"If we could just release this fear of the unknown, we would have boundless courage to accomplish the unimaginable" - Royston Tan
After two hectic years of shooting and releasing two successful feature films – 881 and 12 Lotus – almost back to back, Royston had intended that 2009 be a year of rest. At least we won't be expecting to see another feature, but he's been busy with directing a stage play (Broadway Beng) which will premiere at the end of the year, and then there's a return to his roots with this short film Little Note, which was released under his newly formed Chuan Pictures.
Those who have been following Royston's shorts through the years would be familiar with his masterful strokes at storytelling in the short form, be it experimental, humour-filled critical pieces, or straight narrative pieces. It's little wonder that his talent has been sought after by a the Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in collaborating on a short story that has touches of Buddhist elements without being religious, having general teachings with themes on encouragement and resilience, with the intent of reaching out to everyone impacted by uncertainties in today's environment to soldier on with hope and courage.
From the production blog, the idea first came in January 2009 and pre-production happened in late February. Given the setting which is back in the good ol' kampung days, Singapore turned out to be too much of a concrete jungle, thus leading the production to Bentong in Pahang, Malaysia for its shoot. And the sheer beauty that came out of the idyllic location is nothing short of breathtaking, from its picturesque greens to the perfect blues of a sky peppered with plump white clouds, reminiscence of the simpler days.
The story is uncomplicated, with plenty of pathos to mull over. It's one of unconditional love between a single mom (Chua En Jye) and her child Zhiren (Chen Jing Jun as the younger version, with Desmond Tan taking over the reins midway as the teenager), with scenes accentuating the bittersweet episodes in bringing up a child single-handedly. And I suppose as part of nurturing, of not being able to be there all the time by choice or intent, Zhiren receives the titular note from his mom as a reminder to be brave when facing adversary, be it prejudice or ridicule faced from peers, or to conquer his stage fright. You can just about imagine the power of positive thinking in situations like these. In many ways then, Zhiren was reminded to cast aside his fears, and go the distance without too much hand-holding from his mom, but yet also knowing that she'll be there for him should he fall. The three-worded note is beautifully simple, yet tells a lot in its minute space, like a haiku with profound meaning in the context it is read under.
Then there's the symbolism of the lotus plant and leaf in the story. The plant represents the purity of spirit, and one of those which can root in mud, yet rise above unclean water in its habitat and yield a beautiful flower. The second half had the teenage Zhiren dealing with this inevitable event, where through the basis of tender, loving care showered by his mom, he's able to excel, and clinched an overseas academic scholarship. Certainly it paved the possibility toward a more comfortable, material life (not to say that they aren't already leading simple, meaningful ones) should he succeed, one perhaps he dreamed of repaying his mom with for the many hardship she had to endure to bring him up.
But then this brings unto itself another dilemma, of having to leave his mom, facing a fear not for himself, but that of his mom being left alone. It is in this segment which is designed to tug at your heartstrings, coming full circle to the very first scene of the film. There's only so much you can tell in less than 15 minutes, but Royston managed to pack them all into his film, and fans will see how this cinematic “bad boy”, could craft a film that speaks from the heart and sincere to be that encouraging calling card to all and sundry in dire straits.
Little Note had premiered on the big screen at a special preview session held at the Asian Civilizations Museum, as well as the recently concluded THIS Buddhist Film Festival. For those who didn't make it to either of those screenings, there's no excuse not catching this latest Royston Tan short as it's already been released exclusively on DVD format nationwide.
This Code 3 DVD comes specially designed, wrapped in a mock lotus leaf and secured by a brown little note sticker, which is a very nice touch given their significance to the story. But if I had a gripe, it would be that the sticky fastener (the brown note) used to secure all the extra bits will likely succumb to wear and tear, or to the impatient, become a victim of a penknife since it's not easy to get to the contents the first time round. I would have liked either a string (similar to Cape No 7's packaging though), or a little piece of velcro on the underside of the note for a more permament fixture, but that's just me.
As extras, you have 8 postcards that got packaged into the DVD packet:
The disc itself contains the Trailer (1:00), a Photo Gallery (0:45) which runs through 15 non-selectable movie stills with the theme tune playing in the background, and the Making Of (9:51) which contains the standard behind the scenes look at the production, with interviews from the director, the music production which is key to the film, as well as the principal cast talking about their characters and sharing their most memorable scenes.
Royston's Shorts DVD
Little Note Facebook Page