Staff Picks — National Youth Film Awards 2021 Nominees9 min readReading Time: 7 minutes
The ongoing pandemic has created an exceptionally hostile atmosphere to be a young filmmaker. Logistical challenges aside, the dominant emotions of the times — anguish, loss, confusion, void — were unavoidable and only heightened through the eyes of youth. Nevertheless, the 56 nominated films of the 7th National Youth Film Awards have tackled these unpleasant emotions head on, leading to a sullen yet undoubtedly necessary collection of stories truly emblematic of our times.
Stories across the Media Student and Open Youth categories tended to begin at the tail-end of journeys, with only uncertainty found on the horizon. The closure of family-owned shops and establishments is a prevailing topic within the documentary genre, with each poignantly shining a light on the raw humanity behind the statistics, otherwise easily dismissed as yet another victim of the pandemic.
Likewise, issues such as mental health, generational tensions and divides, and LGBTQ+ issues emerged as key themes in narratives. While films from the Media Student category are noticeably more sombre than the Open Youth category, most have still approached their stories through poise and thoughtfulness.
A heavy year made for a heavy generational response. Yet, defiantly enough, it is exactly within the sea of gloomy stories that has birthed an overwhelming sense of optimism about the future of filmmaking in Singapore.
Despite lockdowns and ever-fluctuating unknowns, this year’s edition still received 330 submissions in all. The ongoing pandemic has undoubtedly coloured their stories but it seemingly did little to keep youth filmmakers back from remaining audacious and bold with their artistic visions. Surely compromises had to be made but these never cut into the heart of their messages. There are countless unknowns in today’s climate but what shouldn’t be is that Singapore film is in safe hands.
The winners of the National Youth Film Awards will be announced on 24 July, 4pm, live on *SCAPE’s Facebook page. Until then, here are the nominated films we couldn’t wait to highlight and talk about.
Media Student Category
Holding On, Letting Go《释怀》
Director, Writer, Editor: Lionel Seah
Producer: Fiona Ng
Art Director: Rebecca Lim
Director of Photography: Edison Kuah
Cast: Iris Li, Sunny Pang, Peter Yu, Richard Low
The death of a loved one is perhaps the first rude awakening of maturity for many youths, leading to it being a frequent topic visited by youth filmmakers. Holding On, Letting Go 《释怀》, directed by Lionel Seah, stands out for nailing the tailspin of emotions that comes with experiencing grief and loss for the first time — a massive undertaking that lead actress Iris Li knocks out of the park.
The short’s attention to detail is impressive, featuring very specific conversations and situations that lend an exceptionally personal touch. Equally evocative is the visual storytelling, putting aside style for eloquent shot compositions, framing a palpable world of vivid, almost deafening colours only made bearable by the relatable moody atmosphere shared by the all-star cast’s tremendous performance.
The trailer for Holding On, Letting Go is available on its Singapore International Film Festival 2020 page, where the short made its world premiere.
As Bold as Red, As Soft as Velvet
Director, Writer, Editor: Nguyen Mih Truong Giang
Producer: Hao Sijia (Keira)
Art Director: Cordelia Tan Wen Ting
Director of Photography: Rahul Radhakrishnan
Cast: Belmont Soh Yu Xian, Li Jin Hao, Adrienne Yew
Marvellously expressive yet remarkable in its depth, As Bold as Red, As Soft as Velvet reaches out to youths struggling with the acceptance of their sexual orientation and offers solace. Touching on both mental health and LGBTQ+ acceptance, the nuances on display are appreciated, such as with the vapidness that can be felt from messages of support, and of how these do little in quelling inner turmoil stemming from an unsupportive immediate environment.
This deluge of emotions is spectacularly brought to life through surreal performance art gushing with style. As Bold… takes a few grim twists yet comfort ultimately prevails from both its keen dose of reality and how it champions adventurous self-expression.
The short film’s trailer is available on its FilmFreeway page.
Between These Bones
Writer, Narrator: Pranamika Subhalaxmi
Co-Director: Joyce Ng
Producer: Li Jiaqi
Director of Photography: Caitlin Park
It is no hyperbole to suggest that Between These Bones presents an exceptionally original view of Singapore — not just from its theme but more so from what its camera sees amidst the seemingly mundane. The documentary is reminiscent of the experimental film Koyaanisqatsi (1982). Expressed through brilliant usage of lighting and framing, the short sees Singapore almost as how an alien might see it: mechanical, foreign and unnervingly beautiful. How this directly clashes with Between These Bones’ theme of seeing the country as a human body creates an enchanting and oftentimes outright magical perspective of our home.
