Saturday, September 10, 2005

[5th Asian Film Symposium] Eric Khoo Retrospective - 5 Shorts from Eric Khoo

The title's quite a mouthful, but after having seen local filmmaker Eric Khoo's feature length films in the past 2 months (Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys in August's Screen Singapore, and Be With Me in Sept), I'm beginning to have a keen interest in his works, especially his past short films.

So of course, what better way to do so than to take advantage of the screening at the 5th Asian Film Symposium? The films screened are as discussed below, and it was a good surprise that Eric himself was at the start of the screening to introduce his earlier works to the audience.

Clad in a brown Spider-Man T-Shirt (heard he's got a mean Spider-Man comic collection) and jeans, he started off in chronological order, first with Barbie Digs Joe, which was shot on a Super8 camera and won various awards, including Best Film at the Singapore Video Competition. He shared with us about using a dustpan to simulate the POV of the dog in August, getting his army's CSM (Company Sergeant Major) to star in his next short Carcass, and spending 6 months tracking down Chiew Sung Ching from Symphony 92.4 to star in Be With Me. He also went on to explain how he managed to get funding and sponsorship to do a feature length film after the success of his short films, and the feature film is now known to all as Mee Pok Man. He did a quick advert for the upcoming DVD box-set for Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys (Christmas' coming).

But he did not sit in the screening though, saying he's still shy in presenting his earlier works to audiences, as they're not as sophisticated but we should view it for what it's worth in its time. No problem, I'd enjoyed them a lot, and you could actually see the various influences and styles that are brought over from the shorts to the feature films.

Nonetheless, I should be properly armed with background knowledge when I attend the Forum Panel Session - Focus on Eric Khoo next Friday evening.

Barbie Digs Joe
A lot has been said about this short which was cited as starting Eric Khoo's foray into filmmaking. Winning numerous awards, this film's cast was made of the Barbie and Ken dolls, and various GI Joe models.

At first you couldn't make out the premise of the story, save for GI Joe spotting Barbie, and goes on a quest to make her his girl, and kicking Ken's ass in the process. Naturally, the stop-motion technique was used to animate the dolls, and I thought the voice-overs for the characters were pretty hilarious, if not unconvincing, but nonetheless, fun!

But it actually tells a broader love story from the obvious Barbie-world one in plastic, that of their owners who discover each other while they were childhood friends, right up to the near breakdown in their relationship towards the end, rekindled by memories of how Barbie and GI Joe brought them together.

If I may say so, it's an amatuer effort, from tacky credits to dubbed character voices, but a very important film that has its distinct place in Eric Khoo's filmography. Probably something to take from here, is that music plays an important part in his movies, with this we got tunes from Beach Boys and New Order.

I first watched August on television when I was a teenager many years ago, and it was the only EK movie I watched before this year. August tells the story of a couple, from their dog's perspective. Creating that cinematic POV was by the innovating fixing of a camera on a dustpan, and moving it around. A good and accurate touch was in ensuring the POV wasn't seen in colour, as dogs are colour blind.

The story's simple - with a seemingly happily married couple having everything going their way, until we find out that the wife was having an affair behind the husband's back. When he's away on a business trip, we see through the dog's eyes, the scandalous affair as well as the plot to get rid of the husband.

Starring Tan Tee Keon as the husband, Jacintha as the wife, and Gerald Chew as the lover, it's a story about betrayal, deceit, and loyalty from man's best friend. Something different and refreshing in its time.

I deem this film an important one in the crossroads from the short films to the feature films. There are a lot of thematic and stylistic elements that you can probably reference from the recent 3 feature movies.

Carcass refers to the dead animals which are butchered to various cuts for consumption, as well as the zombie like lives of the butchers this film explores. The protagonists are a butcher father and his sons, one who follows the father's footsteps in butchering for a living, while the other is a quiet stout man whom the father chides with his lack of girlfriends and inane conversations on making love.

We look at the routine lives they lead. The father goes to work, comes home, eats, gets drunk, bitch about life, sleep, and goes to work the next day. The kitchen is where he holds fort, with his drunken talks laced with vulgarities. If you think Harry Lee (Lim Kay Tong) in Perth was the first local character to emulate Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle and his mirror talk, the butcher here was first actually. It seems the kitchen will always be a featured set, especially in recent EK movies. With that set, food also gets prominently featured, and in this film, it's distinctive pork (since they're pork butchers), and a comparison made between a pig's life and their own.

The seedier side of Singapore that EK's films explore probably got its roots grown here, with its generous shots of HDB flats, and with one of the butcher's sons played by Joe Ng visiting prostitute joints to get his load off each night (Mee Pok Man anyone?). Nudity is featured in this short film, as with tame simulated sex acts.

