Saturday, August 02, 2008

[5th Singapore Short Cuts] 4th Week

Today marked the last week of this year's Singapore Short Cuts programme. One common theme running across all the short films featured seemed to be that of family, or the lack thereof, like in Haze where family members were absent and on holiday, which allowed for some shenanigans between two hot blooded teenagers, and we even take a trip to Korea to examine the dynamics of yet another family with Come, directed by Kirsten Tan.

Four Dishes - Leon Cheo

I felt that this was almost a decent follow up of sorts to a very early short called Moveable Feast, which was directed by Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng, and had primary focus being the glorious close up shots of yummylicious food. Watch Four Dishes not on an empty stomach, as I had learned the hard way, and found myself salivating to the deliciously looking vegetables and fluffy white rice, with hungry stomach growling.

We see a typical family sharing a meal on the dinner table, and all looks quite well, and fit the standard mold of what we would expect of the family members. The mom's the cook, and had whipped up four dishes for lunch. The father looks like your typical stern dad, and one of few words. Two sons, one much older than the other, who as the baby of the family, is rather mischievous. Dinner table manners and dynamics are familiar stuff found in your average family interaction.

Then, as if like another tale, light gets treaded for darkness, and we see a guy sitting in the darkness of a kitchen, before another man switches on the light, and joins him for a packeted dinner, which also contains four dishes, but of reduced portions, and bought back home. There is little interaction and whatever dialogue between the characters, was one of uneasy conversation, and few words.

I had interpreted this short in two diverse ways. The first way being that the second portion of the film was set in an unfortunate timeline where perhaps the happy family we seen earlier had already disintegrated, and what's left are the older son and the father, who now share a meal cooked by a hawker, and friendly family banter becomes a thing of the past. The second way, which the director sort of confirmed during the Q&A, was that the son was imagining what a complete, happy family would have been like, with piping hot home cooked food, and cohesive family bonding over meals, before he is brought back to his stark reality when his dad returns home with packeted dinner.

Pretty power stuff here, with simple visuals used to accentuate the differences between the mood felt in the two scenes.

Haze - Anthony Chen
(Adapted from an earlier review)

I thought it was a fairly interesting bit of observation on the youths of today. Many times you would see teenage couples hanging out together, but I found it sometimes peculiar that the guys do seem to not pay any much attention to their girlfriends, as they go about doing their own thing, while the girl just sits around and waits. I always thought that was a complete waste of time though, where both could have utilized their quality time in a more constructive manner. A very strange generation (signs I'm getting old!) and I thought he captured such observations succinctly in his follow up short to Ah Ma.

Here, you have a delinquent couple who decided to play hokey, and hang out at the guy's home. Whether the guy's sleeping in, playing his PSP, or complaining of his hunger, the girl dutifully obeys, though made a comment questioning of her purpose in his presence. Production wise, I thought the actors were quite natural in delivering their lines in a mixture of languages in an authentic manner, and touching fleetingly on the theme of insecurity after they did the deed to earn this short its R21 rating, though it played out at times in a comic fashion.

Love through the Ages / 被 骗 - Wendy Chee

Romance between elderly folk rarely gets depicted on the local screen, and I recall only Singapore Dreaming (though the character was a typical chauvinist) and Han Yew Kwang's Pinball dealt with or had the subject on screen. But while the introduction of the short might look a little cheesy with a rubber cockroach being pulled across the screen on an "invisible" string, the production is nothing short of being a succinct class act.

It's an exploration of love between couples in its early stages, and how it matures, even though it presents itself in some quaintly nostalgic, and generic at times in its dwelling on the different stages. But I like how it all got presented in a package, with the audio coming primarily from the wife of the present in no less than nagging terms, and comparing all the what ifs that were promised ages ago, while the visuals showed the beautiful past of pigtails, old movie posters and saccharine sweet set up of that first date.

It's funny, whimsical, and affectionately moving even, to have sit through this short film, and to laugh along with it, with that message that true love conquers all, and even if things don't eventually turn out the way that they should.

Come (World Premiere) - Kirsten Tan

Directed by Kirsten Tan, this short was shot in Korea and in the Korean language, which looks at a family turned dysfunctional when the birds and the bees come into the picture of a perfectly straight-laced household. We begin with a prim-and-proper family, sitting around the dinner table, enjoying a good meal, but with rather blah conversational pieces. The mom looks like she's firmly in command with the imposition of strict household regulations that everyone has to follow, though we do see flashes of youthful rebellion in that of the young son and daughter, and the sibling rivalry between them.

The short undoubtedly looks at religious intolerance and hypocrisy, how one in the name of holiness could be so narrow-mindedly shut off from the current dynamics of the real world, that is until the young son accidentally punctures this bubble of protection that the mom put over the entire household. You can't help but to laugh at this kid's antics, as he discovers the joys of wanking(!) and fantasizing, much to the shock of his dad in a scene ala American Pie. There are of course shades of My Blue Heaven (shown two weeks ago) over here, and you know who the guilty culprits are in the audience when audible laughter rang out during a shot of an AV screen cap.

Although heavy in its religious imagery and depictions, with Christ on the cross and electro-guitar riffs of Amazing Grace, this is one good comedy that should be seen by the masses, especially anyone coming from families (or have mums) as anal as the one depicted here. Anti-establishment? A throw at the face of authority? Time to lighten up and decide!

Clouds in a Shell / 壳里的云 - Liao Jiekai

Telling 2 stories running in parallel, this short somehow tried its best to deal with its art house pedigree, but ran the risk of alienating its audience with plenty of undecipherable elements in the movie that didn't quite come across that well. It tells of a very whiny Jin, a National Serviceman who couldn't cope with the jibes of being conscripted, and found himself locked out of his flat because his mom is not at home. The other story thread focused on a teenage girl Yun, who had run away from home because of unfair comparisons and expectations.

