A Nations Cinema Starts With Shorts
by Juan Foo
Although filmmaking largely remains at the margins of Singapore society, over the last decade things have changed considerably. We have seen the filmmaking scene grow steadily with a few gems, limited hits and many misses. While the feature film industry is fraught with the drama of vacuous investment promises and turbulent production stories, the production of short films seems to be in a state of revolution. The advent of newer technologies, wider screening opportunities and international recognition is encouraging more Singaporeans to make short films. More important, film as an artistic expression and activity is slowly but surely, being cultivated.
Short films come in all packages and sizes, with genres only limited by the filmmaker's imagination. Some are done with high budgets, most without any. A short film can last anywhere between a minute to less than 75 minutes; as stipulated by many film festivals and distribution circuits. Ever since its introduction as a competitive category in the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), short films, or for that matter, videos, have been a yardstick of sorts to ascertain the standards of filmmaking in Singapore.
Many films are for entertainment. Shorts films are no different, but with a sharpened edge where the point of the film is condensed into a shorter duration. Most of Singapore's feature filmmakers can trace their humble beginnings to directing short films. Feature directors, such as Eric Khoo, Kelvin Tong, Jasmine Ng and even comedy king, Jack Neo, have all cut their teeth on short films, and have won awards for their efforts. The newer feature filmmakers, like CheeK and Djinn, directed their first features after gaining experience and awards at the SIFF. Djinn garnered the Best Short Film award in 1998 for By the Dawn's Early Rise, and subsequently embarked on directing the low budget cult sleeper, Return to Pontianak. CheeK's award-winning short films, Marriage and Bean Sprouts and Salted Fish gave him finalist positions and accolades, which led to him directing his first feature romantic comedy, Chicken Rice War. As such, making short films can be alluded to career advancement paths.
The current up-and-coming award-winning filmmakers have also made at least two short films on their own. A few of them have already committed to feature film projects. This brimming 'third generation' movement is led by filmmakers Royston Tan, Han Yew Kwang, Wee Li Lin, Bertrand Lee, and Sun Koh.
Royston Tan's short films have garnered many awards both locally and overseas, including the Diploma of Merit at the Tampere International Short Film Festival in Finland. Tan approaches short films as a form of art. "Short films have their own charm and beauty. I simply love telling compelling stories within a compressed time. And it is important for me to balance the art of filmmaking with entertainment," he says.
Han Yew Kwang, the director of this year's Best Film entry at the SIFF Short Film Competition, similarly lauds the short film genre. "Shorts allow me to express myself freely without being constrained by any commercial burdens. To me, short films are my best portfolios as I have total creative freedom to every aspect of the film. The end product represents my thoughts, my voice and my vision. Making short films enables me to enjoy the filmmaking process."
Short films are miniaturized feature stories that are smaller scale and as such, easier on the resources.
"The short film format is convenient, cost and time-effective, and enjoyable to make," states CheeK. "You tell your story in the most economical and ingenious way." But telling a coherent story in a short duration of time requires wit, management and skill.
Bertrand Lee, the director of the short film, Trishaw echoes this point. "That's where the craftsmanship and responsibility of a director comes in. For shorts, there's room for more experimentation, and more forgiveness for goof-ups before the real deal of features."
Moving on from their short film awards, Tan has embarked on his first feature film, which is an extended version of his most recent short, 15, which just won Best International Short Film at the 6th Bangkok Short Film Festival. Han Yew Kwang has similar plans for an upcoming feature film, which is an adaptation of his finalist short film, Pinball. Both directors are aware of the challenges of moving from short to feature filmmaking. "Originality is an important factor in my creation," says Tan. "Censorship is another issue. I long to see the day that we, the audience, can practice self censorship, ie if you are not in favor of a certain movie, don't watch it."
Han on the other hand, feels that the challenges of a feature stem from three different, but co-related, categories: character, continuity and a comprehensive script. "A character in a feature film has 90 minutes of life compared to 10 to 30 minutes in a typical short film, therefore, he or she needs to have extra dimensions. Continuity then comes to play in terms of characters' emotions and behaviors.
Another award winner, Wee Li Lin, has been making shorts consistently for the past five years. But she prefers to be prudent before delving into feature film projects. "I have actually started writing a few long scripts over the past few years. Some are good, but none of them cut it for me; the thing that moves me the most is a character's journey... what makes this person tick or do the thing he/she does? As an artist and filmmaker, it's something you think about at a far greater level because the strength of your work depends on it."
While many Singaporeans still scoff at the quality of the local film scene, people around the world are opening their eyes to Singapore short films. Many shorts from our young filmmakers have traveled far and wide and have sent the directors jet-setting from one film festival to another like global ambassadors.
