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FilmsAsia: Asian film reviews
Soh Yun-Huei
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Toh Hai Leong, Auteur
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The Seduction of Wong Kar Wai
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Jonathan Foo Interview
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Sex in Asian Cinema
Erotic Cinema of the Shaw Studios
Homosexuality in Chinese Films
My Left Eye Sees Creativity
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One League of Social Consciousness
Emerging Trends in East Asian Cinema
Postwar Korean Cinema
Decline of Hong Kong Cinema before 1997
Rise of Afghan Films
Singapore's Mini Cinema
Creating A Singapore Cinema
Why Cinema is Important to Singapore
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Daniel Yun Interview
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Best of Times
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Big Shot's Funeral
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Blue Kite
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Brighter Summer Day, A
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Cat Returns
Chinese Odyssey 2002
City of Glass
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Color of the Truth
Color Blossoms
Confucian Confusion
Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon
Dark Water
Destination 9th Heaven
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Dumlings: 3 Extremes
Enter the Phoenix
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Goodbye, Dragon Inn
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Howl's Moving Castle
I Not Stupid
In the Mood for Love
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Innocence: Ghost in the Shell 2
Iron Ladies 2
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Jealousy is My Middle Name
Joint Security Area
Ju-On: The Grudge (2003)
July Rhapsody
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Last Life in the Universe
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Love Letter
Lucky Number
Marry a Rich Man
Me Thao
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   Singapore International Film Festival  



The 16th Singapore International Film Festival 2003

by Brandon Wee


In Strain Andromeda The (1992), video artist Anne McGuire re-edits Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971) by reversing his sequences shot-for-shot. In visualising chronology backwards, she performs a literal subversion of the popular ‘race-against-time’ genre. The effect is so neat that arriving a minute late would mean missing the ending, as I did. "Stealing Movies", a segment introspecting the ethics surrounding the phenomenon of Found Footage, hosted McGuire’s intervention, alongside Craig Baldwin’s Sonic Outlaws (1997), Peter Tscherkassky’s The Cinemascope Trilogy (1998) and Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002). Unlike the Readymade, where objects are predisposed by the ideological discourse of institutions to determine them as art, the assimilation of Found Footage for mass consumption is symptomatic of contemporary culture’s pluralist condition. It is through the desire to appropriate that re-presentation is inevitable.


There’s a line from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) that goes: "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." This is the same line the nannies that run Singapore want to guard their sheltered children from uttering at all costs. In a country where controversy is destabilising to the status quo, 15 (2003), Singapore’s latest feature film has found itself at the centre of a storm that may blow up or over. The story of disenfranchised teenagers, 15 is an extension of Tan’s short film similarly titled, and which has travelled wide to praise. On the surface, it juxtaposes the underclass against society’s paramount sanction of status and materialism, yet these binaries are being constantly undermined by the very values that construct them. Although the material is not new – a parallel to Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) is obvious, Tan reinforces the genre by opting for the flash and dazzle treatment of what is liberally termed the ‘MTV style’ – something I would argue doesn’t always justify the material.

15’s festival debut played to a full house, and the word from critics has been encouraging. Whether it gets an eventual release – uncut – at home depends on the decision by the Singapore censors, who are likely to invoke the state’s dominant ideologies of nation building and rectitude when passing judgement. One genuine controversy to have emerged from this constructed one is the police’s involvement in the decision-making process. Singapore has always been a police state, and given the clout of the police as guardians of morality, it isn’t surprising that these bluenoses have bottled and labelled the film as society’s ultimate poison when in fact, they have no business being self-appointed watchdogs of culture. 15’s producer, filmmaker Eric Khoo has reasoned: "I told Royston to be creative and not to censor himself. 15 touches on a certain pulse which needs to be expressed. It seems really wrong that local audiences have to fight to see it while international audiences are raining praises on it." What’s at stake now is not whose court the ball is in, but in fact who has bigger balls.


At the festival’s press conference late February, founder Geoff Malone described in his overview that in light of tense world affairs, the festival was in a "contemplative mood" and was hence serving a dose of retrospectives this year; 6 in all: on Singapore’s Cathay Studios actresses Grace Chang and Maria Menado, and auteurs Sergei Paradjanov, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dharmasena Pathiraja and Bertrand Tavernier. None unfortunately, were complete. Barring the glamour and nostalgia that Chang and Menado have come to symbolise, it’s ironic of course that the respective eras and circumstances in which Paradjanov, Pasolini and Pathiraja worked in were cruel and oppressive. On the other hand, their works speak to us in a time arguably worse off than theirs.


In Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace (2002), "peace" remains the utopian ideal while its antithesis is the dystopic reality being evoked by the feuding demagogues of the Indian and Pakistani governments in their bid to exceed each others’ nuclear might. Someone like George Carlin would have laughed off such posturing as nothing more than "dick-waving" – the contest to see whose missile is bigger, but Patwardhan’s 3-hour set piece flaunts the scope of epic investigative journalism admirably. It historicizes (albeit inconclusively some say) both the central and tangential consequences of nuclear conflict while documenting the activist struggles in opposing militancy.

Through footage amassed from political speeches, rallies and interviews with just about everyone in the food chain, Patwardhan also insists the incompetence of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Atal Behari Vajpayee by rebuking its jingoist mongering at the expense of the country’s oppressed classes. In one segment, a sting operation exposing details of state and military involvement in a corrupt arms deal are made public to embarrassing effect. Without surprise, the censors in India – a committee dominated by cronies of the ruling party as well as Hindu extremists – demanded excisions of all material that would disparage the government: ironically, the truth. But Patwardhan is censorship-intolerant; he’s been so for all his 30-years as a documentary filmmaker even as his hyphenate occupation of activist-documentarist whose taste political diatribe has effected a lasting relationship with the establishment.

War and Peace will have its second screening in Singapore at Indigo, a festival of contemporary Indian films in July. Despite the problems that come with presenting biased opinions, such films deserve more airtime and publicity. But as things go, Singaporean attention spans are unreliably short, and film distributors here are going all out to pamper this diseased psyche.


Dharmasena Pathiraja (see interview) formed the triumvirate of directors retrospected this year whose last names begin with "P" and who have been regarded as rebel artists on home soil. Of the 5 films screened, Ponmani (1977) and The Wasps Are Here (1978) are standouts, while Old Soldier (1981) represents his most humanist work, about four characters estranged from the spectacle of ‘nationhood’ revelry on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. It even has a prescient line of dialogue where a military superior barks sarcastically to his subordinates: "If we send you to Singapore, you can go to better latrines." Reportedly, the programme was poorly attended, and I am compelled to entreat: how can coddled Singapore audiences be convinced that, i) black-and-white is not boring, and ii) white people are not the only humans who make engaging cinema?


When America was castrated during the fall of 2001, most of the world marched in compassionate accord. Two years on, her grief has attained no closure but has instead reinstated her belligerence. Watching 11’09’’01 – September 11 (2002) again, this time after the badly reviewed theatrics in Iraq, I felt uncomfortable contributing to the extended gaze on America as a victim. The French-financed short film anthology invited 11 international filmmakers – Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran), Claude Lelouch (France), Youssef Chahine (Egypt), Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), Ken Loach (UK), Alejandro González IZárritu (Mexico), Amos Gitai (Israel), Mira Nair (India), Sean Penn (USA) and Shohei Imamura (Japan) – to respond cinematically to America’s "day of infamy". "Complete freedom of expression", the audience is told in the opening titles, although the condition that each film last 11 minutes, 9 seconds and 1 frame is a questionable contrivance. True to form, the artists have expressed what the world has known for a long time now – that America simply collapsed after tasting her own medicine. Of course, that’s not to accuse them of gloating. But given the world’s familiarity with America’s tyrannical streak, self-reflexivity from the inside would have been more revealing, and an omnibus featuring the views of American filmmakers would have proved equally challenging an experiment. Then again, one wonders why the sole American entry from Penn (the only recognisable actor of the lot) doesn’t come close to the critical rigour espoused by Chahine, Nair, Imamura and particularly, Loach.


Of his aesthetic, the Armenian director Sergei Iosifovich Paradjanov (1924-1990) asserted: "Man is not the creator of his own language. Rather, he is its creature." Of his life, he declared: "I did not follow the norms, which in a totalitarian state is tantamount to a crime." This, from a man whom the Soviet government harassed throughout his career, and whose curriculum vitae would also include being arrested, indicted, imprisoned in labour camp and banned from working. And yet, the man would make it known that "(those) years of squalor were the best years of (his) life."

Indebted to Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Dovzhenko, but esteemed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Moravia, Paradjanov, whose celluloid expressions were literally visual art, believed directing was congenital – and not without good reason. The festival’s tribute to Paradjanov showcased a slew of his finest works regularly hailed as "masterpieces": Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), Colour of Pomegranates (1969), The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984), Ashik Kerib (1988), as well as two adjunct documentaries on him: Rouben Kevorkiantz’s Paradjanov: Last Collage (2000) and Ron Holloway’s Paradjanov: A Requiem (1994). In Colour of Pomegranates, a muralist chart of the life of the 18th century Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, composition, colour and cultural iconography dovetail to convey the despair and agonised life of the creator. This is neither irony nor paradox at work. Like others who have rejected the values that inhabit paradigmatic structures, Paradjanov has commented: "We impoverish ourselves by thinking only in film categories. Therefore I constantly take up my paintbrush… another system of thinking, different methods of perception and reflection of life are opened to me."


