|Singapore Shorts DVD
Singapore Shorts: Whatever happened to The Class of 2002?
Reviewed by: Ben Slater
It was April 2002. The Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) was raging on like a small war against mediocrity. Fresh from England, feeling self-conscious in sandals, I managed to secure a press pass, and attended jury screenings at the SIFF (after each session, everyone would pile into a people-mover vehicle to head for the obligatory nasi padang – Malay food – at the Rendez-Vous Hotel, whose manager is a film fan who supports the festival every year with this culinary kindness. Philip Cheah, the festival director, would offer me a place in the van, but I would decline. Not totally out of shyness, but I was busy, rehearsing a play in Little India, and couldn’t dally with cinephiles, much as I wanted to).
One morning, we were at the Alliance Francaise for the local shorts competition screening. What were my expectations? Not high, I suppose. Cheah had told me that in previous years, juries had been so underwhelmed by the quality of the films that they refused to give out all the prizes. My only previous experience of short films from Singapore had been a fairly disastrous screening of student work at the Substation (a local arts centre); the documentaries were passable tertiary fare, but any attempt at fiction clunked hard.
The Alliance was a fairly large hall, with a few hundred seats. The jury sat on the back row. I was at the aisle, ready to leave in case of emergencies. Lights faded. The film began, and it was real film – celluloid. For twenty-plus minutes, I sat rapt. When it was over I was filled with the desire to watch it again, immediately. There was that feeling when you hear a great pop record as a teenager, something that swoons with all the complex emotions – dark energies and romantic yearnings – of that moment when you stumble out of childhood. If it gets its sonic hooks in, you have to own it, to be able to play it again and again.
Royston Tan’s 15 left me with something close to that. The adolescent world it presented was utterly alien to my own--Southeast Asia, race, gangs, crime, brotherhood, bad education. I was completely seduced by the image-rush, and the strong emotional track that pulled the viewer through. At the time, I wrote for the UK film magazine, Vertigo (to justify that much-coveted press pass), and the following contains something about 15:
“At its core is a portrait of two fifteen-year old boys – fighters, thieves and pill-poppers, but essentially they are kids. Tan portrays them as they see themselves – locked in a speed-cut zone of ceaseless techno and advertising imagery. Tracking shots through a nervous system; tattooed and naked in a desert; darkly comic threats to rival gangs sung blankly into camera; fighting incidents rendered as videogame; a birthday cake in the face explodes like a wound; charged dialogues in the crevices of void decks. Deep in their locked-off world, which exists as the taboo bad-trip flipside to Singapore’s consumer-driven society, Tan opens up a well of extraordinary tenderness, friendship and vulnerability.”
Along with 15, the others on the competition shortlist of short films included Wee Li-Lin’s Holiday, Han Yew Kwang’s The Call Home, Sun Koh’s My Secret Heaven, Leonard Yip’s Eve Of Adha, and special mention should go to Los Angeles exile Sandi Tan’s coolly satirical Gourmet Baby, which was shown ‘out of competition’. It was a bumper crop, although I probably didn’t realise it at the time. 15 came from nowhere. It was so--and I don’t use this word lightly--perfect as a short film that the others were left for dust. I didn’t even remain on the back row of the Alliance for the duration of the programme. Partly because I had to be somewhere, and partly to avoid the awkwardness of exiting with the jury, I sneaked out during My Secret Heaven.
That group of filmmakers – let’s call them the ‘Class of 2002’ – is well represented in the DVD collection Singapore Shorts, assembled and produced by the newly established Asian Film Archive, an organisation based in Singapore and dedicated to the presentation, archiving and discourse of filmmaking in the region. Royston Tan is on there, but not with 15 (which he subsequently expanded into a feature film of the same title); Wee Li-Lin as well, and both Sun Koh and Han Yew Kwang are represented by their 2002 entries.
Certainly the ferment for this wave of short filmmaking was in place a good few years before (and that’s evident from earlier works on the DVD), but it felt like 2002 was a watershed year – a moment when something crystallised and the form was suddenly ripe with possibility. No SIFF competition line-up has been able to match it since. But now there are other outlets: festivals, venues, screens and opportunities for film-makers to show their work. They proliferated like a virus after that watershed. Short films were in theatres and galleries; short films were on TV, on plasma screens in shopping centres, on buses, on the seat-backs of taxis, on the internet, on your community centre wall, on 3G phones. Post-2002 Singapore seemed to go short-film-crazy, and it hasn’t really recovered.
We could be cynical. Anyone can make a short film. It is the poor step-cousin to the big daddy of cinema – the feature flick. The tech is cheap (and getting cheaper) and if your friends were willing, … No need to sustain more than a quick joke, a twist in a tale, a journey between places. Content was less important than finishing the damn thing. Entire sub-genres were created in the explosion.
There was the ‘Disconnected Modern Lovers’ film: shot in food-courts, shopping malls, underground tunnels and Changi airport, where two attractive leads fail to meet while their Mandarin voice-overs explained the poetics of the situation. Wong Kar-Wai was patron saint.
Another was the ‘HDB Whimsy’ film, where adolescents and children are misunderstood by various arguing parental figures amidst a backdrop of high-rise flats, metal grilles, cramped washrooms, Indian sundry shops, mee pok (pork noodle) stalls and tragicomic void decks (of public housing apartments).
Then, there was the ‘Singapore Underground’ film, where we get to glimpse the bleak isolation and dark transgressions that lurk on the edges of the Lion City. Fruitless attempts to locate depth in a city of surfaces.
Yes, anyone can make a short film, but to make a good one--now, that’s another thing. The stakes are often raised by the diminished running time. The rhythms are new, unpredictable; no falling back on a three-act structure. With less room for the story to develop, there isn’t room for narrative drift or an inch of slack. Every moment and second counts. With a short film, you need impact and confidence. Slow build-ups are out. Set the mood quickly; let the images unfurl. Take the audience somewhere, but do it soon.
