Sanctuary

April 14–30, 2005

The Film Festival (strange beast that it is) is itself a definable space. For two to three weeks the industry comes together with the critics and the cineastes (two more strange beasts, I might add) as they lock themselves away in a cavernous literal space and lay themselves open to an array of work on screen by an assembly of gathered filmmakers. What then makes the Singapore International Film Festival unique as a space in its own right? In addition to its single minded focus on showing a broad, catholic range of good quality international cinema for the very sake of simply screening it, SIFF is also a showcase for the best of what is new in Asian, and especially Southeast Asian cinema. This year’s program continued that tradition.

The city-state of Singapore has recently undergone some interesting changes and many one might conclude are for the better. The country wishes to position itself as a regional centre for the arts in Southeast Asia and a global player in the arts more generally. This is to be applauded of course. But are there not a number of mitigating circumstances that might impede the progress of this sound objective? Singapore has as a state made some headway in relaxing its once notorious censorship laws, but there is clearly some way still to go. Bruce LaBruce’s The Raspberry Reich (2004) and Michael Coulter’s A History of Sex (2003) were banned outright from Festival exhibition this year, while Pola Rapaport’s Writer of O (2004) and James Hou’s Masters of the Pillow (2004) were passed with cuts and then subsequently withdrawn from the Festival. Of even more concern is the case of the local filmmaker Martyn See, whose Singapore Rebel (2005) had to be excluded from the program, when police threatened that, as it concerned a local opposition political figure, one Chee Soon Juan, it was therefore a “party political” film and could earn the filmmaker a possible prison sentence if it were to be screened.

While I was in Singapore there was an ongoing debate in the media about what it might take to make the city-state a truly global centre like Paris, London, New York or Tokyo. Commentators argued over what those other cities have that Singapore might lack (and therefore should acquire). It seems to me that the answer to that question is simple. On the surface the city has all the necessary infrastructure of a great world centre and there is no argument about its financial and economic status. What Singapore lacks perhaps is the current capacity to create a variety of discernable, independent and sustainable spaces – both personal and institutional – for truly unfettered artistry as well as creative and critical analysis and engagement. Censorship and its insidious cousin, self-censorship, make such spaces of engagement problematic at best, and I would imagine for an artist like Martyn See, they at worst have the potential to be perilous places indeed. Creating such spaces is neither a difficult nor costly undertaking and indeed the Singapore International Film Festival already provides the city with such a space annually, albeit one that is from time to time compromised. The Festival organisers should be commended, for they have over the last 18 or so years, helped make Singapore a more globally in touch and culturally important place than it otherwise might be. And they have done so despite the apparent odds against them.

In 2005 there were over 300 films shown from more than 40 countries. I sadly missed out on seeing any of the films in the Pupi Avati retrospective, the tribute to Agnès Varda and very little from the showcases of French, German, British, Canadian and US Independent cinema. Instead I focused my attention on Asian, and more specifically Southeast Asian films. A particular highlight of this year’s festival was the Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective that saw seven of the Taiwan master’s films screened alongside an excellent two day conference on his work organised by both the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and the Singapore History Museum (1). Hou himself attended the retrospective, gave a paper at the attached conference, as well as a public lecture on “The Role of Dialects in Historical Narrative” and appeared to be suitably amused by his presence at the annual Singapore Silver Screen Awards ceremony. In addition to the Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective, Asian cinema was well served by a special focus on films from Vietnam, an “unofficial” retrospective of the Indonesian director Faozan Rizal, a generous amount of anime and a diverse series of films grouped under the title “Iraq Now!”

My only great regret however is that I missed seeing Lav Diaz’s 10 hour 30 minute Evolution of a Filipino Family (Ebolusyon ng isang pamilyang Pilipino) (2004). It alas clashed with an entire day of Malaysian, Indonesian and Hou Hsiao-hsien features and I truly believe that one should not have been given a choice of films – any films – against a landmark feature such as this. The review in the last issue of Senses of Cinema by Paolo Bertolin indicated not only the great worth of Diaz’s film, but also the level of commitment that is required of it by an audience (2). I look forward to giving the film that level of commitment at a later date.