"Indeed his work in the cinema must be ranked immediately after his work as a poet – and ahead of his novels – for its ambitious scope and the quality of the results he was to achieve," wrote Alberto Moravia on Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in 1975 was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Without a doubt, his penchant for adapting and reinterpreting literary texts – habitually infused with personal politics, has sponsored some of his most remarkable works. And if sex, violence and scatology have become overriding fetishes in today’s consumerist cinema, one only has to turn to Pasolini to witness their antecedents.

The Scrounger (1961) and Mama Roma (1962), Pasolini’s earliest films which insight contemporary Italian life, work solidly as melodramatic conventions. Then there are his classicist adaptations, though not without his signature embellishments, such as the neo-realist austerity of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), with Christ as a Marxist nomad, and the brilliant Oedipus Rex (1967), cited by Paradjanov as his favourite Pasolini film. His more abstract films are never sympathetic to the literal, such as Hawks and Sparrows (1966), Pigsty (1969) and a handful of short films, all of which are constructed around the tropes of allegory and parody. His final film, Salo (1975) is one that is both literal and figurative, but never sympathetic at all. That Pasolini’s films collectively defy categorisation is hardly the issue; that they are heavy on text, subtext and political critique is probably the reason why they have retained their relevance till today.


While Thailand’s Iron Ladies returned to pound the Pink Dollar into submission, the scales were balanced with the presence of a handful of non-mainstream expressions, chiefly Blissfully Yours (2001) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, One Night Husband (2002) by Pimpaka Towira and Mon-Rak Transistor (2002) by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. All three, it must be said, were highly enjoyable experiences, particularly Apichatpong’s Cannes 2002 Un Certain Regard winner. Thai cinema has never had it so good: a confident home audience has endorsed its popularity for it to emerge as one of Asia’s most industrious filmmaking centres. But for filmmakers like Pimpaka, a 90s pioneer of Thailand’s independent film scene, it’s never just about the hype. She once wrote: "The ever increasing number of Thai films is not the issue. What should be of greater concern for the industry is the lack of variety. Little investment is being made in developing new markets… in exploring new approaches and breaking new ground. There is quantity, but little variety… Today, most of the Thai films being made are ‘remakes’ of old movies. In comparison to the number of films that have been made from original scripts or screenplays, featuring stories that have never been covered before, these are relatively few."


Pasolini’s Salo was thought to be the goner but it was his The Arabian Nights (1974) that made a solitary public exit from the line-up. Festooned on its catalogue entry was a horizontal sash of text: "Passed With Cuts; Withdrawn From Festival". The message was clear: censorship would not be condoned. In Singapore, censorship is epidemic but few will admit it. Fewer have realised it. It is an act of terror that runs deep, infiltrating every strata of society. Here, everything is about control. There is no free press or media, and pragmatism is defended as the only credible style of democracy although in truth, Singapore possesses none. Where the arts and culture are concerned, the struggles with censorial tyranny that the theatre and visual arts have had to wrestle with have been well documented, but it is in the arena of film that activism and critical discourse have been the least pronounced. A recent press headline that read: "Censorship rules may be eased, but not moral tone" not only corroborates the state’s intransigent conservatism, but also implicates its dependence on the unsound premise of morality.


Some of the most engaging cinema is the kind where you sit down with expectations, only to have the carpet fiercely yanked from your feet. Or else it is an experience that serves as an illuminating apparatus, functioning to guide the mind’s delusions from the recesses of unsophistication. Some of my favorites this year: John Junkerman’s Power & Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (2002), a pedestrian experience saved only by Chomsky’s wisdom; Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002), for the disclosure of a personal story I had believed was buried with time; Lloyd Kaufman’s All the Love You Cannes (2002), because every underdog has its day, and this film is it; Solveig Nordlund’s Low Flying Aircraft (2001), a seductive adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s short story rendered with nightmarish beauty; Teng Yung-Shing’s Love at 7-11 (2002), for a presentation of mesmerizing character studies; Chang Tso-Chi’s The Best of Times (2002), an accomplished follow-up to Darkness and Light (1999), although the warmth and pathos that made the latter so heartrending is now gone; Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), for a long shot beautifully realized; Flying With One Wing (2002), in which Asoka Handagama directs his wife, Anoma Janadari in standout performance as a transgendered mechanic dealing with the trials of communal prejudice and personal conviction.


Why is it that in a country as rich as Singapore, money is so hard to come by? I’m referring of course to the state of arts funding, although in this town, getting laid off en masse has been the latest craze. The crisis of arts funding doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is an issue acutely felt by all sectors of the arts. The festival’s pre-publicity coverage, which focused exclusively on the problem, drove home the point: the arts are starving for funds, but begging for money is not what artists or organisers should be doing. Aid should be forthcoming. The state – via the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) – who should be overturning their coffers inside out to finance all film initiatives unconditionally, especially ones that constantly perform on the upswing, aren’t doing this at all. In fact they had made it known that this year’s sponsorship for the festival would be much smaller compared to previous years. Which is a travesty, because if private sector funding is so hard to come by during a recession, then who will provide relief? The unemployed?