Find out more about Between These Bones on its Indiegogo page.
To Kill The Birds & The Bees
Director, Producer, Writer: Calleen Koh
Lead Layout Artist: Teo Wan Yee
Animation Director: Shahrazad Logan
Cast: Syakirah Noble, Rea Kami, Matthias Teh En
Unapologetically sardonic and brimming with so much barbed wit, To Kill The Birds & The Bees is an absolute joy. The animated short lashes out through, perhaps, the only appropriate response befitting of the appalling state of sex education in Singapore: sheer absurdism. This frustration only bubbles across the short’s duration, leading to a delightful collection of over-the-top imagery and surrealism that somehow punctuates the short’s affecting story.
It’s a style and approach that has quickly become synonymous with Calleen Koh, whose short Sexy Sushi won Best Art Direction at NYFA 2020 and was featured at Singapore International Film Festival 2020. If it wasn’t apparent before, To Kill The Birds & The Bees solidifies Koh as an artist and storyteller to watch for in the years to come.
Get a glimpse of the animated short through its trailer on FilmFreeway.
Open Youth Category
Director, Executive Producer: Vikneshwaran Silva
Editor: Naveen Selvanayagam
Director of Photography: Sadesh Nambiar
Cast: Gosteloa Spancer, Sathish Kumar, Dewy Choo
To watch Dark Light is to grovel for mercy with the film’s protagonist Mari (Spancer), a Bangladeshi worker in Singapore who plummets rock bottom in the span of one misfortune night. Silva’s camera puts the audience into the shoes of a migrant worker as he wanders the streets that, while welcoming to locals and tourists, are hostile towards him. Mari is ostracised, bullied and scammed — all before he even reaches the end of the street.
The film addresses the way society treats minority and migrant communities with gruelling realism. Spancer’s performance is brilliantly affecting. The film will also be screened at Be Epic London International Film Festival (BELIFF) 2021 this August.
Take a look at the short film’s trailer on director Silva’s Youtube page.
Director, Writer: Morrie Tan
Editor: Jia Lee
Cast: Judee Tan, Huang Jia Qiang
Beautifully animated in stop-motion with cotton puppets and featuring the detail and quaintness of a budding Tim Burton, The Visit is presented as an open letter from a girl to her father in prison. As we watch her go through the motions of visiting her father, trying to maintain a relationship with him despite the glass that stands between them, voiceover narration chronicles her hurt, confusion and pain.
The film is also visually striking as Tan’s stop-motion makes the puppets uncannily lifelike, teeming with emotions and humanity. The sheer artistry in making the puppets and set must also be applauded.
Watch The Visit here.
148 Shangri-La Confectionery
Director, Producer, Camera, Editor, Colourist: Kyle Ong
Producer: Tan Shen Hui, Tan Shen Kiat
Editor: Woo Yue Chang, Joline Lim
The documentary features a smiling aunty sitting in front of her life’s work — the titular Shangri-La Confectionary and Delicatessen, a bakery in the heartlands in which she poured her heart and soul into over 30-odd years. Ong’s camera carefully frames each hand-crafted pastry with the same gentleness with which the owners, elderly siblings Tan Jock Hua and Tan Jock Ping, prepared them for their customers.
Delicately handled like Shangri-La’s famous tau sar piah and sweet like its taste, Ong’s film encapsulates the bittersweet sentiment of letting go and passing the torch to the younger generation. The resulting film is one that presents the fragile and often sensitive topic of modernisation with optimism, overall leaving the audience what feels like a sigh of relief and an assurance that good things are yet to come.
You can watch 148 Shangri-La Confectionery here.
Just A Call Away
Director: Jessica Heng
Cast: Ku Kit Wan, Amanda Bambby Cheuk Yuet Ga, Sim Guay Choon, Jessica Heng, See Siew Kerk, Sarah Ling, Mohamad Noor Bin Omar, Syahirah Afifah
Just A Call Away is a documentary that stitches the lives of Singaporeans missing their loved ones in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdowns together. It follows an animated moth as it flutters through the all-too-familiar scenes of our homes, listening to phone conversations between grandchildren and their grandparents, backdropped by television reports of the pandemic raging outside. Similar to another lockdown-centred documentary in this category, The Spaces Between Us (dir. Adar Ng & Dave Lim), Heng’s film is quirkier and addresses the pandemic’s ramifications on the more intimate and personal parts of our everyday lives.
The film won the Love Within video challenge in 2020 in the midst of Circuit Breaker.
Watch Just A Call Away here.
Banner image credit: Still of ‘To Kill The Birds & The Bees’