It was both fitting and timely that the Hou Hsiao-hsien retrospective and associated events took place this year in Singapore. The influence that this filmmaker has had on the development of East and Southeast Asian films should not be underestimated. Along with the Malaysian born, Taiwan resident, Tsai Ming-liang, Hou’s influence was seen again and again at this festival. No more so than perhaps in the hauntingly beautiful film Sanctuary (2004) by Malaysian independent filmmaker Ho Yuhang. In 80 or so gentle, slow moving minutes this intimate work quite poetically reveals the attempts by a small group of people in a family to connect with one another. I am hard pushed to think of another film that so beautifully reveals the subtle nuances found in a brother and sister relationship. Ho Yuhang has shown us just what cinema can do with an economy of dialogue. The scene surrounding the ownership of the tailored suit jacket reveals more about character, history and plot than any well-crafted wordy screenplay could hope to achieve and it reminds us all of the power of the image to tell a story. In this tale of a Chinese Malaysian family living in the heart of Kuala Lumpur’s periphery – the sprawl of Petaling Jaya – Ho Yuhang has mixed irony, some humour and a degree of unaffected pathos into a film that takes us into a Malaysia few outsiders would have experienced. Some critics have noted that the film is bleak, and is a success for being so, and while I don’t wish to argue with them (for there is a definite strain of bleakness) I also found it to have great moments of optimism and good humour. The segue from the Christian revivalist meeting to the scene of our protagonist throwing up on the side of the highway spoke volumes and did so with great skill and wit. Sanctuary is without reservation a major film achievement and it deserves to be circulated widely.

Goodbye To Love

In addition to Sanctuary there were a number of films screened this year that confirm for all the vitality and strength of independent (largely digital) Malaysian cinema. The talented and prolific James Lee may have been only represented at this year’s festival by a short film (although he does tend to crop up now and then elsewhere in the program as either a producer or a DOP) – but what a great short film his Goodbye To Love (2004) proved to be. Lee has made a classically constructed three act film in gritty and sensual black and white that is infused with a soundscape that creates a defiantly theatrical, while still minimalist, look at the mourning of lost love by a male character; a character I might add who throughout his 17 minutes onscreen continues to stare at us without once blinking, as a collage of set pieces takes place around him. Lee layers the film with bold jazz notes and Chinese pop, giving the screen a lovely edge of nostalgia.

Two of the highlights of the Festival for me came from the one director, Malaysia’s Amir Muhammad. Using a split screen, his documentary essay The Year of Living Vicariously (2005) is ostensibly about two things – the making of Riri Riza’s Indonesian feature film Gie (as yet unreleased) that is set during the tumultuous Soekarno years in that country, and the associated contemporaneous events surrounding Indonesia’s first direct elections for their President. Having said that, this film is so much more. It reveals as much about its filmmaker as it does about his onscreen subjects and is memorable for the way a Malaysian abroad reveals his relationship to the dynamic and sometimes overwhelming nature of his neighbouring Indonesia. The director also exposes us to his relationship with commonalities of shared culture and also of difference in his journey through contemporary Jakarta. This is a fast paced, witty, erudite picture about a nation and its people attempting to tackle their past, their present and their future. That it also reveals questions about the nature of film and of truth as well as of fiction makes it all the more powerful an essay in discovery. His second film,

Tokyo Magic Hour

Tokyo Magic Hour (2005), proved to be a challenge to some in the audience, but it was a challenge that I was thrilled to engage with. With a very painterly eye for the visual, in this film Amir Muhammad is unashamedly exploring new potentials for onscreen composition in what appears to be a deeply personal, but nonetheless guarded, exploration into the purging of pain. He deftly weaves the visual with the aural and by using a nicely edited selection of traditional Malay pantun poems, tells a very moving story of the love between two men that begins with the fits and starts of romance and develops into a full love affair before painfully subsiding into decay and closure. The film was made while the director was working in Tokyo, and while it is not overtly a film about that city, Tokyo and Amir Muhammad’s engagement with it resonates throughout. The images in this film move from the stark and still cityscape, through kinetic touches from architecture, through to lavish set pieces of pure abstraction, all the while held together by both the narrative of the poetry and the power of a very good original score. Another Malaysian who travelled to Tokyo to make a film is the director Mohd Naguib Razak, who in his film Glass Enclosure: Tokyo Invisible (2004) manages to show some considerable promise as a filmmaker, but it is a promise that may have been better served, in this film, by some serious editing. Nonetheless he is another in the so-called “new wave” of Malaysian independent filmmakers to watch. So too, I feel, is Albert Hue who entertained us in an amusingly angst ridden short film, 117 (2004).

