Matt’s Favourite Singapore Short Films From 202114 min readReading Time: 9 minutes
The best part of my job is having the opportunity to watch a ton of great Singapore short films. The most frustrating part of my job is trying to convince those who aren’t in the know to check them out.
The challenges of making a short film during the pandemic era are well-documented by now — so much so that, frankly, I have long run out of ideas on how else to talk about them. By and large, pandemic or not, filmmaking is still seen as a hobby rather than a career choice. Support both from above and from the homefront have always been challenging to find but especially so nowadays. Even after making it big on the grandest stages, many still hold the impression that Singapore film is of low quality.
Perhaps someday, Singapore film will move from being undesirable to undeniable in the eyes of everyone else. And the short films from 2021 do make a strong case that the day might come sooner than we think.
The popular thinking was that these few years would bring a slew of pandemic-inspired works. That didn’t really happen. There were a few films about lockdowns but most, especially in 2021, pushed aside the familiar scenes of our every day in favour of continuing the charge forward towards what Singapore films can be recognised by the wider public as — despite already being.
They already are stunning pieces of art with brilliant performances. They already are vivid worlds that dare to imagine a future we so often can’t see. They already are thought-provoking stories that dare to question the conflicted present we so often don’t want to see. Just look at the short films from 2021.
There was a lot to be inspired by this year with the short films crafted. These are just ten of them that I absolutely love.
A Man Trembles
In 1998 Singapore, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, a man and his family spend their final day on Earth at Sentosa island. There, he comes to confront the peculiar closeness between salvation and terror.
Directors, Writers, Music Composers: Mark Chua, Lam Li Shuen
Producer: Judith Tong
Director of Photography: Lincoln Yeo
Sound Designer: Cheng LiJie
Colourist: Eugene Seah
Cast: Oliver Chong, Lina Yu, Brayden Koh
In Christianity, there is this idea of the rapture where devout believers will be redeemed and ascend into heaven while everyone else rots on earth. While perhaps unintentional, no other film has made me feel as horrified about such a form of salvation as A Man Trembles. Perhaps it won’t happen in a snap. Perhaps it might be something more gruesome — would salvation even be worth it then?
That’s not the only question the latest from filmmaking duo Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen (aka Emoumie) leaves their audience. How do the film’s themes coalesce so perfectly with its premise, location and time period? How does cinematographer Lincoln Yeo keep crafting scenes that effortlessly command attention out of the mundane seemingly with every project?
A Man Trembles was screened at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) and claimed the Best Director award at the Southeast Asian Film Competition. Check out our interview with Mark and Li Shuen for more thoughts on A Man Trembles and to get a behind-the-scenes look at the impeccable short.
Gone are the Moat and the Walls
Upon receiving dreams from the City God, Zhang returns to Singapore after 20 years to look for the last remaining survivor of his puppet troupe. In his search, Zhang discovers a Singapore he does not recognise.
Director: Joshuah Lim En
Producer: Nabillah Hamidah
Screenwriter: Jit Jenn Tan
Production Designer: Dionne Goh
Director of Photography: Randey Ng
Editor: Clyde Kam
Sound Recordist: Lim Xiang Yin
Audio Post: Florent Corchia
Halfway through watching this film for the first time on my tiny laptop screen, I went, with hands on my forehead: “Why the f— couldn’t I watch this on the big screen?”
This year continues to box most of the graduating works of film school students into online screeners and showcases. And no other work got me as frustrated about these limitations as Joshuah Lim’s Gone are the Moat and the Walls. It’s a tremendous work of art, delivering on all cylinders with its sheer ambition and confidence to detail its story of spiritual desolation through patience and absolutely gorgeous shot compositions.
Thankfully, Gone are the Moat and the Walls did find its way into a cinema when it was screened as part of SGIFF’s Singapore Panorama section. The film was also a part of LASALLE College of the Arts’s graduating showcase for 2021 — read about them here.
Pillars of Salt
On the shores of solipsism, Luis interrogates the impulses that led him into an affair with his married supervisor at work, to face the emotional absences driving his actions and the uncertainties of moving on.