Mother Nature is a bitch, and anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Edward Murphy’s two observations are apropos to how an etiologically unknown coronavirus managed to chalk up soaring mortality rates, devastate the economy and aggravate the one emotion peculiar to the populace – fear. In the weeks leading to the festival, speculation was rife whether the event would be an unfortunate casualty of time and circumstance. In the end, it was yes and no. A handful of foreign guests declined their invitations to attend and stayed home, although they really shouldn’t have. On the other hand, filmgoers know better than to give any smorgasbord like this a miss. To relief and surprise, the paranoia did not permeate this boundary. 61,600 was the official attendance figure reported for this year, a gentle rise from the previous year’s 60,000.


Two years back, I wrote on the 14th SIFF (2001) for this space. What interested me that year were the short films competing in the Silver Screen Awards. 78 entries were received but only 6 made it as candidates for competition. Revealingly, the finalist numbers have been falling over time, from 11 in 1996 to 5 in 2000. Last year saw 8 finalists, but this year only a wretched 3 surfaced. You can’t help but wonder if this figure might have been inflated; ‘3’ is after all a psychologically satisfying number. However, like in 2001 history repeated itself. Out of the 4 prizes: Best Film, Best Director, Special Jury Prize and Special Achievement Award, only the latter was awarded. If Singaporean short films have not managed to impress successive juries over the years, it is not entirely because filmmakers do not have interesting stories to tell. They do, but I suspect the pervasiveness of apolitical attitudes among them have bolstered the complacency and relative comfort of working on safe ground.


If art and politics are inseparable, and if a function of art demands that it be utilised to say something about our times, then opening with Im Kwon-teak’s Chihwaseon (2002) and closing with Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2002) make for a sense of contemporary relevance. The former, because if love and peace seem so out of reach, then the importance of art, its beauty and wisdom can at least surrogate such urgencies. And the latter, because in times of hostility, suffering and misery – when the retardation of the human race is so unyielding, humour of all things, can be the most bracing antidote.


The repertoire for the 16th Singapore International Film Festival comprised more than 350 films (195 of which were features) from over 45 countries. It ran 17 days, smack in the middle of war and disease, but emerged unscathed.



Asian Feature Film Category
Best Film: The Best Of Times (Taiwan; Chang Tso-chi, 2002)
Best Director: Angel On The Right (Tajikistan; Djamshed Usmonov, 2002)
Special Jury Prize: Flying With One Wing (Sri Lanka; Asoka Handagama, 2002)
Young Cinema Award: Blissfully Yours (Thailand; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)
Best Actor: Wing Fan in The Best Of Times (Taiwan; Chang Tso-chi, 2002)
Best Actress: Anoma Janadari in Flying With One Wing (Sri Lanka; Asoka Handagama, 2002)

NETPAC/FIPRESCI Award: 15 (Singapore; Royston Tan, 2002)
Special Mention: Unknown Pleasures (China, Jia Zhang-ke, 2002)

Singapore Short Film Category
Special Achievement Award: Autograph Book (Singapore; Wee Li-lin, 2002)
Awards for Best Film, Best Director and Special Jury Prize were not handed out.

Asian Digital Short Film Category
Critics Prize: Kamunting (Malaysia; Amir Muhammad, 2002)

© Brandon Wee, June 2003. Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.

The article first appeared in Senses of Cinema May 2003.


15th Singapore International Film Festival 2002

by Brandon Wee

The Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) celebrated its fifteenth birthday in typical festival frenzy. Seguing into another year, the event drew intense emotions from persistent mechanical glitches and over-air-conditioned halls but also from the pleasure of having been gratified by grand moving images. Some 390 films from 40 countries shaped the spread, with spotlights on contemporary fixations: The theme of "globalization" had an exclusive program dedicated to filmmakers' representations of this loaded buzzword. Another catch phrase, Digital Cinema, was given further resonance with the introductory Asian Digital Film Awards plus a medley of international features 'digitized' by the proselytizing logic of economy and portability. Another favorite was animation, with the invisible world of Asian animations taking center stage, and also tributes to manga guru Tezuka Osamu and Jan Švankmajer, a man who begrudges the animator label.