We follow both of them through their respective stories until the end where they finally come into the same frame, and both characters seem to drift around, having no place to go, one of course doing so by conscious choice, while the other does so because of circumstance. While they are probably neighbours and live next to each other, we don't know the stories behind these strangers, and I thought this was a very shrewd observation and comment about the current HDB lifestyle where we live behind closed doors most of the time, knowing little of our neighbours beyond the familiar faces.

Other than that, I felt that the imagery requires plenty of suspension of disbelief, and the last straw for me was one sequence involving a heavy / weightless duffle bag. For a short like this one, emotional depth that was crucial to carry the film and engage the audience was severely absent, and worse, there were plenty of typos in the subtitles ("Wednersday" anyone?) which seem to suggest a rushed job.

But for those who prefer free-wheeling interpretation of the short film on screen, then you might want to give Clouds in a Shell a go.


LtoR: Beng Kheng (Substation Program Manager for Moving Images), Kirsten Tan, Anthony Chen, Liao Jiekai and Leon Cheo

As staple in the programme, a Q&A session was conducted with the directors, although Wendy Chee was unable to attend today's session. As always, here's the excerpt from this afternoon's Q&A session, and any inaccuracies are faults of mine alone.

Beng Kheng: Perhaps the filmmakers can introduce themselves and the films?
Kirsten: I did this film during my 1 year residency in Korea, and it was based on my observation of local society, where the majority is conservative and uptight, but there's a minority who are quite liberal. The story stemmed from a conversation with a group of friends where one of them had been found out by the father during a (masturbation) session, and I expanded the story from there!
Anthony: This is my new film which was shot sometime August / September last year. This is probably the second screening in Singapore, after the earlier one at the Singapore International Film Festival. This is the first time I'm attended a local screening of it though.
Jiekai: My short film was shot last summer, and I spent a year editing and doing post production. I am interested in parallel structures in storytelling. The girl and her dead mom stemmed from my curiosity about death. The original story was based in America, where I had the script but didn't shoot it. Jin, the NS serviceman, was from my having experienced it, so that's how the two stories come together.
Leon: My film was made in August last year, and it was what I thought about family. [To Jiekai] I thought there was some strange homoerotic tension between the two guys in your short?
Jiekai: Well that's not the way I interpreted it! I looked at it more as friendship. I came from an all boys school - Victoria School - and I probably know more about the male-male interaction. As for Jin and his friend standing at the balcony, yes there is some invisible tension , which is something unspoken, but understood.

Beng Kheng to Kirsten: How was the response from the Korean community?
Kirsten: I first screened it at a private screening for about 250 people. Initially I was afraid that they were religious folks and would react negatively to it, but fortunately they saw the light side of the film, and took it quite well, so I was quite relieved. As for sex and religion in the movie, you know, even with the title Come, well if you noticed there were questions posed in the movie such as where did the porn come from, and where does a baby come from, it was my subtle way of saying that perhaps all things come from God.

Q: Is there a reason why a handheld camera was used throughout the film?
Anthony: Yes it was a conscious decision from the start. The first thing and the last thing taught in school was that the story dictates the style. In my previous film, it was about death and dealing with it, so I decided to use a cold, static camera, within which to allow the drama to unfold. Here, it's about the recklessness of youth, their innocence, and the wild stupid things that we do when young. I want to capture that and the grittiness of it as well.

Q: Could you all talk about the difficulties you faced during production?
Kirsten: I faced two major difficulties. First, the film shoot was organized by film programmers, and I was given four days to do pre-production. I didn't get to meet the actors until the day of the shoot, so I didn't know what they were like personally. Second, tbhe language. I was one of the two foreigners and everyone was Korean. I had to grab the translator, who was also my art director, when I want to say something.
Anthony: My main difficulty, due to the subject matter, was casting. I didn't want to use actors because I wanted to capture honesty and sincerity, so there was no open auditions, and I looked to friends who were teachers or had interactions with students. Eventually I found 2 kids, and I took a gamble. They didn't know the whole script until 2 weeks before the shoot. It was made in a different way, where they had to stay with me in the flat that we shot in, so that they can rehearse, which was for about 2 weeks which also allowed them to get to know each other better, get close and more comfortable. The film was shot in 3 days.
Jiekai: It was in the writing of the story. When production started it was still unfinished as I kept revising it, adding new characters and scenes. Scenes that were conceived spontaneously worked for me, although images that came to mind was not logical, but made emotional sense. Casting was also difficult, as I did street casting at Far East Plaza looking for teenage girls between 14 to 18. It was difficult to approach them without coming across as dodgy, so in the end I got my producer to do so. The film was shot in 3 days too.
Leon: Mine was mainly finance I guess, as I didn't get a grant. So it was made in one location, as I had made a huge film previously and it was a nightmare. This film was shot in two 10 hour shoots each day, and it was quite fun actually.

Q: You said that the random images were images you had put into your film. Was it supposed to mean anything?
Jiekai: The logic is not important for me. The images came during travelling, and they made emotional sense to me, so I put them in. They were symbolic but not made to be too representative. The story was not important to me but the mood they create is.

Q: Could you elaborate on the concept and backstory to the characters in Four Dishes?
Leon: It's mainly about a guy who wonders what the perfect family is like, and what he wants and how he gets it. The backstory, well it came from a friend told me about an image of a father and son having dinner, where the kid was playing his PSP and ignoring his dad.

Photo Credits: CK Yip


And that wraps up this edition of the Singapore Short Cuts! See you all next year!

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