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A Look Back at the Films From Singapore Writers Festival’s ‘Utter’ Initiative

23 September 2020

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A Look Back at the Films From Singapore Writers Festival’s ‘Utter’ Initiative

Throughout its history, the film medium has had a strong symbiotic relationship with the literary arts given their emphasis on narrative storytelling. In Singapore, this partnership between disciplines led to one of local cinema’s earliest successes with 1988’s The Teenage Textbook. 

Utter, a Singapore Writers Festival Initiative, showcases the best of Singapore writing while demonstrating its potential to be adapted into different mediums and unearthing fresh perspectives to literary works. From 2013 to 2017, the initiative looked to tighten the link between film and literature.

To date, Utter has been the impetus behind one feature-length film and a pool of excellent short films. Through their takes, these films breathe new life into Singapore’s literary classics. It’s a blend that presented opportunities for growth and exposure for the underappreciated arts, making the initiative’s radio silence and absence in 2019 sorely felt.

Some of the films born out of the Utter initiative had been unavailable anywhere – until now. Without much fanfare, streaming platform meWATCH has released a collection of these films, including the feature-length One Hour To Daylight. Not only would they make for thought-provoking entertainment that demonstrates the prowess of local creatives, these films might – perhaps more importantly – live on to inspire a new generation of storytellers to venture outside their creative labels.

While the status of the initiative’s next edition and of a concerted effort to join local films and literature together remains up in the air, the spirit of the initiative could still be replicated on smaller scales. More than ever, it seems crucial for artists across sectors to band together to tide through the uncertain, social-distanced future. 

We look back at the films from the 2013 to 2017 editions of Utter: 


Utter 2013

(Film still of ‘Bak Kut Teh’ / Image credit: Boku Films)

This edition marked the first time film took centrestage, engaging veterans from Singapore’s film and television sphere to craft adaptations to four local literary works. These bold stories shift the usual focus away from white collar, middle-class Singaporean malaise to prod at the alienation of those at the fringe, conjuring necessarily uncomfortable visual works.

That Afternoon We Went To See The Pandas gives a humanistic look at the other side of Singaporeans’ gripes with the influx of immigrants. PENGHULU sees a retiree grapple with urban life and a simpler past. With a dose of sly humour, Bak Kut Teh is as deceivingly heavy in flavour as its namesake, detailing a mother-and-daughter duo’s revenge against their abusive husbands. Shot in one take and told through a single monologue, 2Mothers is an extraordinarily haunting short about a housewife struggling with loneliness.

These four films presented original takes on their source materials by demonstrating the boundless opportunities for expression that come with the film language. The disillusionment of its characters, all so poignantly captured by the shorts’ cinematography and performances, are surely to leave lasting impressions.

Catch these stories:

Bak Kut Teh, directed by Kat Goh.
Adapted from David Leo’s short story Soup of the Day as part of News at Nine.

2Mothers, directed by Royston Tan
Inspired by 2 Mothers in a HDB Playground by Arthur Yap and Foo Chen Loong’s Two Mothers Over a Wall in Queen Astrid Park.

PENGHULU, directed by Lillian Wang.
Adapted from Pak Suleh by Suratman Markasan.

That Afternoon We Went To See The Pandas, directed by Ric Aw and Pok Yue Weng.
Adapted from 《出蜀记 by Liang Wern Fook.


Utter 2014 

(Film still of ‘At Your Doorstep’ / Image credit: Sinema Media)

Utter 2014 saw four literary works adapted for the big screen – one for each of Singapore’s national languages. Commissioned by the National Arts Council and produced by Sinema Media, these short films are the most accessible out of all the works that has emerged from the initiative so far.

Even with its approach, the intricacies and nuances of its source materials are not lost. This blend made these films as close as it got to realising the initiative’s goal of reaching out to new audiences. Coincidentally enough, these works are also themed around dementia, making the viewing experience in September rather timely as the world commemorates World Alzheimer’s Month.

Awash in marvelous set design and costumes, the lighthearted That Loving Feeling celebrates the youthful yearning for freedom. Tin Kosong ironically juxtaposes a hearty musical sequence celebrating Singapore with the harsh realities of an elderly can collector. At Your Doorstep is an intensely quiet and affecting look at a grandmother’s struggle with dementia and her family’s frustration with her. Going Home gives a similar take on the disease with a potent injection of bittersweet nostalgia. 

As the synopses of each of these films are not available on meWATCH, these can be found in the initiative’s official press release here. Interviews of each of the filmmakers for the year’s edition can also be found on Singapore Writers Festival’s YouTube page – the link of each can be found below. 

Catch these stories:

That Loving Feeling, directed by Wee Li Lin.
Inspired by Gopal Baratham’s Homecoming from his book The Collected Short Stories of Gopal Baratham.

Tin Kosong, directed by Sanif Olek.
Inspired by Muhammad Salihin Sulaiman’s Tin Kosong from his book Anugerah Bulan Buat Bonda.

At Your Doorstep (உன் வாசலில்), directed by Don Aravind.
Inspired by Kalamadevi Aravindan’s முகடுகள் Peaks from her book Nuval and Other Stories.

Going Home 回家, directed by Kenny Tan.
Inspired by Lin Jin’s Going Home 《回家 from his book Zero Teacher 《零蛋老师》.