Kandahar (2001), Mohsen Makhmalbaf's prescient essay on humanity opened the festival to little surprise. Although an unusually conservative narrative -- a race-against-time tale subtended with road movie sensibilities, for Makhmalbaf, this is less his latest art house spectacle than a personal resolve to remedy the distressing state of civil affairs in Afghanistan. Wrapping up the 17-day event was Tsai Ming-Liang's What Time Is It There? (2001), another of his exploratory canvases on isolation and the urban experience, this round across time and space. Tsai's citation of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) tosses about interesting symbolisms but even Jean-Pierre Léaud's cameo does little to enthuse an otherwise detached viewing.

From Singapore, critic-turned-filmmaker Sandi Tan's short, Gourmet Baby (2001) was a neat metaphor on desire but problematic for its representation of social class determinants such as Singapore's cultural fetish for food. Adi Yadoni's Reflections of the Misunderstood Mat Rockers (2002) is a documentary that attempts to empower the local community of Malay rock music lovers besieged by pejorative stereotypes, yet it overlooks the politics of marginality where the external imperatives of history, ethnicity and gender peculiar to Singapore are concerned. Joyceln Woo and Colin Goh's TalkingCock The Movie (2001) [to "talk cock" is a Singapore colloquial construct meaning to chitchat idly] comprises four slice-of-life stories about the quirks of Singapore life and has been described as a "surrealist comedy" by the filmmakers. However, one wishes its sense of humour and irreverence were less self-conscious and reactionary, a symptom plaguing most Singapore films in search of an "identity."

The SIFF has always been a bastion of faith in Asian, particularly Southeast Asian cinema. But as festival director Philip Cheah recalls, it was difficult initially to find an audience due to prejudices caused by Hollywood's hegemonic gloss. Happily, audiences are now hungry for the latest features from China, Hong Kong, Japan and especially Korea. But although it's been about a decade since the festival made a conscious effort to initiate Singapore audiences to the cinemas of the Southeast Asian region -- ironic, considering Singapore's proximity to her neighbors and their historical and cultural ties within this small geographical sphere -- one feels, despite the inductions, that they do not attract half as much appraisal as their North Asian counterparts. This year's line-up has been absolutely enduring. The 5-hour Batang West Side (2001) by Lav Diaz is a poignant work that examines the Filipino Diaspora in America -- a revelation in interrogative scope. Another veritable standout was Mike de Leon's Third World Hero, a fresh and amusing perspective that critiques the historical representation and hero worship of the Philippines' national icon, José Rizal.

Previously retrospected Southeast Asian directors include Ishmael Bernal, Arifin C. Noer, Mario O'Hara, P. Ramlee and Cherd Songsri. This year, the SIFF saluted Thailand's Ratana Pestonji (1908-1970), who directed only four features in his career and whose cinematographic prowess clearly eclipsed his directorial interests. Black Silk (1961), which he wrote, produced, directed, photographed, edited and in which he cast his daughter, is possibly his finest, even though his directorial debut Country Hotel (1957) is revered among critics and elders. Set in a one-room inn, Murphy's Law becomes an indispensable narrative agent when the sole guest is driven crazy by the absurdities of its other inhabitants.

Other remarkable mentions this year include The Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001), with a dispassionate Billy Bob Thornton as the urban Marlboro Man, Imamura Shohei's intriguing Warm Water Under A Red Bridge (2001), Milcho Manchevski's Dust (2001), Lindsey Merrison's Friends In High Places (2001), Park Kiyong's Camel(s) (2001), Riri Riza's Eliana, Eliana (2002), Julian Samuel's The Library In Crisis (2002), and Švankmajer's delectably perverse Conspirators of Pleasure (1996).

If figures are any indication, the SIFF is developing assuredly amid growing public support. In 1987, it started out with 70 titles. Last year saw fives times that number. This year, and against the odds of waning sponsorship, that number has bettered slightly. Come next spring, film buffs will be thirsting for SIFF's sixteenth line-up. With any luck, it will be the sweetest one yet.


Asian Feature Films
Best Film: Batang West Side (The Philippines, Lav Diaz, 2001)
SFC Young Cinema Award: Eliana, Eliana (Indonesia, Riri Riza, 2002)
Special Jury Prize: Seafood (China/Hong Kong, Zhu Wen, 2001)
Best Director: Away From Home (Turkey, Semih Kaplanoglu, 2001)
Best Actor: Jia Hongsheng in Quitting (China, Zhang Yang, 2001)
Best Actress: Dian Sastrowardoyo in Whispering Sands (Indonesia, Nan Achnas, 2001)Singapore Short Films
Best Film:
The Call Home (Singapore, Han Yew Kwang, 2001)
Special Jury Prize: Eve of Adha (Singapore, Leonard Yip, 2001)
Best Director: The Secret Heaven (Singapore, Sun Koh Boon Luang, 2002)
Special Achievement Award: 15 (Singapore, Royston Tan, 2002)

Critics Jury
Eliana, Eliana (Indonesia, Riri Riza, 2002)
Special Mention: I-San Special (Thailand, Mingmongkol Sonakul, 2002)

Asian Digital Film Awards
Critics Prize:
Lost (Malaysia, Amir Muhammad, 2002)
Audience Prize: In Search of Afghanistan (Singapore, Melvinder Kanth, Ismail bin Ishak, 2001)

© Brandon Wee 2002. Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.

