Saturday, June 27, 2009


Shiny Happy People

It may seem like a joke, where a question was asked "Why are you here?" and the reply went "because I'm not there", but in many ways this film does suggest that you focus your thoughts on the now, no matter how distractingly attractive it may be to allow your thoughts to wander elsewhere, given the many spatial opportunities to do so. HERE is writer-director Ho Tzu Nyen's debut feature film, and it's quite a feat too that it got itself into the official selection of the 41st Directors' Fortnight at Cannes this year. If cutting edge and an unconventional approach is the way to go, then HERE has plenty for those who's game for a cerebral boggle.

Set in a mental institution known as Island Hospital, the film plays out like a docu-drama, where talking head styled interviews are done with the patient characters, providing the groundwork for the meshing of reality and fantasy. To some, having a film set in such a promise would mean having the artistic license to do anything you want, since you can easily get away with almost everything by pleading insanity, but there's a method to the madness here, and it isn't all that arthouse that it alienates the casual viewer from having a good time sitting there in self-reflection.

For the most parts, we follow new ex-patient He Zhiyuan (which I believe is the romanised Chinese pronunciation of the director's name) played by John Low, who in the first few minutes we observe examining the cracks in his home, before snapping, killing his wife and losing his voice. He gets sent to Island Hospital for rehabilitation, and here's where the fun starts. Not so mcuh in having characters do crazy things and filling up the screen ala Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg but That's OK, but in seeing that the patients are quite normal and very much like you and me, save for their uniformed white t-shirts. In time we get introduced to most of the main players, from doctors to the patients, such as Beatrice Tan (Jo Tan) the kleptomaniac, who would play a significant part and be a soulmate to He Zhiyuan.

Then there's the strange, in part due to the nature of the much touted "videocure" for the patients, where it is believed that they should enact that moment of their lives that had condemned them to the hospital, and become their own actor, director and editor of the video created, for mass screening amongst the other patients. From time to time I felt that we could have fit hand in glove into the situation, where we're the ones sitting amongst the patients and having bear witness to their uncomfortable past, no thanks in part of course to the pseudo-documentary look and feel of the film. Then there's also a homage paid to Michelangelo Antonoini's Blowup, replacing the tennis game with that of badminton. For what effect I fear I do not know, save for the fact that these guys are playing it within the four walls of Island Hospital, which for all we know could serve as an analogy for the state of affairs within our little island state.

Love is quite obvious as a theme here, but "Amor Fati" also gets thrown into the mix no thanks to one character having to preach this concept to the rest, where some of us would like to relive our lives again as they are, including every sweet and especially bitter moment, without contemplating that we should change those bits of our lives if we could. This especially so when we're given a choice for change, but conscientiously stick to the tried and tested, rather than plunge into the unknown. Other more self-conscious aspects would be the use of repetition, with the interviews, scenes at the medicine counter and the indemnity form signing, which is actually quite ingenious in the way characters get introduced, and some aspects of their personality coming through in the form of their signatures. See if you can spot AWARE president Dana Lam in one of the roles here, and Ben Slater as one of the board of directors of the hospital, in a scene where the most promising patients fit for release would have to attend a "tea party" with those in power to convince of their sanity for return to society.

Given Ho's background in visual arts, this film deviates from the usual narrative structure, and relied on plenty of imagery to tell a story, as well as an excellent sound design which takes over when the camera remains still, or faded to long periods of black. It may be modestly paced and you may struggle with some scenes, but don't let the naysayers discourage you from experiencing a very different Singapore film from those that have been made thus far.

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