SGIFF’s Singapore Panorama Programme 2 Beautifully Captures the Diverse Cultural Landscape in Singapore
From love stories taking place in East Coast Park, to a heart-wrenching story about undocumented migrant workers, the six shorts in SGIFF’s second Singapore Panorama programme bear witness to the kaleidoscopic range of human experiences in Singapore. Unlike the first programme, there’s no unifying strand or subject that gels the programme together. Instead, social and cultural diversity take priority, glimpsing into the various lives and settings that occur throughout the Singapore landscape.
Simply put, if the first programme comes together like a traditional kueh lapis – the kind which is layered with various shades of brown – then the second programme is put together like the rainbow-version of kueh lapis, stacked together with an eclectic selection of colours.
Kicking off the programme is My Brother or Mera Bhai, directed by Shreela Agarwal. It tells the story of Ram, an undocumented migrant worker who struggles to find a stable paying job in Singapore as he constantly tries to avoid the authorities. Accompanying him is a young boy who is also an undocumented migrant worker, but Ram is very reluctant to take care of him. However, he soon realises that amidst all of the adversities, human connection and intimacy may provide him the comfort he needs.
With what happened – and is still happening – to migrant workers during Covid-19, Agarwal’s short may be more urgent and pertinent than ever. She unflinchingly exposes the structures and practices that blatantly exploit migrant workers. But My Brother is more than just an exposé. Under Agarwal’s humane treatment, the characters are portrayed as ordinary human beings with universal needs and wants – they, like everybody else, have families to support, they want intimacy and companionship, and they just want to survive. As the story progresses, you’ll no doubt find yourself worried sick for Ram and the young boy as they grapple with precarious situations and living conditions.
Bringing us out of contemporary times and back to historical days, the next short, Michael Kam’s Nursery Rhymes, reimagines the childhood of Kam’s grandmothers under British and Japanese rule. During those times, his grandmothers have to learn British and Japanese nursery rhymes in order to fit in with the British or Japanese people. But it is not as easy as it seems, as they are outsiders who constantly have to adapt to the turbulent political times.
Nursery Rhymes surely deserves praise for the set design and costuming, for recreating the 1930s and 40s right before our eyes. Also, in such a short span of time, Kam manages to bring alive his grandmothers’ personalities — one who is pliant and agreeable, the other who is rebellious and gutsy — to create such memorable and believable characters. It is also somewhat refreshing that for a topic that is often covered in films or television through a political lens, Kam revisits it more intimately, without veering too much into nostalgia.
From the bright colours of Nursery Rhyme, we dive into the black-and-white world of Don Aravind’s Silk. In this short, a man’s father is dying from his illness and has only 24 hours to live. The man tries to reunite his fractured family just before his father dies, but the revelation of a secret – his father’s grave sin – makes him realise that unity is impossible.
With sparse dialogue and long periods of silence, Aravind’s short is slowly but carefully paced, which makes the secret all the more horrifying when it is revealed. What is more impressive, really, is that the actors managed to pull their own weight under the long takes and deafening quietness. With subtle body language and facial expression shifts, their emotions are made more palpable and nuanced. Combined with the black-and-white aesthetics, the general mood of the short feels oppressive and weighty, leaving viewers no room to breathe as the simmering tension threatens to explode.
The weight and solemnity of Silk carries over to the next short, Holding On, Letting Go, which is directed by Lionel Seah. The story opens with the death of a grandmother who lost her life to an illness, and spans across the entire duration of her funeral. Meanwhile, the granddaughter, who is the central character, is fraught with grief. As she observes her family members, she finds herself getting annoyed at how they don’t seem to be as sorrowful as her.
That’s just on the surface, however. In the climax of the short – which coincides with the cremation day – emotions run high, contrary to the quiet atmosphere that Seah opts for, as everybody sobs uncontrollably while the grandmother is cremated. It seems that no matter how unaffected people may look, they are all dealing with grief in their own ways. Seah takes special care in designing the set and rendering alive the Buddhist funeral rituals, but the actors ought to be acknowledged as well. We see a mixture of veteran actors like Sunny Pang, who plays the father, and young budding actors like Iris Li, who plays the grief-stricken granddaughter. Together, they convey grief in their unique, poignant ways, and they do it especially well in scenes with long takes and minimal dialogue.
Tackling again the subject of mortality, but in an entirely different medium is Lim Jia Ying’s Watermelon Please, a surreal animation about a man who philosophises about life as much as he loves watermelons. As the man looks out of the window and imagines himself gleefully getting a watermelon, he also imagines himself getting run over by a car. After that, he starts contemplating about the fleetingness of life, and how terrifying it is that one can never escape death. Despite that, he still comes to the conclusion that life is still joyful and meaningful.
Lim’s animation is wonderfully peculiar, even though it can be a bit convoluted – which, I’m sure, is intended. Because of the hand-drawn quality of the animation, the story accrues a more sincere, rawer quality which you can’t look away from. Lim also brilliantly uses a wide palette of colours that come alive on the screen and evoke a myriad of emotions – from fear to existential dread, to quiet contemplation, to courage for staring at death in the face, and finally, to gratitude for what life has to give despite its shortness.
The very last short, directed by Li Lin Wee, is definitely a fitting ending to a programme that tries to portray the rich experiences in Singapore. Consisting of three stories, all with distinct cultures and backgrounds, East Coast Park Lovers explores the up and downs – well, mostly downs – of romantic relationships. In the first one, a female singer – played by Jean Seizure, whose voice is incredible – is still coping with the fact that she has broken up with her girlfriend. In the second one, a foreign worker invites her Chinese boyfriend over to her birthday party. In the final one, a married Christian couple is going around East Coast Park singing missionary songs to strangers.
As the three stories develop, it becomes clear that the short is more than just exploring what love is. Conflicting values and cultures within the couples threaten to upend the relationships. In order to stay together, the couples must choose to compromise, or negotiate with each other their beliefs. By the end of the film, nobody is fully satisfied with what they have. But the story is not meant to be downbeat. With Li’s skilful direction and handling of beats, the short will stir up varied responses in you. There will be times you cringe at the characters’ obliviousness, times where you relate bittersweetly to their love problems, and times where you chuckle heartily at their antics.
In general, the second programme of the Singapore Panorama shorts feels more refined and mature than the first programme. This is unsurprising, considering how there are more experienced and fully-established directors in this programme. That’s not to say, however, that it’s better than the first programme in any way. In fact, I related more to the themes in the first programme over the second one. But both programmes have their merits, and I don’t wish to compare them in too critical of a way.
What is interesting about the second programme, though, is that it showcases shorts that take place in the most ordinary settings with ordinary circumstances, with ordinary characters trying their best to live their lives. And maybe that is the point. These stories are relatable and close to home because they can just occur right in our neighbourhood, in our everyday lives. So, if you are craving for more shorts, maybe all you have to do is to observe your surroundings and take the time to listen. A story might just be around the corner, waiting to be found and told.
Click here for more information on SGIFF.
– Interview: Vess Chua, Programme Executive, Singapore International Film Festival 2020
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