The article first appeared in Fall 2002 of Kinema.


14th Singapore International Film Festival 2001: A Postscript

by Brandon Wee

Philip Cheah, Festival director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF), pens an interesting afterthought in his editorial for BigO (No.186, June 2001). In it, he comments on Singapore short films and their appearance at this year's Festival. He states that "...the hype for Singapore short films began last year. This is because there is really nothing left feature-length-wise to hype about so the shorts are the new hype." Of interest, however, is that with the exception of one Special Achievement Award, no other prizes (there are 4 in all) were awarded to the six contending finalists in the short film competition of this year's Silver Screen Awards.

Although Cheah reveals that the jury members had concluded unanimously that the films were "substandard," he irons out the weight by personally extolling their efforts. In a letter of response to Cheah's editorial (BigO, No.187, July 2001), filmmaker Sandi Tan, a member of the NETPAC-FIPRESCI critics jury, corrects him by pointing out that the decision not to hand out prizes was not unanimous; like him, she was "much more impressed with this year's selection than the previous years" and had differed in opinion with the main jury's final decision.

Far from mounting a defense for Singapore short films or parrying unenthusiastic judgement with indignation, my afterthoughts here concern the scrutiny of some contemporary currents in the local filmmaking scene. To begin with, I am unsure if there has been any vocal dissent to the jury's dismissal, although this is immaterial. 78 short film entries were yielded but only 6 were creamed off for greater good – to naught, as it turns out; these numbers are groaners, and made to look all the more disappointing given that the number of finalists short-listed over previous years has crumbled almost proportionately, from 11 in 1996 to 5 in 2000.

But, according to Cheah's editorial, the results have provoked anger. Which quarters is this anger representative of – is it the (filmmaking) public's peeve or institutional pique? Was such bitterness symptomatic of national consciousness, where 'losing' is considered valueless? If this was the case, then self-evaluation will be sorely desired. Certainly, on an institutional level, the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) will be evaluating the situation on the ground in order to help sustain what it deems a "significant driving force" – "film appreciation and the nurturing of the growing film culture in Singapore." (1) But although their claim that, "[f]or years, the festival has been the only platform showcasing the work of local talent" (2) is verifiable, such a manner of expression overlooks the merit of similar endeavors that espouse less mainstream orientations.

Spaces like the Substation, Singapore's 'alternative' arts center, which has been proactive in supporting moviemaking activity through a year-round program that showcases both local emphasis and international highlights. Yet, unlike the short film competition ordained by the Silver Screen Award's decade-old platform – an annual fling that climaxes in an orgy of glamour and profligacy – the Substation's Moving Images program, at less than half that age, bears an unassuming design and a mellowness the former has yet to lay bare. Through frequent screenings of amateur work, workshops and exchanges, the Moving Images program attempts to level the playing field by opening up avenues for community building, networking and exposure. It's a process that appreciates the necessity to coax momentum within a milieu that has arguably been made effete by the lack of infrastructural support, particularly in Singapore, where filmmaking is, as a rule, a process whose synergy is predicated on logistic and capital(ist) imperatives.

Scheduled for December 2001, the Substation's newly established Singapore Shorts Film Festival will be an event to watch for. Being the inaugural Festival committed to the 'short', it is unsurprising that it already aims to do much of this watching. As its Call For Entries publicity notes: "…it is to observe the rapid development of filmmaking on a global level and to exercise how we can participate in it." Of equal, if not greater consideration nevertheless, is how this enterprise can integrate its "global" dispositions in tandem with the foundation it has so vigilantly built. What is decisive is the logic of continuity, as opposed to a blind embrace of the 'global' referent, which resonates firmly with the spectacle of 'globalization'. All too often, the notion of going 'global' or 'globalizing' remains a powerful conforming mechanism, entailing an equivocal agenda that predisposes the variables of particular politics. Admittedly persuasive, but such inclinations are inherently problematic, to say the least.

The bigger picture, it seems, is not far removed either. Even as SIFF's programming strategy boldly underlines Asian cinema as a specialist draw, the dearth of local features is a frustrating recurrence. How does Singapore feel about this inconsistency – this upturned sore thumb – given her self-appointed status as the high priestess of Asian Values? While propaganda's mythologizing of an energized 'local film industry' continues to circulate without requisite conviction, what is brazenly absent too is the inadequate sobriety at examining the condition of the contemporary film scene. Regrettably, local films have not been able to uphold a bastion of regard at home, nor have they figured prominently in contemporary world cinema; substance may be cited as the perennially elusive ingredient, but in the face of this, a principally affirmative hint is the resurgence of filmmaking activity, which is reporting a cumulative resolve.

