The last week of the 4th edition of the Singapore Short Cuts no doubt had generated some buzz because of Anthony Chen's award winning short Ah Ma, and tickets were all snapped up within hours of being released. Royston Tan too turned up for the screening this afternoon. However, those who collected the free tickets apparently didn't turn up in full numbers, giving the opportunity to those in the waiting queue, which started to form an hour to showtime. And if I'm right, almost everyone who turned up did not do so in vain.
Ah Ma - Anthony Chen
I've seen this Cannes Short Film Special Distinction award winner when it was screened in the cinemas in Late June-Early July, and I think it's one film that could stand the test of time.
My earlier review of this short can be found here, and this was what I thought about it:
Made on a budget of S$10,000, it is without a doubt that Ah Ma is well shot. Veering to the artistic film corner, it is a contemplative yet simplistic piece which is based on Anthony's own Ah Ma on her deathbed, and the camera capturing a snapshot of the moment, of the emotions felt by each member of the family. With some recognizable faces from local television and movies, I thought the scene stealer was the little boy, whom I thought was a character perfectly captured during times of impending death - the childlike innocence unaware of the grief of the immediate family, and continues to behave as such in its own little world, unburdened by any thoughts of remorse and regret, of perhaps not spending enough time, or perhaps losing the opportunity to make amends of sorts.
Embryo - Loo Zihan
The clue to interpreting this experimental short is in the title itself. Having seen some of Zihan's earlier shorts and Solos (co-directed by Kan Lume), Zihan is a very visual person, and uses abstraction to bring his ideas across. Almost always without dialogue, he gives the audience space to interpret the images on screen, and here, there's only actress Ruby Pan as a schoolgirl in her pinafore, stuck in a courtyard, with red pails, eggs, red dye and plenty of water to rival Japanese horror movies. With a background soundtrack of bubbles underwater, how else would you interpret the short?
Elefant - Willie Koh
Based on Cyril Wong's poem "If, Else", Elefant tells a story about a boy's internal quest to find out more about his father, who had left the family, for reasons best to find out yourself from the movie. There's the recurring elephant motif which I thought was a metaphor for memory, and the story isn't your typical straightforward narrative, with some scenes I thought were unnecessary, and dialogue a bit stilted.
5 Steps To Becoming An Actor - Kan Lume
After two heavy shorts and the material the earlier three dwelled upon, this was like a godsend to elevate the mood. I thought 5 Steps was done in a visual style similar to Kan Lume's earlier short The Art of Flirting, and it chronicled quite astutely some of the challenges faced by aspiring actor wannabes. Jacen Tan's Zo Gang provided the predicament of budding filmmakers and musicians in the first week of this edition of Short Cuts, and 5 Steps complimented that piece on the last week. Rodney Olivero stars as Nicholas, whose wife, played by Marilyn Lee, thinks he's a good for nothing as he idles at home watching DVDs all day, while the audience is in the know about how difficult things can get for Nicholas, especially one devoid of talent.
If you're interested to know just what the 5 Steps are that Kan Lume has shared, highlight the following:
Step 1: Love the Media. Step 2: Lose Your Job. Step 3: Star in a Short Film. Step 4: Believe In Yourself. Step 5: Take Risks.
Katong Fugue - Boo Junfeng
One of the shorts chosen for the media preview, Katong Fugue is an adaptation of Alfian Sa'at's play in Asian Boys Volume II. Winning the Special Jury Prize in this year's Singapore International Film Festival, it's essentially a dialogue heavy piece between a mother and her son, about hurt and not wanting to hurt, about love and acceptance. But dialogue heavy doesn't necessarily equate to boring visuals, and Junfeng manages to marry the two together effectively, bringing about an effective translation of the material from stage to film.
The filmmakers were all present today for a Q&A session, moderated by Zhang Wenjie from the National Museum and Kristin Saw from the Substation.
LtoR: Willie Koh, Zhang Wenjie, Anthony Chen, Boo Junfeng, Kristin Saw
Kristin: Perhaps we can start by each of you sharing a bit about your thoughts, and anything about your film you want to share?
Zihan: This is the first public screening of Embryo. It's a collaborative piece with Ruby Pan (the actress). She contributed a lot to the process and the text on which this film is based upon.
Wenjie: Zihan and Kan Lume had done Solos, and Embryo was made at an interesting period...
Zihan: Yes. Embryo was done right after Solos. Solos had many surreal scenes and empty spaces. Embryo came out at the time of experimenting, and probably dug out of the subconscious and working with space. It was done independently though, not with Kan.
Willie: This is also the debut screening of Elefant here. It was made last June and is based liberally on Cyril Wong's poem "If, Else". It was a very long poem, and I took several lines which inspired. The whole short film sprung from those lines, exploring the boy's character in a situation of what if his father was gay.
Anthony: I guess this must have been made known many times already. This short was made because my ah ma (grandmother) had passed away 2 years ago. It was a film I needed to make. So I was telling the people I make films with about what I want to do, to capture the moments I saw, heard and felt, they too wanted to make the film.
Junfeng: I saw Katong Fugue two years ago, and had adapted it with Alfian Sa'at's (the playwright) permission.
