Tuesday, June 28, 2011

[DVD] Sinema Showoff! Class Of 2010: Special Singapore Day Edition (2011)

Someone once told me that the best way to introduce oneself to Singapore films, is through its selection of shorts, and that still holds true to today, where we have far more shorts being made than I could keep track of, and over the years the quality of filmmaking and storytelling have improved tremendously. Probably the only essential way to capture a glimpse and slice of life of our country, with films coming out from, and representative of the various communities in our country through their respective idiosyncrasies and languages, expressed through the medium of film.

Sinema Old School has been running an ongoing showcase series since 2010 known as the Sinema Showoff! series curated by academic staff and students from School of Architecture & the Built Environment (Diploma in Integrated Events & Project Management), Singapore Polytechnic, and a Special Singapore Day Edition DVD compilation (which was commissioned by the Ministry of Information Communication & the Arts for Singapore Day 2011, held on 16 April in Shanghai) has been curated by Ramasamy Rajesree and Sueanne Teo consisting of the best from the Class of 2010 in an elegantly produced set containing six quality short films that's as diverse as can be, proudly presenting our country's emerging filmmakers.

So take a bow, class of 2010, as I look forward to the next batch who will hopefully get another shout out in similar fashion, packaged for a larger audience.

My Father Sazali / Bapakku Sazali (17:24, Letterbox)
Directed by Sazali Bin Masraji

Sazali Bin Masraji's short film is beautifully layered, capturing various thoughts, concerns and ideas into its compact run time dealing with a father and son relationship in a story about dreams, aspirations and pragmatism. Face is an Asian thing, and to the titular character Sazali (Ahmad Mawi) the barber, once a young man with filmmaking dreams, he is dead set against his son Adam (Shah Iskandar Mahfuz) in following in his footsteps. After all, Singapore society in general looks up to the ones who get to climb the corporate ladder in an air-conditioned skyscraper office downtown, not toward a small barbershop in which to ply one's trade in.

Oh the irony of it all, where the father's unfulfilled dream, turns him in a way against that of his son's own goal, and the heart to heart talk they share is nothing but heart wrenching, and well acted. It's well balanced, with plenty of comedy though in its first act involving the nagging wife Aini (Junainah Jumari) who interrupts her husband and son in their make-believe job interview session where you can see how the rather easy going Sazali got his mean streak inspiration from. One of the values of Bapakku Sazali is the capture of the modern day mom and pop trade of the quintessential Malay Barbershop, being shot inside a real one rather than a studio set, preserving the look, feel, sights and sounds of the real thing.

Masala Mama (8:27. Anamorphic Widescreen)
Directed by Michael Kam

What a tease, and I was hoping for a lot more that came to an abrupt conclusion through the comic book styled panels in its closing credits. If the previous short had shown the Malay Barbershop, shouldn't it be apt to be have a follow up with the Mamak shop, a traditional Indian convenience store (albeit quite a modern looking one) that unfortunately is making way for and having to compete with franchised minimarts and supermarkets sprouting all around the island.

There was a promise of a lot more given its build up toward a fight against the intolerant. A young boy (Vernon Ng) steals a comic book from an Indian shopkeeper (Mohan Vellayan) when the latter got deliberately distracted. We learn that the young boy gets his artistic inspiration from comics, much to the disapproval of his dad (On Eng Soon), who resorts to violence against the rather effeminate shopkeeper, ridiculing him and blaming him for his son's distraction from menial work.

And who would have thought the surprise at the end, going back to an Indian film almost always having a song and dance routine to spice it up, masala style. I would have loved for this to have dragged on for a few minutes longer since it went into a totally campy and fun mode, but that was not to be. After all, the mark of something successful, is to always leave people wanting more. And that's what Masala Mama did exactly.

Kitchen Quartet (20:35, Anamorphic Widescreen)
Directed by Nicole Midori Woodford

Kitchen Quartet may seem like a mini feature, with a well fleshed out, full story contained within its 20 minutes to deal with two families of different classes, having their paths crossed through food, whether served in a classy restaurant, or through the ubiquitous local hawker centres serving the masses.

Oon Shu An stars as Shu An the restaurant chef who we see get suspended by her boss (Loo Zihan) when she failed to whip up something of quality for the very discerning food critic Edmund Heng, played by Gerald Chew in pompous fashion. The narrative then moves into two separate threads, each dealing with the respective lead's relationship with their sole family member, with Shu An having a love/hate relationship with her mom Ai Leng (Sally Poh), in what would be the usual shunning of unconditional love and concern that any mom will have for their kid, and Edmund Heng being the contrast as a parent like Ai Leng, finding it extremely tough to connect with his son Luke (Brandon Lee) if not for his own very foul attitude.