Indonesian cinema was also well represented at SIFF this year. In competition was Garin Nugroho’s Of Love and Eggs (Rindu Kami Pada Mu) (2004). Filmed entirely in a studio and set in a Jakarta market (pasar), this rather deliberately staged film centres around a small group of children and the manner in which they interact with a largely adult world. It is a humorous film that captures both the claustrophobia and the wonderful sense of community (often one and the same thing) that can be found in the market places of Indonesia. It is unapologetically a family film that is clearly influenced by certain comedic genres in Arabic and Egyptian cinema. There were times in the narrative when I thought that the filmmaker had lapsed into some avoidable moments of sentimentality, but these moments are by and large forgiven, and I hope that the film is widely released for it shows a very gentle, life affirming and human face to Islam in a world currently dominated by largely negative representations of both the faith and its believers. Garin Nugroho also produced and wrote the screenplay for John De Rantau’s extraordinary film Looking for Madonna (Mencari Madonna) (2004). I say extraordinary for several reasons – this film blurs quite beautifully the line between documentary and fiction film; it is a teen movie with a deliberate and, one might add, urgent message for its target audience; its message is sold without resorting to either polemics or sensationalism; and it is a feature film set in the troubled province of Papua with an almost entirely Papuan cast – a first for Indonesia. Looking for Madonna was developed around true cases of people who are HIV-positive in a province with the highest number of HIV cases in Indonesia. Rich with religious and spiritual imagery and metaphors this film will, I am sure, add fresh fuel to those interested in constructions of the Madonna/Whore. It reveals a lot about the nature of prostitution in Papua, and Indonesia more widely, as well as exploring the particular dynamics taking place between young men and women in Papuan society. John De Rantau is certainly a filmmaker to watch, and just as an aside – one of the star discoveries of the Festival must be the young actor Minus C Karoba. His comic delivery direct to the camera, as well as his more serious role within the narrative, was a joy to behold!

The “Unofficial” Faozan Rizal Retrospective revealed some interesting work from this young Indonesian filmmaker and in the international premiere of his Aries – A Poem for Katia (2004) we see a director exploring the relationship between two characters and a pristine, but often remote and forbidding landscape. Blending nice long still takes with an interesting use of sound and music, Faozan Rizal has composed a stunningly visual work that in lesser hands might have been in danger of becoming arthouse IMAX, or worse still, ambient cinema. He should be pleased that instead we have a very original and engaging gem of a film.

I might have missed Lav Diaz’s epic Evolution of a Filipino Family, but there is certainly hope for young independent filmmaking from the Philippines if the works of John Torres are anything to go by. Torres’ trio of short films Tawidgutom (2004), Salat (2004) and How Can I Court You Without Ever Holding You (Kung Paano Kita Liligawan Nang Di Kumakapit Sa Iyo) (2004) reveal an adept young talent who is not afraid to use the screen to purge and expose the personal. Interestingly we see here another Southeast Asian filmmaker using poetry to help drive his narrative and it is, for me, obvious that Torres is clearly loving using the digital media and is not afraid to be inventive with his sometimes rapid fire editing.

I don’t wish to devote too much of my own allotted space to covering the lesser achievements of the Festival so I won’t therefore comment on the Thai short films in this year’s program. Thailand need not worry though, for the Festival gave further well deserved recognition to the magnificent achievement of Apichatpong Weerasethukul’s Tropical Malady (Sud Pralad) (2004) by awarding it the Special Jury Prize. This film has been reviewed elsewhere in this journal, but I might just briefly add here that the experience for me of watching this proved again the limitless possibilities for the renewal of the medium, and while cinema may have passed its hundredth birthday, it is still young enough to go to bold new places and reinvent itself.