Joe's butcher leads a mundane life as well, besides regularly visiting prostitutes, he's also a tv drama junkie, meticulously following a series called Flame of the Fire, which offers him a window to glimpse into the supposedly real/reel life of the yuppie characters, who yearn for 5Cs and engage in corporate politics, and whose lifestyle he could possibly never have a taste of. Longing, yearning, familiar themes in EK's movies. What's interesting here is the characters from past and future EK movies frozen in a point in time, where you have familiar cast of (earlier EK short August) Jacinta, Tee Keon, Gerald Chew, as well as TV/stage actress Karen Tan. A younger Chiew Sung Ching also stars in this - who would've thought he would play such a pivotal role in Be With Me, and of couse Joe Ng himself as the butcher man, an early precursor of Mee Pok Man.

Timid, lonely characters seem to be staple characters in EK movies. Here we have the two butcher brothers who are at the mercy of their erratic and fiery father, Joe Ng's Mee Pok Man, Jack Neo's Ah Gu the henpecked husband in 12 Storeys, and Seet Keng Yew's Fatty Koh the security guard in Be with Me. Perhaps it is the natural challenges that these characters face in life, stemmed from their lack of dare, and their clear motivations and desires, that make them easier to explore and touch upon.

Controversial themes are no stranger in EK's films, and are featured as early as Carcass, with a hint of an accidental incestous fling between mother and son, where the butcher father disses his wife as a loose woman who had slept with many men and walked out on them.

With watching local films in retrospect, I had a blast with the locales used for the shoot (which I think some was at Bedok Interchange?), and a walk down memory lane with the old SBS Volvo buses and their cherry red boxy ticketing machine.

If I'm tasked to recommend only one EK short film, no disrespect to the others, this would be it.

Symphony 92.4FM
Following Carcass, there're also some elements in this mostly black and white film which are adapted to the feature films, like the use of radio in the narrative (in this case, the title's FM station, vis-a-vis 12 Storey's use of Perfect 10 98.7FM).

Chiew Sung Ching is the sole protagonist in this almost silent film (except for a few radio voice-overs), making it the earlier stylistic predecessor of the silent film Be With Me, with Chiew playing yet another similar character, albeit older with a few more facial lines.

There are similar shots which could be found early in Symphony, with the extreme closeup of Chiew's face sideways, rousing from slumber, to the shot of him sitting up on his bed in the bedroom.

Obvious similarities aside, this story follows Chiew as an unnamed lonely man, where we follow a day in his life where he walks around town, which includes visiting a low rise HDB flat, a provision shop, having a banana at a sidewalk, and buying a cake from a cake shop. It seems mundane and ordinary, until we realize that it was his birthday, and there's where the direction of the film becomes clear.

Using sepia tones, we are brought to understand why he visited those places, which are precious memories which he holds so dear with his dog and his childhood sweetheart, and now as an old man, he faces a lonely existence for the remainder of his life, or would it?

With his stoic, measured acting style, it takes no rocket science to see why EK took pains to track him down to star in Be With Me. He mentioned that when writing the character, he already had Chiew in mind, and it is no wonder why.

Food and the kitchen, familiar elements, also have its place in Symphony, with Chiew eating his own cooking, on hindsight, similar to Be With Me's. Also as mentioned in my Be With Me review, it seems that "spirits" do make a comeback to the reel world, and in this, we see the protagonist's father (played by the butcher in Carcass) hang around the outside of his flat, as if waiting or giving the audience a premonition of what's to come.

And like Carcass, the familiar locale of the Changi Theatre do bring back memories of my own childhood days of growing up and watching films there.

Perhaps the most controversial of all the short films, Pain features a sado-masochistic young man as the protagonist, and a faceless police man. The protagonist is a man looking for a job, without much success, and it seemed like he didn't even bother to try as he crosses out recruitment ads without much thought.

He leads a vagrant lifestyle, patronizing a provision shop to get his daily supply of Marlboro, preserved plums and comic books. He idles his time away, and looks for the next big high by inflicting pain on his own body, starting from needles through fingertips, to the extinguishing of lit cigarettes on his skin, and to the use of razor blades to mutilate his body.

However, with addiction, it's never enough, and the highlight consists of various sick tortures on his kidnapped victim, from having a chisel driven into the foot, the sawing off of a limb, the removal of an eyeball, and culminating to a beheading.

It's an extremely dark film with minimal dialogue and a twist ending, backed by an edgy soundtrack. Though the SM parts looked very realistic, I thought the actual grizzly find of a dismembered human body in Singapore on the same day marred my enjoyment of this short film. A little too close for comfort somehow.

And so with these 5 films in the belt, I am looking forward to the Forum Panel Session: Focus on Eric Khoo. I might be back with a field report, so stay tuned!

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