Utter 2015

(Film still of ‘The Tiger of 142B’ / Image credit: The Filmic Eye)

The initiative’s 2015 edition provided yet another fresh twist to local literary works, distilling them into expressive animated shorts. The year’s slate saw a deviation from the accessibility of the previous editions, using the medium to embrace the more fantastical and surreal side of the stories. 

The Tiger of 142B parallels an unemployed youth’s career and relationship insecurities with a loose tiger terrorising a HDB block. Bold in strokes and theme, The Great Escape is a brooding arthouse short that grasps at the alienation of Singapore’s minorities. Round incorporates three short stories of love and reimagines them as an endlessly twirling carousel of horses. 5 Shades of Solitude is a pensive look at the different stages of a love gone sour, told through a striking art style. The Fat Cat Ate Dad’s Hat! is a deceivingly heavy look – complete with a terrifying sequence in its middle – at the nine wildly different lives of a cat. 

Tilted ‘Head Trips’, the year’s programme looked to tap on the animation medium’s accessibility to reach a brand new audience from its previous editions. However, the films leaned towards more of an arthouse style that may be more intimidating than intended. Nevertheless, the year’s films were a breath of fresh air that further explored the possibilities of how Singapore literature could be brought to life.

Catch these stories:

The Tiger of 142B, animated by Henry and Harry Zhuang.
Inspired by the story of the same name by Dave Chua in his book The Beating and Other Stories.

The Great Escape, animated by Tan Wei Keong.
Inspired by the story of the same name by Alfian Sa’at in his collection The Invisible Manuscript.

Round, animated by Samantha Seah Yu Er.
Inspired by Amanda Lee Koe’s The Ballad of Arlene & Nelly, Flamingo Valley, Carousel & Fort published in her book Ministry of Moral Panic.

5 Shades of Solitude 《5种孤寂与静默, animated by Ang Qing Sheng.
Inspired by Chow Teck Seng’s poem of the same name, published in his book The Story of You & Me 《你和我的故事.

The Fat Cat Ate Dad’s Hat!, animated by Darran Kuah.
Inspired by Vanessa Ng’s story of the same name, published in her book From The Belly of The Cat.


Utter 2016

(Film still of ‘One Hour to Daylight’ / Image credit: Sinema Media)

Utter 2016 broke new grounds again with its first feature-length film, One Hour To Daylight. With each segment directed by four emerging filmmakers, the film weaves together four short stories to create an apt social drama. 

Its local flavour is most duly felt sonically with each of the four national languages heard throughout the feature film, all drawing out the cultural and social tensions in Singapore. Each plot orbits around the central narrative of a workplace accident that brings to Singapore the deceased’s wife.  

From a foreigner’s alienation with Singapore life to explorations of class inequality, each plot does not necessarily bring to light any exceedingly fresh perspectives when standing on their own. Where One Hour To Daylight’s beauty shines is how they come together so seamlessly to strive towards a national narrative, creating a remarkable film that continues the conversation of what it means to be Singaporean.

Catch these stories:

One Hour To Daylight, directed by Jonathan Choo, Sufyan Sam’an, Jacky Lee, D. Vel Murugan.
Based on Harmonious Residences by Jeremy Tiang; Alyssa / Alyssa Again by Latha; Per(anti) Mimpi 1.0 by Chempaka Aizim; We’d Wanted To Rob A Bank by Xi Ni Er


Utter 2017

(Film still of ‘What Has to Be’ / Image credit: Jerrold Chong)

Marking the 20th edition of the Singapore Writers Festival, Utter 2017 celebrated towering literary figures and their classics published before the establishment of the festival. The initiative featured the works of Cultural Medallion recipients J.M Sali and Tan Swie Hian, author Gregory Nalpon, and one of Singapore’s founding fathers S. Rajaratnam. 

Their classics were adapted through a variety of storytelling styles and mediums. The Giant is a brief yet highly imaginative stop-motion animation mixed with equally impressive 3D work. With references to director K Rajagopal’s other works, Song of the Waves is a dreamlike and highly experimental short. Timepiece sees a kindergarten teacher, powerfully portrayed by TV actress Jae Liew, struggle with the absurdity of events surrounding her. Packed with a bedevilling sound scape and a disconcerting art style, What Has to Be is a visceral animated short about a couple’s emotional fallout from the death of their firstborn.

For now, the shorts from Utter 2017 would unfortunately be the last batch of film adaptations, with the following year’s edition concentrated as a one-day conference with panel discussions, workshops and screenings of past films. 

Catch these stories:

The Giant, animated by Henry and Harry Zhuang.
Adapted from Tan Swie Hian’s poetry.

Song of the Waves, directed by K. Rajagopal.
Adapted from J.M Sali’s story of the same name.

Timepiece, directed by Lee Thean-jeen.
Adapted from Gregory Nalpon’s story of the same name from the book The Wayang at Eight Milestones: Stories & Essays.

What Has to Be, animated by Jerrold Chong.
Adapted from S. Rajaratnam’s story of the same name from the collection The Short Stories and Radio Plays of S. Rajaratnam.


Check out the trailer for this year’s Singapore Writers Festival, which will be held from 30 October to 8 November:

Read more:
FILM REVIEW: One Hour To Daylight
A Film Festival First-Timer’s Take On SeaShorts Film Festival 2020
Raw and Gritty, ‘#Alive’ Is a Zombie Film Centred on the Everyday Man’

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.