Yet Singaporeans remain the fiercest critics when it comes to their own home-grown filmmakers. Many use Hollywood movies as a yardstick to measure the art of storytelling and production quality. A common accusation, albeit true, is that Singaporean filmmakers are still too young. "I agree that good directors tend to be the older ones. But a director needs to start young to accumulate filmmaking experiences so that he will improve as he gets older. Older directors make better films only if he starts young and makes mistakes along the way," insists Han in firm defense of his youth. "All talents need to be discovered and nurtured."
Shorts have the ability to creep up on their audience. The issues they portray seem to hit closer to home than what we are used to on the silver screen. Sun Koh's A Secret Heaven won her the Best Director Award at this year's SIFF Short Film Competition and silver at the 38th Chicago International Film Festival. "One of the best screenings I've had was to the cleaning lady at Digipost, the post-production house where I edited my film," Koh recalls. " Like most non-arty-farts, she laughed and cheered whenever the protagonist, Qian, got into trouble. She even added her own lines in Hokkien dialect as to how the mother should scold Qian. She even tried to laugh when Qian ingeniously took the ointment. But when it came to the morning scene near the end, she was quiet and you could see the sadness in her eyes, even after the screening was over. She was unusually quiet the whole afternoon. It would be perfect if she could tell how exactly the story affected her, but I guess this kind of communication is not always possible through words. And that is why we have to make films."
Market forces are at full play even in the arena of the short film. When something is uncommon or inaccessible, but in high demand, an underground market will flourish. Royston Tan's short film 15, was given a restricted screening because of its raw, but honest portrayal about teenage gangsters and angst. But 15 was so popular with local teenagers that some posted the film on the Net, many youngsters own pirated copies, and it has been circulating ever since.
Evidently, the Singapore short film circuit is an art form just waiting to flourish here. Avenues for screenings have emerged throughout the island with the arts hub, The Substation, taking the lead. Their Moving Images program started out showcasing video art, short films and documentaries in 1997, and has gained an increasing following of short film patrons ever since. Being pioneers, the Moving Images program originally focused on locally-produced shorts, but shifted its focus to presenting a more balanced international fare for contrast. This fed a growing interest to watch and compare local storytelling standards, which in turn has been a great benefit to upcoming local
filmmakers who needed the exposure to mature and learn from the various standards of international filmmaking.
Yuni Hadi, programmer for Moving Images estimates: "We are now able to show about 150-200 short films a year. This is because we are able to get our hands on more films, plus we have a larger budget than when we first started which allows us to put out more screenings." Come November, The Substation will host the Singapore Shorts Film Festival with nearly 100 entries.
Other arts groups are also rallying to start up their own short film appreciation events. An event aptly titled 'Digital Compassion' will showcase digital video projects from short filmmakers and designers, :Thunk (studio), fFurious, Amir Muhammad, Galen Yeo, CheeK, Wee Li Lin, in December. Digital Compassion sees itself as a plea for compassionate evolution amidst the fast paced digital and technological revolution. As material needs are fulfilled, Digital Compassion reminds us of how we should treat fellow men and women, bringing life back to the basic feeling of compassion via new technological tools. This screening is available as a public showcase of works and will also be streamed online.
The library@esplanade has started its own bi-monthly Film Saturday program showcasing short films. This complements its library and archive facilities as a reference point for the local arts scene and culture.
Increasingly, screenings of short films are permeating into the heartlands of Singapore. This will hopefully act as a springboard for developing film appreciation, and more importantly, the appreciation of one's own culture, language and society, within the community. The North East Community Development Council, has been screening local short films and organizing competitions. Digital Sensation is an annual film/video production competition is in its second year, with entries from ranging from professionals to high-school students. One of the most entertaining screenings organized was Cinema Under the Stars and Over the Cars, which screened short films atop a multi-story car park, complete with alfresco ambience, drinks and tit-bits, and seating on straw mats - akin to the old days of the village cinema.
It is thus timely for a national cinema to be set up to cater to this increasing demand for shorts and alternative films. "Singapore needs a base where shorts and independent features will have a home year round," insists Yuni Hadi. Film reflects reality, and the reality of Singapore is that we are ever changing. Sooner or later, what is left to show of our history, lifestyle and culture will only be preserved as film, and this responsibility falls on the filmmaker.
Mohd Isazaly, a Singaporean filmmaker based in Malaysia emphatically reaffirms this: "It is up to us to realize that culture is the new currency of the 21st century. Everyone is curious about the world we all share. We need to find our own voices, tell our stories and make them known for everyone to see."
To this, I propose to set up Temasek Cinematheque, which will be a venue for independent film appreciation of alternative films and shorts while simultaneously building a pool of Singapore filmmakers. Ultimately, film is not only sugar coating, but a medium that reflects our life.
"I long to see the day that we, the audience, can practice self censorship, i.e. if you are not in favor of a certain movie, don't watch it."- Roystan Tan back to top
Juan Foo is an independent producer and curator for short film screenings.
This article first appeared in the Arts Magazine, December 2002.