Monday, November 17, 2008

[DVD] Asian Film Archive Collection: Singapore Shorts Vol.2 (2008)

It was in 2005 that the Asian Film Archive issued the first DVD collection from its archives entitled Singapore Shorts Volume 1, and given its title, you'd come to expect more from this particular anthology series to emerge. It's been a long three year anticipation for Volume 2 to materialize, which was recently launched at Kinokuniya @ Ngee Ann City last week, but as the adage goes, all good things come to those who wait.

Between these 3 years, the Singapore short and feature film landscape has changed dramatically, with increasing output on both the commercial and independent fronts. Carefully curated from its ever expanding archives, this collection features some of the most exciting lineup of creative works from established filmmakers, as well as the up and coming rising stars that one should start to take note of.

Why? Well, we've seen how the filmmakers from Volume 1 have continued to develop their craft and proceeded to the feature film front - Royston Tan now has a few well-travelled features under his belt - 4:30, 881, 12 Lotus - as does Tan Pin Pin with her acclaimed documentaries Singapore GaGa and Invisible City. While his short The Call Home was dramatic material, Han Yew Kwang has begun to establish his brand of comedy with Unarmed Combat and 18 Grams of Love (watch out Jack Neo!) which will make its theatrical debut at Sinema Old School come December. Wee Li Lin had Gone Shopping and Sun Koh dabbled as producer-director of the exquisite-corpse film Lucky 7 which made its world premiere at the Rotterdam International Film Festival early this year.

If the Archive's collection is an inkling of things to come from the filmmakers featured, then it shouldn’t be too long before we see them become more prolific. Already Loo Zihan and Brian Gothong Tan had made their feature films, with the former having co-directed Solos with Kan Lume, which was nominated for the running at the 20th Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) Silver Screen Awards, and the latter making his feature film debut with Invisible Children, which had its world premiere at the Bangkok International Film Festival last month. Boo Junfeng is another star in the making to look out for, having gone full circle to bag yet another SIFF Best Short Film award for Keluar Baris this year, his earlier win in the same category being included in this Vol 2 collection.

But that’s not to say that only those who have gone on or going to be making features are given that extra credit. From this collection alone, one can safely attest that we’re not short (pardon the pun) of varied talent in our filmmaking space, from documentaries to even stop motion animation. Nicely packaged with excellent extras incorporated, an informative insert as well as commentaries by those involved in the production (more on that later), one can see that no effort was spared in ensuring a quality DVD befitting a release from an Archive, and this time with a feather in the cap with a restored audio version of Rajendra Gour's 70s film Labour of Love - The Housewife.

Curated based on the theme of Family, it’s a collection of shorts made from the 70s to today, shot in-country and even abroad, and some seldom seen outside of film festivals here and overseas. Now they’re all packed into one nifty collection that you can own, and also perhaps take a glimpse into how the notion of Family has evolved for our young nation still grappling with finding a national identity in her relatively short history.

As mentioned earlier, Boo Junfeng’s A Family Portrait garnered him a win for Best Short Film and Special Achievement Award in 2005 at the 18th SIFF, and he has come full circle this year with another Best Short Film award for Keluar Baris at the 21st SIFF, which also bagged him Best Director, and a Best Cinematographer award for Sharon Loh, who also collaborated with him and lensed this film. Shot overseas in Barcelona, Spain, and in the Spanish language, this short’s excellent production values betray the fact that it was actually a student project, as it tells of the story of Sergio the photographer being questioned by his sister about sex, and it tangents into Sergio’s own discovery of the meaning of it which left him somewhat traumatized. It comes with a nice little twist at the end that we sometimes reel unnecessarily from the unwarranted complexities of honest questions.

Also shot overseas was Mirabelle Ang’s Match Made (the longest short film in this collection), which is based on a Singaporean man's search for a Vietnamese bride, and begins in thick of the action in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Filmed in 2004, Mirabelle covers the spectrum of the process, from engaging the matchmaking agency, to the introduction of a host of possible candidates in a selection process held in a hotel room, the initial fleeting discussions through an interpreter, the marriage, where you get to witness first hand a Vietnamese wedding ceremony and the customary lunch/dinner, as well as a visit to the bride's farming village.