The brevity of context to further examine an area that warrants urgent critical inquiry dissuades me; but in replacement, I offer a concomitant anecdote.

At a recent but rare film forum (3) on local films organized by United International Pictures (Singapore), one of the anxieties expressed from the floor was, as reported by a local tabloid (4), the deficiency of subject matter – allegedly attributable to Singapore's plague of "restrictions" leveled against filmmakers. SFC's executive director, Dr. Ismail Sudderuddin "retort(ed)" to this particular comment by citing the case of Iran, where theirs was a filmmaking community that had infinitely more restrictions to wrestle with and yet had a thriving industry to boast of. Although Dr. Sudderuddin's comparison of Iran with Singapore is not without rousing intentions, his remarks, quoted and interpreted off the cuff, perhaps understate the intricacy of a case like Iran's and hence miss the point in addressing the apathy of Singapore's filmmaking psyche.

What Singapore desires to become – based on a snap fetish of a utopian, "thriving film industry" – hardly translates into the turbulent narrative that Iranian cinema has struggled to negotiate for seventy years. More than anything, the historical and political incongruence between the two countries may serve to explain the problematic of their comparison. One of the ideological thrusts of the 1979 Islamic Revolution was the belief that the cinema was an institution of depravity. It was, as the late Ayatollah Khomeini condemned, but later retracted, albeit ironically, "a modern invention… used… to corrupt our youth," and his words set the course for a wilful annihilation of anything that concerned the moving image – by invoking the decimation of hundreds of cinemas at the flames of fanatic arsonists, the mass indictment of filmmakers, and the subsequent halt of film production. Above all, it beckoned the implementation of an unyielding system of censorship that made cinematic representations, such as that of women and sexuality, tricky and contentious snares. Yet, the consequence of all this had conferred a remarkably buoyant and empowering characteristic: the inability to deal unswervingly with social realities only served to engender a consciousness that would translate representations of the literal to levels of the symbolic and minimalist – incidentally some of the characteristics that Iranian cinema is critically acclaimed for.

Such is but a glimpse of a disparate chasm that stretches between these two divides: that while Singapore filmmakers continue to carp on trivial "restrictions," which they maintain are impeding creative drive, Iran's artists are often compelled to negotiate their dues on impenitently antagonistic terrain, where the cinema ranks alongside other government-controlled institutions as a theater of war upon which the ideologies of culture, politics and religion clash center stage between those who hold fast to the fundamental Islamic codes of conduct and others who aspire to reform a system they see as essentially tyrannical and repressive.

In these brief closing remarks, I wish to reference three original aims of the SIFF. These were: "to broaden film appreciation in Singapore," "to build a platform for the Singapore film industry," and "to expose Singaporeans to the process of film through seminars and workshops." (5) To no small measure of effort, the first and third have been worthily tasked. There is now, more than ever, an interest in film and filmmaking. At least the government indulges this opinion, which would imply that there is reason for the public to share the interest. To a degree, they have. But I'm not too sure about the second aim.

In his report of the 14th SIFF (6), Nazir Keshvani quotes Cheah, who has once said that "the SIFF has always existed as a field of dreams." He then ventures: "Fourteen years since the Festival's founding, the field of dreams, it would appear, still needs nurturing." Indeed, for too long now, this field has yielded a wretched, if not pitiable harvest. Is the ground not fertile enough? Or are those in the field not dreaming 'right'? At 15-years-old, the SIFF has arrived at the prototypical pubertal phase – a period marked by intense hormonal and emotional transition. Aspirations should ideally transcend beyond mere dreams. At this age, wouldn't fantasizing be a more compelling prospect?


1. SFC Media Release for the 14th SIFF: The Singapore Film Commission Presents The 11th Silver Screen Awards 2001, 23 February 2001.

2. Ibid.

3. Film Forum 2001: In Search of The Archival Local Films and Local Filmmakers / Will We Ever Be Hollywood? Organized by United International Pictures (Singapore) and held at Ngee Ann Polytechnic Cultural Theatre on 30 August 2001.

4. Stephanie GOH, Too Many Restrictions? I Think Not; Streats, 31 August 2001.

5. Jan UHDE and Yvonne NG-UHDE, Latent Images Film in Singapore; Oxford, Singapore, 2000.

6. Nazir Keshvani, "The 14th Singapore International Film Festival, Apr 11-28 2001 – A Report", Senses of Cinema No. 14, June 2001.