There was some interesting work from Vietnam this year. I was less impressed by the sometimes contrived Memories of Dien Bien Phu (Ky Uc Dien Bien) (Do Minh Tuan, 2004) and rather more taken with Nguyen-Vo Minh’s Buffalo Boy (Muoa Len Trau) (2004) which showed great flare and talent for a debut feature film. Buffalo Boy is a rites of passage tale told in the harsh and rather wet agricultural lands of Vietnam during the 1940s that features some strong central performances and some often breathtaking cinematography.

A Wicked Tale

Host nation Singapore was well represented with new works this year – many of them very good. I was particularly taken by the inventiveness of Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore GaGa (2005), a documentary that seeks to harness a sense of place in Singapore by exploring the sounds that make the city reverberate for both the filmmaker and her audience alike. This is indeed a search for that definable space I mentioned earlier and Tan Pin Pin has created one by taking us to everything from National Day Parades to singing tissue sellers to buskers and even the omnipresent voice of the Mass Rapid Transit announcer. In this revealing journey we hear people sing hymns to themselves and to their communities and a sense of what it might mean to be a modern Singaporean emerges without once resorting to the jingoism or rhetoric so often associated with such projects. Anthony Chen’s G-23 (2004) is obviously influenced by Wong Kar-wai and Tsai Ming-liang, but that doesn’t in the end matter, for while the young filmmaker pays homage to his forbears, he also firmly grounds his film in and of and about modern Singapore. G-23 is set in an old Tamil movie theatre and concerns a group of disparate people who come together in the space of the cinema. (An aside here – Chen has in his film made the art of smoking on screen sexy again – and I for one applaud!) Noticeable for its dark and witty brazenness was Tzang Merwyn Tong’s A Wicked Tale (2004), which in a rather clever and stylised way retells the Red Riding Hood story and while doing so celebrates the very sense of “trash” the film so clearly aims to be. The ending left me a little cold, and I am not normally so gentle on the obviously postmodern, but I think if one were scouting for good commercial filmmakers with a dangerously witty edge, then one might just contact Tzang Merwyn Tong. At the Silver Screen Awards in the Singapore Short Film Category the winner of both Best Film and the Special Achievement Award rightly went to Boo Jun Feng’s A Family Portrait (2004). Made in Barcelona, this film is a beautifully crafted and sensitive look at burgeoning sexuality. Sergio is a 17 year-old with a fascination for anatomy and anatomical drawings. When his younger sister asks him innocently about sex, he is reminded of his own “discovery”, one that reveals the complexities of family life and deals in a gentle, but nonetheless interesting manner with a brief homosexual subtext. This film deserved to win the two awards it received and the same filmmaker had his short film Stranger (2004) in competition as well and it too revealed his talent. Set in Singapore’s Little India during Deepavali, this is a lovely little take on the capacity of someone to be able to discover a sense of strangeness and foreignness in their own homeland. Other directors in competition in that category who deserve mention, I feel, are Srinivas Bhakti, who won the Special Jury Prize for his excellent animated work Elephant: OK (2005) and Yee Chang Kang for Dai Bao (2005) which proved again that Singapore without food as a central motif is just not perhaps Singapore!

And then there is China. If the films at SIFF this year are anything to go by then there is perhaps no more unrelentingly harsh, tawdry or unforgiving a place than post-socialist China. Director Zhang Yang took us on a 100-minute ride into the punk, thrash, metal and hardcore nihilist world of Beijing’s fringe dwelling music scene in his provocative and energetic music documentary Post Revolutionary Era (2004). Not to be outdone, Pan Jianlin in his obviously ironically titled film Good Morning Beijing (Zao’an Beijing) (2003) takes us on an interestingly rendered detective story, dragging us bleakly through a digitally stark neon lit Beijing night and through the horrible banalities of both brothels and urban squalor. Cui Zi’en’s semi-documentary, semi-fiction film Night Scene (Ye Jing) (2003) is also set in Beijing, but focuses on gay male sex workers and their clients and again is a stark examination of modern China, with its disparities in wealth and status and the obvious hardship attached to jumping onto the gravy train that is the supposed free market economy. Of all the films set in China, the Hong Kong produced first feature of director Liu Fendou, The Green Hat (Lu Mao Tze) (2004) was by far the most outstanding work with some seriously good acting. This is a powerful look at the vague edges of modern masculinity that cleverly takes us to dangerous places as it explores the nature of love and the pain and anguish associated with it.

