget that White Days is a funny movie, enervating as it is entertaining, and this annoying quality is quite endearing. Technically speaking, there isn’t much of accomplished editing in it, or acting, or sound design, or cinematographic finesse. But its candour in showing the twisted truth of documenting pieces of performance manages to capture something about Singaporean mentality which is so common it mostly escapes our notice. This may not be terribly important; but it feels very much alive on screen and there is accomplishment in that. Eventually, it is the very down-to-earth human element (for example when Daniel opens up to Vel a bit more, and playfully) which lends a more tangible substance to the film than just its drifting charm.
The first feature-length film by any young director has special significance by definition and to follow in the tracks of whatever auteur before you poses a challenge of managing expectations. Soft-spoken filmmaker Looi Wan Ping, who has previously been noted for his contributions as DoP in different formats (Anthony Chen’s Haze among them) apparently stayed true to his temper in directing White Days. Being a low key art-house endeavour, it really is a film about windows. This is not just for the many long takes it is made of, which have a tendency to produce a showcasing or gazing aspect rather than a precise POV. Windows, more significantly, play a major part in the overall composition: Be it in Chris’ apartment or when we observe Vel working at her computer in what could be a shared office; and equally so in the void deck’s typical architecture of vistas and partial recesses that share some of the characteristics of a window frame, not incidentally. Some of these windows are actually marked as exits (mock-macabre or not) but even if not serving to that end, true enough, they have the capacity.
Looi Wan Ping has discovered something about film, one very significant propensity this medium has, which is its openness to deliver a self-revealing textual design. This quality doesn’t come with treatment nor proper construction, but needs to be given the space and some screen time to come into its own. White Days may very well be the least controlled Singaporean feature film ever, and it is in letting go that its directorial paradigm takes a minor yet enlightening flight. It is a road movie, only at a snails pace. Or maybe the marginal movement is vertical rather than to be measured in linear progress. It is timed as idleness but the workings are all there: internal, but not beyond perception and on almost involuntary display the truthfulness of surface, as the director put it in the Q&A. And really, there is no better way of describing the very essence of film.
White Days is a quintessentially Singaporean movie. So much of the place is in its people talking to one another, especially where that talk is fragmented, filled with gaps and fuelled by reluctance. It should be very interesting to see how audiences abroad, total first-timers to the Singapore experience will react. Whether they can to some extent get past that first layer (or shield) of speech should help to establish the movie’s ultimate value over time. Overall, there is a tendency to overrate the film, which is an inclination only loosely related to its cinematic merits. But then again, it successfully turns an assumed weakness into an entertaining strength and for the individual portraits it features as much as for the approach chosen, White Days is an impishly enjoyable debut that is notable for being so relaxed; and this in itself is refreshing.