Kan: My film was made during the Panasonic Digital Film Fiesta where it made it as a finalist, and Panasonic provided the equipment and some lighting for this 15 minute film.
Kristin: Making film is often a collaborative process, and you guys obviously have your own crew with whom you work together. Could you comment about that?
Kan: Collaboration definitely helps. I met Zihan at an activity organized by the National Museum, and had seen his works. I thought an amalgamation would produce something interesting, and that worked out to be Solos.
Willie: I am grateful and appreciative for Cyril's full permission. The filmmaking process is a collaboration with the DPs, composers, etc and it is interesting to see how people read the film and add to the film. My music composer saw the film after completion and contributed music to other places, which I eventually took out. Having such inputs allows the film to be known in more ways.
Junfeng: I'm all for collaboration. I sent Alfian the treatment, and he liked it, so I shot it! In wanting to know more about making films, Alfian now turned out to be my script supervisor for my latest film, and is very meticulous. For the most times for short films I can't afford to pay my crew, and I'm glad I have a team of people whom I can really rely on. I hope that with more credibility, there'll be more money, with which I can distribute to the crew more lor!
Q (for Zihan): I interpreted your film as a woman who is going to give birth, from the way it was designed, and the sound. I am curious about how the crane shot was done.
Zihan: Yes I did use a crane. It's a one take thing, as Ruby could do it only once. What you see from the film is how you choose to interpret it. It's your freedom and your choice.
Wenjie (for Anthony): All of us think your film is a success since it won a Special Mention in Cannes. Could you tell us how the film was selected for Cannes?
Anthony: Like many filmmakers you send your DVD screeners to festivals! It was memorable how we received the news. I had just finished a project and haven't slept for 48 hours. When I got home, I received a call from France, and was told of Ah Ma's selection. I was dumbfounded, and the caller repeated himself again, and told me to stay tuned to the website!
Wenjie: How many festivals did you send your film to?
Anthony: Cannes was the second festival that we sent to, so we're actually quite lucky.
Q (for Junfeng): How did you link the storyline to Katong, and what are you trying to convey?
Junfeng: The challenge was to adapt the text as fully as possible for film. The text is rather elevated, and I had to bring that language done for film. Katong was already very much in the text. For film, it provides a setting, and I had to juxtapose the images together.
Wenjie: Do you stay in Katong?
Junfeng: No, I stay in Changi! *chuckles* I studied in Chung Cheng High, and the bus number 10 I took shuttles between Katong and Changi.
Q (for Anthony): I'd like to ask about the casting process, as your film had good performances from a spectrum of older people, and kids.
Anthony: The phase I hate most is casting. It's a difficult process, and I had many auditions for Ah Ma. Thankfully I have a good friend who does casting, and knows many people. This is an ensemble cast with no main actor, and it wouldn't work if the cast do not gel together. I remember the little kid, who was 4 years old at the time, was very hard to direct. What we were looking for, is akin to, sorry ah, training a dog - we're looking for "play-drive", sort of like fetch-get. The kid we chose was focused and took instructions well. The ah ma character chosen was actually 77 years old, and was chosen because she somehow looked like my own grandmother. In fact, the number of aunties and uncles portrayed in the film corresponds to my own family members, and they looked similar too. They were impressions from real life.
Q: What was your family's reaction to the film?
Anthony: I didn't tell them that I was making the film. Only my friends knew about it. I remember the first time it was screened for the family, it was during my grandma's one year death anniversary. When we came home after paying our respects, my brother suddenly took the DVD and played it! Everyone kept quiet and no one talked about it. I guess for them it was an awkward film.
Wenjie (to Kan): This version of the short is very different from the Fiesta version. Could you tell us what are the differences, and why?
Kan: For the Fiesta, there's the deadline, and because of the rush to complete it, it looked quite experimental, compared to this more narrative version. A year after it was first made, I pieced it together again. It was improvised, without a script. It was quite autobiographical in some ways, as I put in some experiences with my wife. My philosophy when making the film was to take risk, and go without a script. I arrive on set without any idea what to do, and developed this phrase "chase the energy". I have a friend who stays at a shophouse, and it was a perfect location, so I went with it. I went to a play and saw Rodney Olivero, I thought he was suitable for the role so I approached him. Somehow I develop impulses and ideas on the spot, through a stream of consciousness, and went ahead to shoot things. 5 Steps developed from an idea of a couple with rental problems, and a man who wanted to be an actor.
Q (for Kan): Why did you choose to have Chinese oldies as the background music?
Kan: This started 2 years before the film. I did a short film with a friend who tried to smuggle an air rifle back. We thought that it was a waste if we did not do something in case he got caught. So we did a story about a wannabe assassin. At the time we were listening to a lot of Chinese oldies, and they sit in nicely, culturally, with the images. I tried to use classical music, but they don't fit somehow.
Q: What was most difficult in your production?
Kan: It's usually the finances. I did not just want to wait when I made my first feature, hence it was something that cost S$300 (re: Art of Flirting). I could wait for a bigger budget to do something better, and am finding producers.