Director: Hilman Haris Hor
Producer: Low Zi Qi Cassandra
Director of Photography: Alvin Ling
Editor: Soong Check Eng
Sound Designer: Lung Nok Wan
Production Designer: Whitney Tan
Starring: Benjamin Josiah Tan, Fauzah Mohd Noor, Gurdev Kaur Sharma, Yak Aik Wee
So, so creatively bold and emotionally sharp, Pillars of Salt pins down the convoluted inner turmoil of a man wrestling with guilt to deliver a spectacular aural and visual feast. No other short in 2021 captured disorientation, passion and madness with such enveloping depth.
Pillars of Salt was part of Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media’s graduating showcase for the year. Read about the graduating films here.
I Took A Nap and I Miss You
Recently widowed Liz struggles with grief while raising her two daughters – Gigi, a cynical teen venturing into romance, and pre-teen Stacy, whose imaginary boyfriend is her getting bullied at school. A coming-of-age, drama-comedy mockumentary about three women, all operating on what-ifs and varying circumstances of the heart.
Director, Writer: Shelby Kho
Director of Photography: Donovan Wan
Editor: Vanessa Yip
Sound Designer: Adam Rosli
Cast: Karen Tan, Shannon Teo, Lynn Chia
Mockumentaries have only grown more popular over the years but rarely does a film keep in mind that, at the core of all its tropes, the format allows the opportunity to detail — unflinchingly — the deepest, most personal thoughts and emotions.
Shelby Kho’s I Took A Nap and I Miss You brings together the perspectives of three generations of women living under one roof, each stuck at a crossroads between the perceptions of the men in their lives and who they truly are. It’s a hearty film brought to life by a solid mix of comedy, sincerity and wit, and charming performances from all three leads.
Check out our staff picks for SeaShorts Competition 2021 for more thoughts on I Took A Nap…, and Southeast Asian shorts to keep an eye out for.
A taxi driver must form a risqué partnership with a social escort to protect his daughter from bankruptcy.
Director: Haziq Adam De Silva
Producer: Nur Laiyinah Najihah
Editor: Esther Toh
Director of Photography: Muhammad Hafeez Sahrin
Sound Recordist: Muhammad Fahman Fauze
Writers: Haziq Adam De Silva, Genie Lim
Cast: Elvis Chin, Lynn Chia, Victoria Fong
Perhaps because of the relative distance away for most, short films that depict Singapore’s grimier underbelly tend to fall short either with too little or too much edge. Haziq Adam De Silva’s Booking (and another on this list) is one of the few exceptions.
Well-shot and well-performed, it’s a short that understands the raw desperation of its characters without overplaying its hand. Above all, it’s a notable achievement for the film — especially from a team of such a young age — to handle its dark and heavy themes with such maturity and control. Haziq is definitely a director to look out for in the coming years.
Booking is the winner of Sinema’s The Inciting Incident 2020 screenplay challenge and was showcased as part of Sinema Showoff earlier this year. The film was also nominated in the Live Action — Student category of the National Youth Film Awards 2021. Booking is now streaming on Viddsee.
Set to the backdrop of an archetypal “action movie” (when a hitman seeks revenge on his former boss), we follow two henchmen, who try to avoid their inevitable fate, while waiting for their turn to “protect” their boss from the hitman.
Director, Writer, Producer: Alistair Quak
Director of Photography: Jufri Husne
Stunt Coordinator: Kasimir Poh
Cast: Kasimir Poh, Peps Goh, Conan Cassidy, Douglas Lam
Henchmen is such a blast! The short playfully inverts the tropes of the revenge thriller genre, turning an otherwise righteous hero standing up against an army of goons into a relentless slasher villain.
Kasimir Poh is tremendous in the lead, going on a spectacular warpath while wielding the brutality of Oldboy. On the other end of the narrow hallway are two bumbling henchmen, played by Peps Goh and Conan Cassidy, who bring a delectable dash of schadenfreude to the mix. Director Alistair Quak has been making genre films for close to a decade, and his love, versatility, and finesse with them have perhaps never been clearer than with Henchmen.
Catch Henchmen, as well as all the shorts from the NYFA Film Facilitation Programme, on The Projector Plus before 31 December 2021.
