F.'s World Premiere at the Goethe Institut opened the Free Programme, and the SIFF itself. As Philip Cheah puts it, there's a significance to this 60 minute documentary opening the festival, as the film's subject Toh Hai Leong has for many years, saw himself as the local flipside to Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose movies will be screened for free at this year's SIFF at the Goethe Institut. And no doubt, gathered around for this event, were many recognizable folks involved in the local film industry, from Eric Khoo to Ben Slater.
I first came to know of Toh Hai Leong through his mockumentary Zombie Dogs, which I saw almost two years ago during the Screen Singapore Festival, and I thought, this is a very peculiar director. In person, I've seen him a couple of times at various screenings, but never mustered the courage to speak with him. I thought he was a little eccentric, but one who never minces his words, and you'll know he's in the house for that unmistakable baritone voice booming from across a screening hall, sharing insights be it to film, or current affairs.
Over time I've learnt that he was once a film critic, and was the secretary of the Singapore Film Society (SFS). And this documentary essentially provided a broad outline to Toh's life, and focused on the recent stage where he fought with Type 2 diabetes. Director Chew Tze Chuan had introduced the documentary as not the final cut he had in mind, but close, and there is nothing too sophisticated about the technical aspects used for this documentary, in what's basically a homage, and tribute to a man who's a walking encyclopedia, and whose career had seen him become a librarian, film buff, film critic, director, flea market operator, and even a food center cleaner!
Through interviews with Ben Slater, Yuni Hadi, Kenneth Tan, Wee Li Lin, Wong Lung Hsiang and more, we come to learn different facets of Toh, and how he had in his unique ways, influenced and left deep impressions, from simple and little gestures, to passionate action and dedication he has for his craft, and especially during his days as the secretary of SFS, and all the while staying humble to his achievements. In what I thought was lacking, were more in-depth exploration into what made Toh tick, though there was a very casual fleeting moment where he discusses his love life.
But what Chew managed to capture vividly was one man's harrowing descent into losing the will to fight the disease he's inflicted with, and I unabashedly say I was indeed shocked to see how Toh was reduced to skin and bones (almost like a POW), and how he had to bear with the symptoms of the disease, including uncontrollable bladder movements.
I'm glad to say that Toh is on the road to recovery, and has put on weight (and hair too!) when he appeared before the audience to share a few words. The flow of the documentary is easy to follow, with the usual talking heads introducing Toh at various stages of his life. And for those who have not seen his directorial effort Zombie Dogs, you'll get to see snippets of the movie in F. too. And I thought Toh, despite his illness, had not lost an iota of his acerbic wit, bringing memories of his verbal barrage ability when he rattles on subjects that touch close to his heart.
Played to a packed theaterette (there were people standing along the sides, and sitting on the floor), do watch this documentary if you're curious to know about an enigma in the local film scene. You'll probably come away with a better understanding, and take away for a fact that life is fragile, and to make the best out of it.