Zihan: Embryo was difficult as I had to do everything myself, like the DP and the sound, but luckily Ruby made it easier. It was difficult to sell the story to someone...
Wenjie: But you did manage to sell it to Ruby!
Zihan: *chuckle* Yes, and vice versa as well! I had enough time to work on it, and did it in little digestable chunks. But it was still very exhausting!
Willie: The script, where you start to search for things where they can be ambiguous, and you might end up nowhere. But scripting is rewarding, as it forms the backbone of films.
Anthony: The 4 day shoot for Ah Ma was the most difficult shoot for me, and my crew complained that it was terrible to work for my films! The first two days were 18 hour days. My core team slept 4 hours for 3 days, and we also forgot to eat for 2 days! There was quite a lot of waiting as many scenes were emotional. We had to wait for the actors to come up to leve, especially the little kid. I'll be honest, I had a lot of walkouts on the film, from a crew of 20 down to 6 persons on the third day.
Junfeng: My shoot was very easy. Changi Murals was a 5 day shoot, and I made it a point after that to make my shoots easy. This one had a lot of closeups. The hardest part was casting. Geting Swee Lin was a breeze. The gruelling casting sessions for the boy was memorable. There were some very weird people who came to the auditions, though they were enthusiastic because it's Alfian's play, but I had trouble determining if those folks who turned up were casting for the mother, or the son's role! *chuckles* It took 3 full weekends to do the casting, then Luke came and everything worked out.
Q (for Zihan and Willie): Your films are not straightforward, narrative films. When poeple interpret your film, what is the experience like, if you're ok if they interpret it in a totally different manner from your intent?
Zihan: I felt quite stressed when my film was screened right after Anthony's! I've learnt to let go after the film is done. People can hate it or like it, and my intention as a filmmaker was to provoke a response.
Willie: The works are open for interpretation and it is hard to control reactions. It is interesting to see how others read your work, and how their views are different from yours. It makes you constantly aware of how the film would be framed, how it is coded and decoded, whether it strays too far from the source. I'm still learning, and figuring how much to put into a film, or take out.
Wenjie: The film was screened in festivals overseas. How was the reaction of audiences, and what were their comments or interpretation?
Willie: I went to the one at Rotterdam in February this year, and the audience asked specific questions, like the references used and the meaning of the elephant. Sometimes I wonder if it is my fault that things are not clear, or ambiguous.
At this point, one member of the audience asked about how to pronounce, or made a mispronounciation of the word "fugue". To know how, perhaps it is best to let Junfeng say it in his own words, and you can refer to his blog entry here.
Q (to Kan): How was it like shooting without a script?
Kan: It was maybe in response to 2 years ago where I had made films with a script. It requires a certain level of confidence, though I had to admit that I had equipment covered, and there's already a screening venue. It's liberating to have done a film without a script. There's a lot of personal themes that found their way into the film, which was scary at first, but the crossing of boundaries was therapeutic in finding yourself.
Q: What is your opinion in becoming a successful actor or actress, and for Willie, what do you think of the Singapore film industry?
Junfeng: First, you have to know how to pronounce the title of the film at least! *laughs* (in response to an earlier question) Seriously, I approach professional and non-professional actors differently.
Anthony: I can't directly answer the question. I look for actors with screen presence.
Kan Lume then shared about his views of the local film industry, from a review I did about 2 years back, which you can read about here.
Willie: I guess it's the ability to emphatize with people. Perhaps the onus is on the director? Being in the right environment, the right context, or being coaxed can help too.
Wenjie: To end off our Q&A, perhaps everyone could share what your next project is, and if you have any finals words for the final day of the 4th Singapore Short Cuts.
Junfeng: I'm working on the Lucky7 project. It's a very collaborative film involving 7 directors. It's an omnibus which should be completed by late this year. It's currently in audio post stage. I've also just finished a short called Homecoming, and hopefully it should be out later this year.
Anthony: I'm in the midst of casting for another film, and then I'll be headed for the UK for studies for 2 years.
Willie: I'm toying with story and script ideas. I'm taking to writing, and I'm happy if it stays on paper. I'm embarking on a search and see what I can find.
Zihan: I'm shooting a documentary, which is part of schoolwork actually, which I have 2 more years to complete. And I'm also tying up the loose ends for Solos. The documentary is a personal documentary about my mum and her reaction to the media hype around Solos, and how the family has changed because of the movie.
Kan: We're going to Pusan for Solos. I'm hoping to do something which is a balance between reality, fantasy and dream. It'll take about a year before I see the results. It's more of a reflection of spirituality, I've been widening the breadth of my works, and now I'm going to go deeper in scope.
Photo Credits: Richard Lim
And that wraps up this edition of the Singapore Short Cuts. As the number of attendees increase, and already we have witnessed full house screenings for all 4 weeks, Wenjie mentioned that there will be possibilities of two screenings for each weekly session for next year's edition. This is indeed good news for those who have conflicting schedules, or were afraid of making a wasted trip this time round.
Looking forward to next year's edition already! Meanwhile, stay tuned to the National Museum website, as its cinematheque is gearing itself for some serious movie screenings for this month. I'll post some of those up in another entry soon.