Saturday, September 24, 2011

[SIFF11] Eclipses (World Premiere)

A Tribute

Eclipses came off as the work of a young filmmaker having a lot of issues to get off his chest, and throwing them all into a heady mix of a first feature film that comprises fictional narratives, documentary segments, and clunky art house moments that either had the intentional to parody or self-indulge they turn out to be very cruel jokes played on the audience. To the next Singapore filmmaker who has no better idea than to put a camera on people who smoke, stare into blank space, and engage in faux pas contemplation, I have this to say to you - Snap out of it. Now.

You can probably hear the collective groan of "Not Again?" when the film opens with just that, with a couple lighting up, smoking, staring into something oblivion, the camera never moving, and with the actress saying something inane which will be repeated later by the other actor, all with the obligatory newsreel programme barely audible but playing in the background. It's about time our local filmmakers grow up, and grow up fast. Acting is not about staring, smoking and looking bored in more than a handful of scenes in this film, which form the worst lot of disparate scenes being hobbled together to form a feature film, if only to clock runtime. And in an attempt to become art, two men smoked imaginary cigarettes, with stoned pretense, even tripping up lines to reinforce their state of silent high, flubbing lines where one meant experiencing his house catching fire, but really in a trippy zone when mentioning fire catching fire instead. It's one thing trying to be and act cool, indifferent and the like, but another if done artificially. The only folks that will be happy here will be tobacco companies since this is a 101 instructional video on the joys of smoking, and product placement will be most welcome at this juncture.

That aside, Eclipses still has its redeeming factors, albeit a few and coming from its documentary segments instead, with the camera roaming to all parts of this island to capture landscapes and people at work, be it construction workers on a sidewalk, canteen operators and cleaners going about their daily chores, domestic workers cleaning and housewives cooking or imparting their knowledge on culinary skills. With domestic and foreign workers, you can feel for the filmmaker's desire to tell it as it is (and if memory serves me right he had dabbled on similar themes in an earlier short film) be it working conditions or unfair challenges they face, and share their hopes and dreams which revolve around the basics of survival, balancing what's bleak with that of hope, and showing their lighter sides in elevating spirits through the many songs of different cultures which got showcased, with the protagonists singing what I would suppose are their favourite songs toward the camera and to us the audience, songs that they know to keep their spirits up - the melody and the lyrics all point to that.

Anxieties of financial futures, even amongst those not amongst the have nots, got a jarring inclusion as well. Financial advice was provided free to everyone and I'm sure we all learnt a lot more about the Rule of 72, reflecting the mindsets most of us adopt due to our risk averseness, and being relatively clueless about managing our monies, thinking that our state controlled compulsory savings would be sufficient in the long run. This stopped short from giving sure-fire tips since they don't exist anyway, but was left hanging, and went away as fast as it got introduced. If only the English here could be spruced up, or come with subtitles like the other non-English segments.

Strengths of the film's independent segments worked a lot more for the film than collectively being put together, and with the film being paid a tribute to the filmmaker's grandfather, his segment and the stories that revolve around it, were inevitably and thankfully the strongest, especially when he launches into a monologue, as do most other characters when their turn came to talk to the camera and audience direct. And it brings to mind one of the themes about family that is evident in the film, where we see a woman (Vel Ng) going about helping her family business in the school canteen, learning the ropes from her folks, and listening in, voyeur style, to two middle aged woman talk about theirs in almost gossip-like fashion. The segments which stuck out like a sore thumb involves those aforementioned smoker dudes, and what I thought was patiently interesting was an almost real-time MRT journey from Simei to Pasir Ris which trailed off midway to its intended destination.

Shot on 16mm which is a rarity in local film these days, the film is technically competent (as with almost, if not all films presented by 13 Little Pictures) with the filmmaker indulging in plenty of tight close ups so much so you can see every wrinkle or pore on the actor's face. Alas it was not projected as such but digitally in the now infamous Lido Hall 2, the bane venue of many botched SIFF screenings.

The director had warned before the screening started that it was not going to be an easy film to sit through, but I almost always thought this was something of a cop out or reflecting a lack of confidence to tell an audience before one's screening. Sure there were walk outs by those who felt enough was enough, but the vast majority sat in our places to take in whatever else that got thrown our way. There were segments that worked, segments that moved especially those which were honest, such as the very heartfelt monologue by the filmmaker's grandfather talking about his grandson, and those that were flat out artificial that should have been thrown out together with the other two odd plus hours that ended up on the cutting room floor.

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