With competent acting by the cast, Kitchen Quartet boasts of that strong sense of irony that one will inevitably see coming, and wraps itself up pretty neatly for that feel good factor after a rather emotionally punishing time for its protagonists. Wonderful art direction too in its bookends of restaurants and hawker centres, each serving up their respective gastronomical delights that probably points to that adage of a family eating (or cooking too) together, stays together. And of course that gentle reminder not to watch this short on an empty stomach as it boasts some very appetizing looking food.

Promises in December (16:32, Anamorphic Widescreen)
Directed by Elgin Ho

A cab driver (Raymond Yong) and a domestic helper (Corry Turostiowati) whom he ferries on her way home after six long years working in Singapore. Told in non linear fashion, Elgin Ho's short is set against the backdrop of the Asian tsunami disaster of December 2004, and crafts a simple tale of how an earth-shaking catastrophe can affect the simplest of individuals. In almost similar fashion to Kitchen Quartet, these two tales intertwine closely, and provide contrast with how one misses her child while away for so long, only for this unfortunate event to threaten to tear them further apart, and how the other with family close by, has the disaster to realize that his final moments with his wife could perhaps be better spent. A little bit cliched though in how some shots got designed and composed, especially in its pivotal scenes when news of the disaster broke.

You may remember Raymond Yong from television of the past, and while I didn't think of him much as an actor in his Dragon Five days, his performances in various local short films of late is nothing short of quality, and makes you sit up and take notice. His Alan Yap is very typical Singaporean, without trying too hard, and makes his cab driver instantly identifiable, with Singlish being the lingua franca of his character. If anything, his performance alone should be reason enough why one should watch this short film, which like the others in the collection, boasts of high production values that has raised the bar of local short films in recent years.

Santan (Coconut Milk) (8:11, Anamorphic Widescreen)
Directed by Farhan Zulkifli

I was half expecting Adam (Muhd Haziq) to offer his bottle of Ribena to Jarina (Nur Habriyah), the girl who stopped him in his tracks while he's taking a break at a playground, since for some reason the two kids reminded me of that nostalgic Ribena ad on television eons ago. This is the story about the two kids embarking on an extremely short adventure in search of Adam's lost file, which he suspected was taken by a homeless, crazy man (Alfrey Noor Sulaiman), but then again, that's quite usual for kids with an active imagination to have preconceived notions of odd looking/behaving adults.

Shot on film, this is quite clear it's a student effort, and has little quirky and charming moments on little things we will identify with at a similar age, what with budding puppy love, that cavalier sense of adventure, as well as the constant tussle with the parents for the minutest of reminders, threats and errants. A pity though that the end credits had to be somewhat truncated at the top toward the last few seconds (OK, so I'm a stickler for things like that).

National Day (19:11, Anamorphic Widescreen)
Directed by He Shuming
Taken from my earlier review here

In some ways this short is somewhat similar to Anthony Chen's Ah Ma, where family members rally around each other, each having their own way in dealing with a death (or in Ah Ma's case, impending) in the family. He Shuming's short is set on the 7th day after the passing of a man (well, this plot element also used in Chai Yee-wei's Blood Ties), which happens to fall on National Day. With the entire nation celebrating the occasion and enjoying the public holiday, the story looks at bereavement in stark contrast against a celebratory environment, where streets are quiet and everyone glued to their goggle boxes to partake in the parade.

The strength of this short laid squarely on Shuming's characterization of the family, with a dialect (Hainanese?) speaking, nagging mom, and the children - the daughter and her own family, and her brother, an army boy who had managed to obtain those difficult-to-get parade tickets, as we learn them being his deceased father's favourite event. As the story wore on, each member had its own segment to highlight their personal grief amidst brave fronts they put up, or quiet ones such as those that they boy fell into. There were some additional religious observations within the family that got presented as well, with different members with different beliefs, quite contrary though very real on the state of affairs facing some families which served as a momentary distraction from the main intent.

It's still pretty amazing that this was a school project, though the audio at times did sound a little airy and distant, probably voiceovers on the original soundtrack. Nonetheless a nice effort and I'll be paying attention to He Shuming's works to see what more he can conjure up.

Sinema Showoff! Class of 2010 DVD can be bought from Sinema Old School at S$19.90, and since 'tis the Great Singapore Sale seasn, you'll get two complimentary tickets (valid for 3 months) for a Sinema screening for every Sinema Showoff DVD purchased.

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