Underexposure

The Iraq Now! showcase was put together with great panache, and while it did screen what I would have to think was the worst film of the festival, it also screened one of the best. South Korean director Sung Hye-lan in 80 often embarrassing minutes in Road to Baghdad (2004) shows us the manner in which a group of middle-class, affluent Korean anti-war protesters manage to use the tragedy of contemporary Iraq as a canvas for working through their own middle-class angst. Along the way these “characters” reap their own not insignificant degree of havoc and chaos onto the already war torn streets of Baghdad. If this film had not itself been complicit in the project and the process, it may have been a revealing documentary about the misguided, but perhaps well-intentioned needs of a group of affluent Koreans. But the film itself is complicit and therefore for me it was an affront. On a much better note I was pleased that the jury decided to award the Best Film of the festival to Iraqi filmmaker Oday Rasheed for his magnificent Underexposure (Gheir Saleh) (2005). From its cinema verité like opening through its restless revelation of the need to create anew in a war torn and exhausted city, Underexposure is a great achievement. Even if the war in Iraq had never taken place and even if we forget for a minute the obvious hardship and bravery in making this movie, this would still have been an important film. Filmed on “acquired” and antiquated film stock that lends a lovely sepia grain to the screen, this work showcases an array of formerly banned talent and for that alone we should applaud. But the film is more than that – for it celebrates the art of filmmaking and the power of a driven individual to obsessively need to create in the face of real hardship and the obvious pathos of post invasion Iraq. This proud and riveting film is an ode to the universal need to create beauty out of squalor and to find truth from amidst the litany of lies. It affirmed for this reviewer the very reason I was sitting in a darkened cinema for three long weeks!

Before I exhaust my own allotted space might I suggest to festival programmers out there that you take a look at the very good work I also discovered in films such as A Time Far Past (Thoi Xa Vang) (Ho Quang Minh, 2004), The Riverside (Kenar-e Roodkhaneh) (Ali Reza Amini, 2004), The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (Anne Marie Fleming, 2004) and Julian Samuel’s fascinating and politically enthused documentary Save and Burn (2004). And to Hou Hsiao-hsien fans unable to see his brilliant homage to Ozu, Café Lumiere (Kohi jikou) (2004) in a program with six of his earlier films, I send you my sympathies (3). I opened this festival report with a brief discussion on space and place. I was even arrogant enough to attempt to provide an answer to a question that some notable Singaporeans were asking themselves, and I therefore beg their indulgence, if not their forgiveness. But in concluding this report let me just mention one more short film that rose up and hit this reviewer in the face at SIFF 2005, for the film itself better answers the question I so arrogantly pondered, and the good news is that you the reader can share this little gem with me, for in the spirit of the film, it has no copyright. I am talking about Malaysian director Danny Lim’s 18? (2004), a film that in a quirky 18 minutes takes us to the streets of Kuala Lumpur to investigate the search for the space to criticise and to create and along the way addresses several interesting questions about who an artist might well be and what role art may have in a critical engagement with a given society. Download the film for free at his website.

Endnotes

  1. These are two more institutions that provide necessary intellectual and critical space in Singapore, and both of them do so with distinction.
  2. Paolo Bertolin, “The Festival with No Limits: Rotterdam International Film Festival”, Senses of Cinema, Issue 35, April–June 2005.
  3. The other Hou Hsiao-hsien features in the retrospective were A Time To Live, A Time To Die (1985), Dust in the Wind (1986), Daughter of the Nile (1987), City of Sadness (1989), Flowers of Shanghai (1998) and Millennium Mambo (2001).

About The Author

Benjamin McKay has taught Asian History and Politics at Charles Darwin University, Australia, but in 2005 he is in Southeast Asia completing his PhD thesis on Malay Film History.