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Singapore Panorama Shorts 2 – Review

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In 2008, SIFF successfully introduced a new section to its programming, called Singapore Panorama. That year, local film production was at a peak and there really was a lot to show. Going into its second year, the test was now whether there is enough substance to justify such special selection, or whether it amounts to little more than filling. Since numbers aren’t too important and short film making is well alive in Singapore by good tradition, to throw in more shorts in two out-of-competition packages seemed an obvious enough choice. Here is an evaluation of the second bonus programme: Panorama Shorts 2.

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Sun Koh is no doubt a seasoned director in her own right and has gradually built a reputation for the seminally remote, the experimental fun side of filmmaking in some of her work, including the Lucky 7 project which she helmed last year. With her latest short film, titled Dirty Bitch, she presents a wilfully jagged, spicy and in-your-

face quote on film quotation that results in a question mark: three acts on sanity – and what remains?

Dirty Bitch obviously falls into that fashionable column of short films that mostly exist for their spectacle. That is what they set out to present, and the message can be cathartic or rebellious, but it is always a reaction to something. So it is with Dirty Bitch. There are no characters in this one, nor does it bother to profess any psychological observation that would require serious analysis to probe beneath the surface – everything here is meant to be read at face level.

A pair of siblings is shown, brother and sister, in a violent pas de deux of hatred and self hatred through their apartment after she returns pregnant from studying abroad. The designated “slut” or “dirty bitch”, Jen, tries for an abortion, and that’s where the film mutates into a musical segment and sadistic fight with the gynaecologist over the morality of the whole issue. Lastly, Jen goes for her interview at a law school, only to make the discovery that it is a panel of petty debauchery that is going to pass their verdict and decide on her future.

All of this is one cut above your Jack Neo satire, playfully precise in its use of clichés, and there is some obvious production value in it as well; and yet, the exact montage and style has been encountered before and much to the same end – only a lot more powerful (and somebody please kill that bloody white rabbit; well, that has almost been achieved in this one, I admit). “Anything for perfection” is the film’s motto, and what follows can be read in full as a memento to own up to one’s imperfections.

Set against Singapore’s glossy postcard harbour front image, not even the Merlion is spared, and the general impetus becomes very clear. However, though the short lashes out against a narrow-minded bourgeois mind set, against censorship and hypocrisy, there is no freshness, no force in it that is youthful and credible. On the part of its message, Dirty Bitch feels like a hangover breakfast, no wake-up call. Even so, the film is worth multiple viewings, for it is not as randomly pieced together as one may first assume. Pacing and voice over are well trimmed, and together with a good choice of score and voluminous sound design they generate a sexually charged atmosphere right to the point of suspense and a well-calculated morbid appeal.

Maybe this is all that this short film aimed to achieve, or maybe some crucial linkages have been deleted (for appropriate reasons?). A feeling of severe puzzlement may leave some viewers indignant – and others wishing for something more risky, more profound and simply: more film – Cut! Dirty Bitch is an inconsequential short film that features more entertaining routine than thought provoking punch – unless, that is, this review should prove otherwise.

Infinity is the collaborative effort of a group of eight filmmakers who came up with six experimental videos under the trigger term of “infinity” to challenge and explore filmic perception. Since film by its very nature invariably deals with the passage of time, and since infinity is rather hard to condense into just 15 minutes, if not impossible, these filmlets would pinpoint the basic components of permutation, of changeability or duration, all pretty elemental and potentially enlightening aspects of the medium, for sure.

Let it Snow by Ming is a whimsical video that shows chewing gum marks on a pavement and thus snow as a horizontal occurrence. Here, cause and effect are all in the pace and the stride of the observing pedestrian; which is mildly funny but completely linear, as the camera eventually terminates in front of a glass door to acknowledge the authoritative reality of objects as things. Time Without End by Gözde + Russel Zehnder sees a newspaper selling auntie seated at her table in a time-lapse shot with the flux of ordinariness and city bustle rushing past like a veil of insignificance. Again, this piece comes to an end and will seem like a comment on newsworthiness that is really a tad too plain.

Next is Womb by Victric Thng, which isn’t as trivial but expands on the motif of illusion by not just adding a twist to standard viewing. Instead, a monochrome expanse of water with a small ship travelling left to right is doubled up against the horizon. The mirrored image now has the water-bound object flying through the sky as a plane in opposite direction – and sure enough, the resulting hourglass gets turned over and over again. In combination with a sustained underwater soundtrack this produces a controlled hypnotic effect that is almost mechanical, but could also serve as visual wellness.

