World Premiere of ‘The Changi Murals’ at SIFF 20074 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
World Premiere on 24 April at the 20th Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) 2007.
With his latest ambitious short film The Changi Murals, Boo Junfeng tries his directorial skills at recreating the passion of the man behind these well-known paintings and tries to give an account of how they came into being and were wrought from circumstances well beyond description.
The film is set in 1963 when Stanley Warren revisits the site of his imprisonment. In an ordeal 20 years ago as a POW in Changi Prison, he suffered the double hardships of dysentery and cruel treatment by Japanese guards. Warren is charged with memories he would rather forget and struggling with an upwelling of emotions too dark and powerful to bear. At the same time he is haunted by that era’s extreme desolation and hopelessness, the darkest days and dragging months, locked-away years of his life. In short, he is a man on an inner mission, with scores unsettled.
Embedded within this narrative frame is not a recounting but an exemplary representation of Warren’s experiences of being on death row for more than three years, witnessing the abyss of inhumanity and his determination to save himself by not giving in to that irredeemable fatigue of the soul, which ultimately leads to death.
Flashback to 1943 – at the whim and most doubtful mercy of his captors like all his fellow inmates, Warren engages his whole self in painting these murals, thus creating an image on the walls of the makeshift chapel in stark contrast to their environment’s harsh reality. The very act of painting is a salvaging process rather than a pursuit or affirmation of Christian deliverance. A sequence of carefully crafted shots allows glimpses of life under those circumstances; the omnipresence of death from illness or malnutrition; the guardsmen’s sadistic treatment. The fight which Warren puts up against the engulfing hell which at that time of multiple suffering took control over his own body and health, is most humane and truly impressive to onlookers past or present.
While a rewarding story to tackle, the outcome is however only partially convincing. Painstaking scrutiny has obviously been invested into audio-visual production aspects of this short film as seen in the choreography of each frame, the precise choice of angles to each shot and particularly sound quality. Unfortunately though, all of this eventually outweighs the impact of its theme. The scenes in their succession evoke a feeling of coherence they ultimately withhold. Warren’s struggle, the struggle of a man who at commencing work on the murals did not think he would live long enough to finish them, somehow seems almost belittled, the effort eerily suspended from the prevailing conditions. Prison life itself appears contained, neatly trimmed and broken down into digestible portions, fractions of a fabric that frays out at the fringes and doesn’t cover the ground in such a measure as would be appropriate if (and this is a big “if”, a crucial one) a real-to-life recreation was aimed for.
Any poetics by contrast, require some point of reference beyond mere description, in relation to which the gap between a sign and its significance, its factual counterpart, becomes operational: an influx of a tension which evokes that what transcends the form. In the 18 minutes of The Changi Murals any such concept is missing. Visualisation is inconsistent and although editing is tight, it is mainly and strangely uninspired; a makeshift burial is depicted in a very artificial, stage-like manner, distancing the horror of it safely. A series of shots which relates the random execution of a fellow inmate seems stilted and doesn’t generate any emotional currency by itself. Then again, Warren’s battle to stay alive, and human, by clinging passionately to his lifeline, the painting of the murals, is shown in close-ups of real intensity delivering the reality of skin, bones and sweat. Only to be counterbalanced by the sedating beauty of the next shot, which obliterates the grip on the essence of the murals’ delivery that was just beginning to make itself felt.
As an abstraction, The Changi Murals is too concerned with the outer appearance of its setting; as a representation it is not concentrated enough, and too clean. To me the film is lacking a credible, tangible feel for this ordeal’s life-threatening and spirit-wrecking profundity and a direct, head-on taste of its indomitable fatality. In the end, it comes dangerously close to degenerating into a form of lyricism as it is often, and rightfully, criticized, where the beauty does not enhance the telling but hinders a closer encounter with the forces under observation. Apart from the technical bravura that this short film indeed shows, I don’t think the subject was fully mastered. The choice of story to bring to screen is good and it certainly has all the poignancy and original appeal that is the cornerstone to every solid work of art. I believe the driving force behind this short to be authentic, but still, to me the film aspires to more than it can handle. Its stateliness betrays the consuming necessity, the existential need, which called these paintings into being.