On the Complex Nature of Loss in SGIFF’s Singapore Panorama Programme 18 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
At times raw and full of feeling, at times restrained yet thrumming with an undercurrent of tension, the 31st SGIFF’s first programme of Singapore Panorama shorts calls forth a flavourful range of emotions while exploring the same subject matter of loss across six shorts.
Humans are perpetually fascinated by loss. Even if anticipated, loss can haunt us in ways that leave behind tear stains of grief, nostalgia, or regret. It demands us to write stories about it as means of catharsis, and in attempts to understand its complexities. And in their unique ways, that’s what all the shorts in this programme have done. Most of the directors explore what mortality and/or death mean to them, while some mourn for something different, such as the loss of a culture, or of a friendship.
The programme starts with Yong Mun Chee’s 21 Days, which portrays Jin and his father coping with his mother’s death during the 21-day window following her death. In this window, the spirit will still linger strongly in the human realm. One day, Jin’s father speculates from a series of humanly unexplainable incidents that the dead mother has returned to visit him. Jin, wanting to see his mother, embarks on a series of rituals to seek her presence.
21 Days is definitely a strong start to a programme that navigates through the numbness of loss. With generosity and sensitivity for his characters, Yong allows for Jin’s grief to take centre stage. Prickling throughout the short is an eerie soundtrack that creates an unsettling, horror-esque mood that seemingly anticipates jump scares. But nothing really happens, there’s no supernatural activity, and therein lies the tragedy – any audience would fear ghostly apparitions, but it is clear that Jin craves them.
Ghosts and spirits return again in the second short, And They Roamed, directed by Joshuah Lim En. When two young girls, Amy and Diana, attempt to commit suicide in an abandoned school, they encounter the ghost of a schoolgirl named Jia Jia. She asks for the two girls’ help in searching the rope that she used to hang herself. As they wander through the dilapidated interior of the abandoned school, all three girls recount the struggles they’ve faced in their coming-of-age years, societal pressures that have pushed them to act on suicidal thoughts.
Despite exploring the same terrains of mortality as Yong’s 21 Days, Lim’s short is markedly different by exploring the joys of life. Jia Jia, who deeply regrets her suicide attempt, convinces Amy and Diana that they have each other to depend on; loneliness can be crushing, but surely a life can be eked out on mutual kindness and intimacy. The short ends bittersweetly with all three of them masquerading as ghosts, roaming spiritedly through the school. As they roam, they transform the interior – which was intricately and beautifully designed – into their own playground, enjoying what it means to feel alive.
After two quiet stories, Calleen Koh’s flashy animated short, Sexy Sushi, is a welcoming contrast. Sensual yet bizarre, Koh’s animation introduces to us the world of a sushi conveyor belt restaurant where human-like sushi dance and twerk to the upbeat music. You might even find yourself bopping to the music as the sushi canoodle with one another.
But just as you get comfortable with the music, the sushi starts admonishing us humans for blindly eating sushi without appreciating them. Soon enough, the neon-bright world becomes drenched in blood-red shades of colour. The animation turns gory with the sushi screaming for help as they run away from the humans eating them. Sexy Sushi may be entertaining, but it is no less thought-provoking despite its brevity and outlandishness, reflecting on the meaning of life.
We return, after Koh’s quirky animation, the quiet and contemplative world of Flower Shadow Serenade 《花影小夜曲》, directed by Goh Lin Yuan. In this short, a dead grandmother returns as a spirit to visit her family during Chinese Ghost Festival. The grandmother must have died quite some time ago, but grief still lingers poignantly around the house, with the short soaked in saturated grey tones and muted colours.
But make no mistake, this short is not meant to be bleak. The family reminisces only happy times of them singing to the song of ‘The Evening Primrose,’ or “夜来香“ together, as disco lights revolve in the middle of the living room. Flower Shadow Serenade manages to deliver a heart-aching story with minimalist execution that never overindulges in sentimentality, knowing when to pull back and let the scenes throb with quiet nostalgia. Anybody who has lost a loved one in their lives will no doubt relate to the story, and maybe even shed a few tears.
Saudade, directed by Russell Adam Morton, departs from the previous shorts with its experimental, fragmented structure. Not only that, it also doesn’t explore mortality, and instead, it bemoans the gradual loss of a cultural important to Portuguese Eurasians.
Narrated in Kristang, an endangering language spoken by Portuguese Eurasians, the story consists of three parts. It begins with a dancing segment where the dancers wear traditional ethnic clothing and dance to ”Jinkli Nona,“ a traditional song which translates to ‘Fair Maiden’ in Kristang. The next part reimagines the history of Portuguese Eurasian as fishermen who scour for shrimps in the sea for food stock and survival. The final part re-enacts the folkloric story of the orang minyak, an oily supernatural creature originating from Malay folklore.
As the narrator says, the only way for Portuguese Eurasian’s culture to survive “is to reclaim its existence in this world with its story,” and that’s what Morton is precisely doing. The elaborate details in Saudade burn with a strong yearning for Portuguese Eurasian values, language, and traditions to be celebrated and passed down. With the costume designs, setting, and props rendered alive, it is hard not to be mesmerised by the short, even without a coherent plot going on.
The programme ends with Koo Chia Meng’s After Noon, which tells the story of two secondary school boys hanging out in the protagonist’s house one fine afternoon. Things take a serious turn when they tell each other about their sex lives with their respective girlfriends. The conversation unexpectedly arouses sexual feelings in the protagonist towards his best friend, and he explores them through discreet methods without his best friend’s knowledge.
The short ends on an unresolved note, and it is unclear what the protagonist has lost in the process of determining his sexuality — Is it his best friend? Their friendship? His innocence? Whatever he has lost is clearly important to him, and is felt keenly through the last long take on the protagonist’s subtle facial expressions. Such a poignant and devastating short, really, is possible with Koo’s delicate direction, the black-and-white aesthetics, and Nathanael Khoo’s nuanced acting of the protagonist.
All in all, the first Singapore Panorama programme feels cohesive and self-contained in thematic concerns, exploring situations and personal stories that most people can relate to. The trade-off, however, is that it lacks ethnic diversity, with the whole programme predominantly featuring Chinese characters and culture, and only one about Portuguese Eurasians. It is, of course, possible that the programmers chose to go ahead with this trade-off, considering how the Singapore Panorama programme is doubled this year. After all, the second programme does feature more ethnically diverse stories.
In any case, this programme has also welcomed three young filmmakers or animators, Goh Lin Yuan, Joshuah Lim En, and Callen Koh, the latter two who are still studying. Their works may be a bit unpolished, but they are still insightful, evocative, and astute. The programme isn’t showing anymore, but it will do well for us to remember these directors, whom I believe will become prominent in the future if they embark on more projects.
Click here for more information on SGIFF and to watch the trailers of the shorts.
– Interview: Vess Chua, Programme Executive, Singapore International Film Festival 2020
– Interview: Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, Directors of ‘The Cup’
– Interview: Emily Hoe, Executive Director, Singapore International Film Festival 2020