If anyone thinks Singapore is a straight-laced country with a budding film scene afraid to push the envelope, perhaps you might want to revisit that thought again.
About one year ago, I chatted with director Kan Lume around the time when his debut feature film The Art of Flirting was being screened at the 19th Singapore International Film Festival, and learnt of his subsequent plans for the celluloid. One's an action movie, and the other an independent film made with European festivals in mind, with the subject matter dealing with the exploration of human sexuality.
The movies of late coming out from our local directors have usually been either comedies or horror meant at capturing a chunk of box office receipts, with Royston Tan's 4:30 being the blip of hope that we too can make "artistic" movies that resonate with audiences. I saw a rough cut of Solos sometime in July last year, without proper sound, and no doubt in my mind that the movie will ruffle some feathers here. It wasn't done for the sake of shock value or upsetting the local censorship board, and while it wasn't banned, which Kan Lume feared it would, the local censors passed Solos with an R21 (no admittance to those aged below 21) rating and 3 cuts, meaning its planned world premiere at this year's 20th Singapore International Film Festival was to be withdrawn from the organizer's programme, given the festival doesn't screen movies which are cut.
Having watched the final, theatrical version of Solos, I thought it was a worthy addition to our small but growing number of movies. It was an achievement in itself in getting the film made, and having seen what in my opinion was an improvement over the rough cut - being quicker in establishing the characters and premise, and being paced much faster. Solos tells of a story of love between 3 characters, a boy, his mum, and his lover the man, (yup, you read that right) and the internal tussle of emotions that each feel in their lives as they try to reach out from their pain and confusion.
It's interesting to note that Kan Lume's movies to date have rarely been mainstream, which is set to diversify and add to our repertoire of films aside from comedies, or films about the mundaneness of local society. His features have both been based on short films done (The Art of Flirting based on his award winning short "I,Promise", and the precursor of sorts to Solos was a short called Untitled), and are totally different in genre and presentation. With The Art of Flirting, it's extremely dialogue driven, and a voyeuristic approach used to capture scenes up close. In Solos, Kan and co-director Loo Zihan employed the minimalist approach with the still camera technique so often used in the works of auteurs like Tsai Ming-liang, and totally devoid of dialogue, instead relying on the visuals to tell the story and move the narrative along. It's not an easy film to follow given that an audience will probably have to work at while viewing it, yet simple enough to avoid alienation.
Perhaps having it devoid of dialogue helped to convey the mood of the characters, where everyone's on almost non-speaking terms. It's an abstract tale of insecurity and despair, with a young boy unsure and struggling with his being in love with an older man, an older man afraid that his young love will leave him, and a mother frustrated with herself for her son being different from societal norms. With strained colors contrasted strongly with surrealistic, colorful scenes conveying innermost thoughts, I thought the one for the boy, played by co-director and writer Loo Zihan himself, was the best amongst the three. The mother's played by newcomer Goh Guat Kian, who had to go through most of her scenes in a bandaged eye-patch, hinting that she refuses to see and accept what is, while the Man is played by local veteran stage and TV actor Lim Yu-beng, in possibly his most daring role to date, a character like ice, fearful of a definite change in state while hoping for a thawing of relations.
And what of the scenes which were requested to be cut? Singapore has shown gay-themed movies in local theatres with the R21 rating, and usually it's the sexually explicit scenes that are snipped. Should Solos be eventually screened commercially here, no doubt such scenes in Solos will be shortened, or at worse, eliminated, which will probably and unfortunately diminish the anguished feelings of the characters involved.
There's certainly a ready niched market here, deny it all if anyone would like, and like the tagline reminds, "open up".