Some crazy people really enjoy watching two hours of shorts in a row. I find it far more exhausting and difficult than any kind of feature. Each short requires a new level of attention. When one ends, you reset the defaults and start again. This is tiring to do. The result: audiences for shorts can be remarkably impatient and unforgiving, as I was watching My Secret Heaven that first time.
Well, I watched it again, or rather, watched it properly for the first time on the Singapore Shorts DVD, and my opinion isn’t much changed. It’s well-made, for sure, but it is the apotheosis of ‘HDB Whimsy’--cute kids, overacting actresses, cramped flats. Working-class parental aspirations for their children expressed through torturous piano lessons. Yes, the main girl is very sweet, and gives a good performance, and her fake-out suicide is a heartbreaker, but the film is caught between social commentary and the lyrical ache of this child’s fantastic escape, and neither of them catches fire.
The family is a dysfunctional stereotype; the same one that was on show in Jack Neo’s I Not Stupid (in cinemas at the same time as SIFF 2002), where an outwardly cold and/or brutalising Mother is countered by a passive but more-in-touch-with-his-feelings Dad. Call it, When Chinese Matriarchs Go Bad. The naturalism of My Secret Heaven never allows the film to truly absorb the world-view of the child. She remains at a distance: cute, spunky and in her disobedience, somewhat of a mysterious object rather than a living, dreaming being. That is the most interesting element of the film: the character’s wilful, wrong-headed and boundless refusal to do what has been imposed on her.
The compilers and curators of Singapore Shorts decided that ‘Distance’ should be the theme of the DVD, and that’s certainly present (although I think my idea of distance is different from theirs) but watching the short films in a sequence of my choosing, I am struck by how many of them deal with (Dis)obedience. Rules are broken; social norms are rejected; parents and teachers are constantly disobeyed. In the light of Singapore’s one-party, authoritarian history, this is a fascinating trope.
Wee Li-Lin’s Autograph Book could be a sequel to My Secret Heaven, with the twelve-year old girl now older and unpopular in school, but with a covert and unexplained penchant for defacing textbooks. Both shorts could play as unofficial ‘prequels’ to Sex: The Annabelle Chong Story. And I don’t mean that quite as flippantly as it sounds.
Wee’s focus is the emotional hot-house of middle-class adolescence, and although it plays out in a girls’ school full of stereotypes (class bitch, bimbo cheerleader, misfit, probable lesbian, ah lian , self-righteous teacher), this suits the good-natured, stylised register of the film. The direct-to-camera speeches (where the characters voice out what they have written in each other’s autograph books) are the neat visual devices that save the day. In her work before and since Autograph Book (including her 2002 entry Holiday), Wee has specialised in mostly cosy, vaguely uncomfortable situation comedy; at worst they are stilted and trite, at best they mine a seam of offbeat humour that lifts them beyond primetime.
It’s still a world away from 15, and begs the question: what would the female equivalent of 15 be like? This issue of gender is worth a quick detour. In the last decade, Singapore feature films have been overwhelmingly masculine and frequently misogynistic. In 15, the feature-film version, women enter the frame only as sex dolls or harping shrews. Then, there is Eric Khoo’s continuing series of impossible objects of beauty and desire; Jack Neo’s ugly girls, super-kiasu* wives or ruthless mistresses; the battered, abused whores and wives of Djinn’s Perth; and the assorted female body parts of Zombie Dogs. It’s a very distressed landscape. Countering this, the short film scene has yielded many distinctive female film-makers. Some like Tania Sng and Gek Li San are not included here. Their voices may be marginalised by the lesser visibility of the form (compared to features), but at least they are active.
Navigating the DVD menu of Asian Film Archive’s Singapore Shorts, we pass from children to young adults, and come to what is probably the most haunting film of the collection, Bertrand Lee’s Birthday.
The pair of working-class, Chinese (speaking) rebels that carry the long-short (about 30 minutes) have gotten married, with a kid at a painfully young age (the guy could pass for 18; both give superb performances). We see him being retrenched in the opening sequence (a recurrent scene in Singapore film and TV from Jack Neo’s Money No Enough onwards), and then we move into the hermetically-sealed vault of the couple’s HDB flat, where they prepare for their son’s birthday. Over the course of that night and the following day, their relationship implodes. The financial insecurity they face is killing her, and although the sex is still good, these beautiful losers lock themselves off into private states of anger, denial and resentment.
Lee’s notes about the film inform us that it may be the last day of their marriage, and this explains the man’s last-ditch attempt to revive a sense of nostalgia about their past through a visit to the coast, but I wasn’t so sure. My feeling was that the lovers needed to push their marriage to the edge in order to feel anything – something.
Lee, who has experience in ads, knows where to put his camera, and he pushes and pulls us towards and away from his characters in a very measured, assured rhythm. In one exquisite moment, they glumly share a cigarette through a windscreen of a moving car – a shot that simultaneously celebrates togetherness, and commiserates with their aloneness. It may be one of the most powerful and stylish images in all of Singapore’s brief cinematic history.
Along the way, the lovers shout, copulate, trespass and vandalise, but there is a disobedient streak in the film itself. Lee avoids the usual inclusion of the couple’s parents (which are never referred to), who could have been so easily wheeled out to explain or disapprove of their offsprings’ lifestyle choices. This seems like a minor miracle, and is so against the grain of Singapore short films, that it marks Birthday out as profoundly different.
In an accident earlier this year, Lee lost his leg, and has withdrawn from filmmaking. In an interview with The Straits Times, he described being psychologically unable to watch films, let alone think about making them. Let’s hope that given time he can return.