To date I still cannot fathom how anyone can choose someone to spend one's life with through an unsettling selection process such as a “buffet train”, akin to a flesh parade, and how with methodical, clinical, business-like demeanour, everything gets settled in less than 4 days, including the marriage itself, the meeting of the in-laws etc. The documentary did ask certain probing questions to the matchmakers - the agency as well as their local agents, in trying to find out more about the shortlist process, but while the answers are forthcoming, you do feel a sense that there is more than meets the eye. The ending though felt quite rushed, especially in the interview back in Singapore - the audience just gets a few cursory responses from the interviewee, and nothing else. Perhaps it is the nature of privacy, that the ending, wrapped up in inter-titles, tells of a lot more pain behind the scenes that the subjects did not wish to be further interviewed on camera?

One can only speculate. However, Match Made had done its fair share in demystifying the machinery behind these matches made in foreign lands, and becomes an interesting revelatory documentary that manages to garner your undivided attention, despite its flaws.

Speaking of documentaries, Loo Zihan’s Autopsy was made after his feature film Solos, and contained some snippets of his time at the Pusan International Film Festival where it was played. Also as part of a school project on a topic about Mom, this is one courageous documentary where the filmmaker opened himself up, as well as his family and mother to audiences around, in an interview session primarily with his mother and her feelings toward her son's homosexuality. It's no holds barred, and reveals a lot about her hopes and anxieties, as we see her clips of her in her work environment and at home, where the film was shot in. Consisting of old and new photos of the family, Zihan had probably captured through his short, a mother's honest feelings and the dealing with acceptance, though still with resignation, but a mother's love for her child will always be steadfast and true, regardless of circumstances.

And the mother figure continues to be featured in two more shorts in the collection. In Ryan Tan's Yesterday's Play, it consists of a scene that is all too familiar, especially for those with nagging moms, whom you wish for them to shut up at times and leave you alone for some peace and quiet. A boy who's been lambasted by his mom for being a good for nothing, seem to have his patience tested time and again. The nagging grows incessantly irritating, and the boy reflects his displeasure physically. But what I liked about it, is how short it is, to the point, and addresses the issue succinctly, given that you're primed for an explosive showdown - blood is thicker than water, and there's no shame in asking for forgiveness, nor to show much needed appreciation.

For those who prefer a little nostalgia in the films, then look no further than Rajendra Gour's Labour of Love – The Housewife. Shot in the 70s, Rajendra had a keen eye on issues that were raised in his film, issues which still ring true to this day. The short is as the title says, as we follow a housewife's routine, the daily, menial tasks of taking care of the home, as well as the children. While highlighting challenges faced, it also had a very heartwarming observation on the children of the household, with many earnest scenes on interaction, and you can really feel the love permeating through.

There were also a couple of scenes that set the era - the trishaw, and the outdoor wet market, but one thing's for sure, the issues of the housewife faced in those days, are almost similar to the ones faced today. Time and again you do have the spotlight set on discussing how can one quantify, in monetary terms, the value that housewives contribute to society and economy, and perhaps, this short allowed for the reminder that they are important in "shaping the future generation", and that "her work must be appreciated".

The collection doesn't forget about Dads of course. When the narration came on for Michael Tay's Wet Season, I thought it was going to be an arty flick treading on longing and loss. A man narrates his missing of someone, and drones on the drudgery of life without that somebody. I could've sworn it was his partner, as it definitely could have swung that way, but it turned out to be a stunning tribute to the director's own father, and with the Chinese title as such, I was indeed taken aback by a funny yet almost near impossible scene of that happening with most fathers and sons, I think. But what I really enjoyed and appreciated is the stop-motion animation treatment. You don't get to see much of this in local films, so it's indeed a visual treat, not forgetting the effort it takes to make films with this level of technical sophistication.

