Tuesday, November 11, 2008

[Singapore Biennale] Banjir Kemarau (Flooding in the Time of Drought)

This film is in response by writer-director Sherman Ong to this year's Singapore Biennale theme of "Wonder", where the filmmaker decided to ponder over two hypothetical scenarios in Singapore which concerns water on opposite ends of the spectrum - a drought, and a case of too much of it. In two separate parts with different run times (the first being slightly over half that of the second), the fictional backgrounds are just that, a space in which the real crux of the film is being played out

For a made in Singapore film, this consists of little stories and topical issues from everyday slices of life here on our island, as keenly observed and translated to screen by the filmmaker. What more, there's a distinct lack of local voices, and instead, this is probably one of the first films that primarily address the concerns of foreigners or migrant workers who are here, and their response to the what-ifs as painted by Ong, but as mentioned, serving only as a background. Technically, there were some rather ingenious moments employed to paint the background picture, such as subtle character actions of wiping themselves down with cloth and towels to illustrate water rationing in effect, or the use of water based motifs like fish tanks, taps, pools, bottles and the sound of rain to illustrate abundance of water in the second part of the film. Naturally you can't expect big budgeted special effects to prepare the settings, so subtle ones like these work to great effect in keeping probable science fiction elements at bay.

For an island so dependent on water, what if there's a severe and prolonged Drought? For those who have direct ties and easy access to their home of origin, the temptation to flee and quit the island never felt stronger. The story of Italian Giovanni and wife Faridah and three kids, examines this in some detail. The husband very much desires to stay in his new home, but the wife persistently requests that he looks at the reality of their situation, and thoroughly consider going back. It's interesting because it somehow portrays locals as seeing the quicker way out to a solution, with no qualms about leaving behind Singapore, to escape to possibly greener pastures when the going gets tough.

We also have a group of Indonesians who talk about one of their mom's upcoming visit to the island, as well as a proposition about a possible kidney transplant, touching upon the issue of the selling of organs, though the reward comes indirectly through support in terms of tertiary instituition expenses, with an easter egg thrown in as Ong's debut feature film Hashi gets projected on the wall, again underlying the well to do background of the characters here given that snazzy home theatre system setup.

This is in contrast to what I thought to be the most powerful and touching of the stories, dealing with an Indian couple's predicament of being looked down upon because of their caste, and their need of money which led them to rent out part of their home to a stranger. The struggles of Sanjay and Gayatri go far beyond the current ecological / environmental disaster, as they deal with deep-rooted prejudice stemming from man himself. The option they spend considerable time contemplating is that of seeking a new life abroad in Delhi to avoid unhappy in-laws, and class (naive to think so?) issues, together with other frustrations such as the mouthpiece on the usage of English. Despite their troubles, I thought that their knowing of their steadfast companionship with each other was a highlight of the film, as seen in their tender moments shared in the bedroom and the kitchen, which elevated the finale of this particular segment of the film to poignancy.

Besides the extremely short story about a German couple talking about food, cooking and a banquet, the other segments such as the introduction involving a lady hanging out clothes to dry, were all shot indoors within the private confines of personal homes, and with dialogue spoken in their mother tongue. This made the stories come across quite naturally and unforced, given also that the cast here are relative unknowns and non-actors, but Ong managed to coax some real performances, similar to what he managed to do for his earlier film Hashi.

Flood continues filming from within similar interior spaces of homes, and rarely does it venture beyond. I felt that this portion of the story dealt with relationships or the lack thereof, again filled with non-local characters who are seeking a way out of their respective predicaments. The opening segment and storyline had some built in complication about identity, because everyone seems to be bilingual, involving a Japanese-Korean speaking lady and her friend, who's a Chinese-Japanese speaking man looking for marriage prospects, with his friend certainly under consideration and in the running. I thought only a particular scene involving a three-way conversation was worth a merit.

The shortest piece here was probably the segments dealing with a Chinese family's problems with loan sharks, and a segment on a cross dresser which is sans dialogue, but unravelling itself to my personal enjoyment were two others which of course had more screen time to flesh out the narrative in richer terms. The first involves China girls, one who's already established herself and settled in Singapore, while the other, younger and sprightlier girl is looking for a job, but has some reservations in wanting to make at least a monthly salary of S$2500.

It touches upon the issue of Singapore being a stepping stone for some, and needless to say, we see this in countless of examples everywhere amongst our foreign talent scheme, where our country provides an ideal platform for those who choose to springboard themselves to the next best, and possibly more permanent residence in countries they aspire to go to, such as the USA. Our red passport becomes their ticket to the world because of the convenience of generally visa and question-free travel, and here, Ong weaves in all these issues succinctly into this singular segment of observation, including touching on opportunities for crime to happen with the collaboration into a sham arranged marriage.

The other story which was enjoyable, was one dealing with Thai men here being inflicted with inexplicable disease at one point in our recent history, where they drop dead, like flies. This particular story about Lai Tai might be slow and seemingly going nowhere, with his implementing an advice to wear women's pyjamas to bed to ward off bad karma (seems like there is plenty of aspects in Thai culture to deal with this, sort of like The Coffin), and we see a maid inching her way into his life by becoming his nurse and then his girlfriend. But the payload of course comes right at the end, and I felt its sleight of hand was quite unique and unexpected, though clues were dropped way back in the initial scene of the story.

Like Hashi, reading about the process of making this film is nothing short of being organically evolving until its final product. Even so, there might be tweaks as Sherman has made mention, depending on where the film plays, so if you want to watch the Singapore Biennale version, then head down to the Old City Hall, which is one of the main venues of this year's Biennale, and catch this in a screening room. Tickets for admission to the venue apply - the cost of a weekend ticket anyway, and it also gives you access to the other exhibits and venues. The film plays in a loop, so just be sure you begin at the right jump-in points at 11am, 130pm, 4pm and 630pm which runs until the closing time of 8pm.

Related Links

An article by Adele Tan for ARTicle, The Singapore Biennale Companion

An interview by Loo Zihan on the process of making the work

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