Untitled by Lillian Wang offers a 360 degree pan and voices from the centre that solely for the gentleness of their conversation softly stroke over the subject of sickness, aging and death. And by the time the inventory has come full circle to rest on the slight ventilation that plays with a curtain and sunlight, you recall that it is the ingredients (and their balance) that make a film. This one can rightly be called elemental and stands out among the rest as convincingly filmic. By comparison, Still Life by co-directors GreenJune, offers a behind the scenes glimpse of a group of filmmakers recording the sound and stillness of their shoot, nothing more.

As the set empties out, so does the short video message – but without generating much silence, tension or impact, we’ve seen this before. Finally, with Nothing is Forever by Yeo Lee Nah, the series comes to a rather entertaining close. With this montage video we see the camera and editing equipment getting back into operational mode as a selection of most ordinary actions, like pouring water into a glass or cutting food on a plate, are tweaked against the logic of depletion and consumption, showing infinity at work.

To sum it up, Infinity is not another Lucky 7, shrunk to fit a short. It is the somewhat forced name for an experimental container, and maybe it fits in as much as infinity (literally speaking, not as a theme) is nothing but an aberration of the linear. But it has to be said that as a short film, these assembled videos just aren’t overly original and, with the sole exception of Untitled, not sufficiently immersed in the medium.

Not quite as much needs to be said about Garden Girls by Rick Aw, a narrative short film that, unfortunately, has little more to tell than the title. Two girls in their early twenties are lightly in love and spend their days at the family pool or in the Botanic Gardens, in front of a pond or beneath an artificial waterfall, until cruel fate or randomness separates them as one of the pair goes abroad to study. On their last day together they try to have a good time, frolicking like the kittens they apparently are, and don’t mind being observed and stalked by the rich girl’s neighbour, who is a photographer with marital problems, so we are told. Later, as the abandoned one (Magdalene Tan) in her love-sickness and dejection needs some consolation she conspires with her neighbour (Sunny Pang) in a tour of re-enactment to ease the pain; and from this lonely shore no wisdom reaches any further than floating apples…

This lesbian lost love episode is nowhere near convincing, has no psychological detail and, paradoxically enough, is mired in shallowness. It is terribly written, all dialogue stale and unimaginative, the emotional curvature stays flat throughout and what scenic unfolding there is gets used up by the most straightforward and superfluous repetition. On top of this, the cut and dried female typification prevalent in this short obliterates all need for analysis and is real painful to watch. It is astounding to see how capable actors like Sunny Pang and Magdalene Tan can be used to such disadvantage and give stale performances for lack of character substance. Even those supposedly intimate scenes between the two girls on the day that all was well do not add up, and their mutual affection, let alone erotic attraction, does not transpire in the least. If any further proof was needed that vacuity on a page can not be redeemed by pretty pictures, Garden Girls provides it.

The army themed short Blank Rounds by Green Zheng is certainly the most ambitious film of the programme in that it addresses the psychologically daring topic of insanity. A perfectly average-looking young soldier fresh after enlistment and undergoing the military routine of standardization, complete with hair clipping and uniform, somehow and inexplicably begins to show signs of deviation from the norm. He develops symptoms of stress and mental disorder, the ramifications of which in turn cause disciplinary measures and his comrades to ostracize him for his queer “selfish” behaviour. Is he a poser who claims to have headaches, then hallucinations and so forth, to not be up to the physical challenge and pressure he faces?

National Service as a disabling threat – if not in a Singaporean context, the theme is pretty familiar and has sad semblances in real life. The fictionalisation this subject matter is given in Blank Rounds is no less thought through and elevates the singular occurrence to drastic effect. Eventually, the young troubled soldier makes his way through the system’s provisions for dealing with the mentally unstable, until in the short’s final scene confronting him is a sterile, white containment cell with a helpless doctor to match.

As much as the film in a mere 12 minutes is visibly making an effort to frame and phrase the extreme situation to mold it into something archetypical, it doesn’t fully succeed. The onset of a young man losing it, is convincing and real. Increasingly, though, the action gets choreographed and stilted to finally culminate in a clean laboratory set up which undermines the entire build-up if it ever was meant to amount to a psychological case study. What individual contours and cinematic empathy had been generated before – ultimately, the effort seems lost on the picture.

In any staging of an event or accident, of a character or emotion, heightened aesthetic value alone can never be enough, but it has to come in the form of heightened expressivity. To transport an image into the three dimensional realm is to bring it onto the stage of our world, the world not of shapes but of volumes and spaces. Towards the end – not just on its final, deliberately inconclusive ending – Blank Rounds makes the wrong choices and flattens its own inner landscape. It’s a pity, really, that in this one the form should win out over the film’s content.

All things considered, Panorama 2 wasn’t a particularly enjoyable programme. The selection is neither distinguished nor significant enough to make an impact, and while you find yourself wishing for more audacity (or ambitiousness) in one, you see too much of the latter in the next. Clearly, more originality is needed.

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