K Rajagopal's Absence explores how a mother and son cope with the loss of their husband/dad. While one mopes, the other chooses to clam up and channel his feelings into art - be it sketching navels, or in paintings. It's beautifully shot - I liked the rain/dance sequence, and it ends off with one heck of a surprise which throws what your perception is of certain characters out of the window.

The paternal figure also gets prominently featured in Sandi Tan's Gourmet Baby, containing some gastronomical delights that will water your palate with the plenty of fine cuisine on display. It tells of an Uncle's delight in taking his niece to his favourite eating haunts every Friday, and deals with the themes of coming of age, growing pains, loneliness and change in relationships all rolled into one. Excellent performances by Lim Kay Ton and Carla Dunareanu and Cheyenne Allenspach who play the older and younger version of the niece respectively.

Last but not least, Imelda Goes To Singapore by Brian Gothong Tan, was originally conceived for the Singapore Biennale in 2006. Starring Nora Samosir in the titular role, this is a satirical musical which despite its relatively scarce run time, packed in plenty of pathos and commentary about the plight of Filipinos working as domestic helpers overseas. After watching this short, you'll probably not see the NTUC plastic bags in the same light again!

The Region-Free DVD is presented in varying formats depending on the formats that the individual short films were shot in. From anamorphic widescreen 16x9 to full screen 4x3, visual quality on the films was excellent, except for Gour's A Labour of Love, which is clearly in need, as the appeal from the Archive, of restoration. Proceeds from the sale of the DVD go toward the Archive's fundraising effort to support the preservation and cultural mission of the Archive. And this is an important mission since our local films made in the 70s, such as Rajendra's short, and films like Ring of Fury, are in dire straits and in need of proper preservation and restoration, lest they become just a faded memory to our future generations.

Standard extras are provided in each sub-menu consisting of the selected short, a text based synopsis of the film, a photo stills gallery and text based director's notes section, except for Absence, Autopsy and Gourmet Baby. Subtitles are available for all the shorts not in the English language, and they are removable for Imelda Goes To Singapore, Autopsy, Match Made and Wet Season.

The other valuable extra in each sub-menu is the provision of a commentary track, usually with the director, or with cast and crew. The standard for each commentary differs though, and I guess it depends on how articulate each filmmaker was. Sandi Tan was unfortunately absent to comment on her short, but lead actor Lim Kay Tong proved to be a capable stand-in as he described the myriad of restaurants the film was shot at. Actress Nora Samosir also had an additional commentary track in Imelda Goes To Singapore, besides one provided by director Brian Gothong Tan about the inspiration for his short, and granted that with the relatively shorter running time of their films, inspiration, rationale and background were also shared by Michael Tay and Ryan Tan in their respective commentaries.

Loo Zihan seemed to be having a runny nose, but his commentary served as an extension to his documentary film with plenty of nuggets contained within, as does Rajendra Gour's as he shared many insights to life during the 70s era, and information on the making of his film, especially that about his wife and kids during production. K Rajagopal was brutally honest about the flaws and gaffes in his movie, and I thought the chemistry that Boo Junfeng, Sharon Loh and Cleo Clara (producer) of A Family Portrait shone through in their lively recollection about how their film was made, and the difficulties faced. I guess there's certain advantages with a group commentary given anyone could join in anytime to share their thoughts, as opposed to Mirabelle Ang, who had to struggle to provide additional insights to her film, and unfortunately remained largely silent and descriptive, and doesn't further explain her apprehensions as voiced out in the commentary. One saving grace of course is her sharing of her email address for viewers to get in touch in the event that one decides to contact her for further discussions.

With a stellar selection of films contained within, the Asian Film Archive's Singapore Shorts Volume 2 makes itself a must-have for any film aficionado with a thirst for Singapore films. Will we see Vol 3 hit the shelves? You bet, and I personally hope it will be soon!

The DVD can be purchased now at all good DVD shops and bookshops, and those who are not in Singapore can get your copy of the DVD online at the Asian Film Archive's Online Shop.

More information about the DVD can be found here at the Official DVD Website.

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