Alan, a 13-year-old boy, attends a tuition class, being taught by a physically aggressive teacher, Ms See. Trying to secretly record audio evidence of the abuse on his phone, we experience the class play out from his perspective.
Director, Writer, Editor: Alistair Quak
Producer: Lee Yi Jia
Director of Photography: Jufri Husne
Cast: Jo Tan, Javier Ng
Tuition is, by a wide margin, my favourite horror short of 2021. Most of us probably recall the sinking feeling we get prior to tuition classes, and the exasperation of having to suffer an hour or two under a merciless teacher. Tuition turns that to an eleven.
The film pinpoints terror in the otherwise routine. It etches out a merciless and cold — absolutely frigid! — atmosphere out of a HDB flat showered in murky black and white. Casting Jo Tan in the lead is a stroke of genius. Although perhaps more known for her lighthearted roles, Tan’s mesmerising performance gives Annie Wilkes an absolute run for her money as she embodies the living nightmare of all students. Tuition uses relatable themes and locales not just for the sake of landmarking, but to manifest our tiny pockets of fears and worries into something terrifyingly colossal.
Tuition was nominated in the Live Action — Open Youth category at this year’s National Youth Film Awards, where it won Best Live Action and Best Sound Design. The film is now streaming on Viddsee.
Mari, a construction worker in Singapore, seeks companionship on his day off, but instead gets into a misadventure that he will never forget.
Director, Executive Producer: Vikneshwaran Silva
Editor: Naveen Selvanayagam
Producer: Yuga J Vardhan
Director of Photography: Sadesh Nambiar
Cast: Gosteloa Spancer, Sathish Kumar, Dewy Choo
Featuring impressive cinematography and a sublime leading performance, Dark Light is a superb piece of social realism. The slew of awards the short has garnered on its festival run almost speaks for itself — but there will never be enough praise for Gosteloa Spancer’s achingly vulnerable performance. The film is a tremendous accomplishment that feels essential not only for the themes it claims but also for the raw emotions it brings across.
Dark Light was nominated in the Live Action — Open Youth category at this year’s National Youth Film Awards, where it won Best Director, Best Cinematography and Best Actor. The short is now streaming on Viddsee.
A Short Film for my Son
A father attempts to make a short film for his ever-busy son in hopes of getting closer to him.
Directors, Producers: Hariz Zulkifli, Aric Hidir Amin
Editors: Anja Dimova, Hariz Zulkifli
Director of Photography: Kayson Lau
Cast: Daeng Amer Omar
The shortest film on the list also left the most profound personal impact. A Short Film… is part documentary about the Geylang Serai market during the pandemic and part loving tribute to parents everywhere. Driven by the nostalgic overtures composed by Daryl Hor and the affecting performance of Daeng Amer Omar, the short is an urgent reminder of what and who can be stolen away as we continue to etch out a life of our own amidst the pandemic.
A Short Film for my Son was nominated in the Documentary — Open Youth category at this year’s National Youth Film Awards.
To Kill the Birds & the Bees
A pair of young twins, a secondary school prefect and a conservative housewife each has a sex-related encounter during the course of a day.
Director, Producer, Writer: Calleen Koh
Lead Layout Artist: Teo Wan Yee
Animation Director: Shahrazad Logan
Cast: Syakirah Noble, Rea Kami, Matthias Teh En
The state of sex education in Singapore is so appalling that the sardonic short is not content with only highlighting its inadequacy, but to decimate any and all excuse for the lack thereof.
The divide between our archaic notions of sex and the titillating situations in our everyday is delightfully detailed in its complete absurdity, while using this same playfulness to barely shroud an unbridled frustration at our state of affairs. To Kill the Birds & the Bees not only adds to an essential issue, it solidifies the need for Singapore animated storytelling’s place as being the only medium able to truly push such difficult conversations forward.
To Kill the Birds & the Bees was nominated in the Animation — Student category at this year’s National Youth Film Awards, where it won Best Art Direction, Best Screenplay and Best Original Music. The animated film was also screened at this year’s Singapore International Film Festival in the Singapore Panorama section.