© Brandon Wee, October 2001. Brandon Wee lives in Toronto.The article first appeared in Senses of Cinema, May 2001.



by Chen Chiou Beng

The 12th Singapore International Film Festival, which went from 16th April to the 1st of May 1999, has just ended. Out of over 300 films and shorts, I saw twenty features and two short films. Below I will split them into various categories, the first will be a slight introduction of highlights to the festival, the films I had wanted to watch but missed and those that I actually caught. In the end you will see my top and bottom ten lists.

The Asian Film Highlights: There are a lot of Asian film highlights this year. Included in this film festival are not only the opening film, Ordinary Heroes (Qian Yan Wan Yu) (Hong Kong, 1999) and the closing film, The Hole (Dong) (Taiwan, 1998), but also the following: Leaf on A Pillow (Daun Di Atas Bantal), an Indonesian film which won the Best Film for the Asia Pacific Film Awards at 1998; Ikinai, a beautifully done Japanese film that won best screenplay for this year's Singapore Silver Screens Film Awards; The Longest Summer, a new film from Hong Kong director Fruit Chan who is famous for the film Made in Hong Kong; After Life, a Japanese film about, er well, the afterlife; Dr Akagi, another film from director Shohei Imamura, a follow up after the award-winning film The Eel, among others.

The Others: There are other highlights, of course. Most notably there are not one, not two, three or four, but FIVE retrospectives to various directors. One offered tribute to Arifin C. Noer, an Indonesian director; P. Ramlee, a Singaporean director during the 50's and 60's, when it was once Singapore's golden age; Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian director that gave you Battleship Potemkin, French director Claude Chabrol whose famous work includes Wedding in Blood; and German director Werner Herzog. Others included four Japanese animations, films with tributes to popular music, the millennium series where a group of directors who made films corresponded to the end of the 20th century, as well as a fair share of films from the USA, UK, Canada, and other countries from around the world.

The films I've watched: Altogether I watched a total of 19 films from the main program, one from one of the retrospectives, and two short films that preceded two of the films. Below are short reviews to each of the title of the main program, in alphabetical order (All ratings are set at 5 maximum):

01) Black Jack (credits to come): This is a cautionary tale about the misuse of medicine. A series of people, who displayed extraordinary talents, are now displayed a series of strange unexplainable illness, and Black Jack, an unlicensed surgeon, is about to find out the dark truth behind the secrets. Well animated and with a good story, recommended to people who want to start seriously with Japanese anime film. Japan, 1995, 093 minutes, PG: Contains violence and some graphic medical procedure. (3 stars out of 4)

02) Bullet Ballet (Shinya Tsukamato, 1998?, Japan): After the death of his girlfriend, who committed suicide with a bullet in the head, the boyfriend becomes obsessed with guns. He tries to find a real gun and in the process, he got one by accident. On the other hand, however, a group of punkers that has 'bullied' him, for some reason, got hold of the gun and tragedy struck... From Shinya Tsukamoto of Tetsuo fame comes his latest work in black and white. Though I have not seen the director's previous works but I have longed for them, and finally I have the chance with Bullet Ballet. But there are just too much imagery and hidden meanings in the film that hinders my viewing pleasures. Maybe I'm still young. I confess, I might truly enjoy the show one-day, but not now. Japan, 1998, 098 minutes, PG: Contains drug use, strong violence and adult situations. (2½ stars out of 4)

03) The Checkpoint After the accidental shooting of some villagers by a group of green soldiers, they are sent to a faraway checkpoint, where not only they have to perform the duty, but also have to fend for their lives from an unseen sniper... Possibly one of the better films I have caught this film festival, this film does not glamorize army life. In fact, in the film, we see that whenever a problem arises, the soldiers are the scapegoats. Also, both the soldiers and the sniper, in my opinion, do not see pride in their work. To them, what they do is just... what they do. What the show reflects is a harsh reality on life itself, where all things must follow a set of rules. Russia, 1998, 095 minutes, PG: Contains adult situations, violence and profanity. (3 stars out of 4)

04) The Hole (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1998, Taiwan/France): This year's closing film and the fourth film by Tsai Ming-Liang should be better than this. The plot deals with the millennium, or more precisely, seven days before it, where people are infected with a strange virus. The film has little dialogue and the atmosphere is dark and somber, except for an occasional burst into songs that look like MTV which lightens the mood. While not a terrible film, I would have preferred his earlier works. Taiwan/France, 1998, 095 minutes, PG: Unsettling themes of virus infection. (2½ stars out of 4) Note: This year's closing film.

05) Ikinai When a young woman goes on a bus trip in place of a sick uncle, she does not know what she is getting into. For it is no ordinary trip, but rather it is a one-way trip to death, for all the other members are about to commit mass suicide to get them hands on the insurance money. Will she be able to stop them as soon as she knows about it? This film deals with the problem of life and death, and what one would do in time of crisis. Will death solve their problems, or is it better if you live and head on toward the problem instead. Light humor uplifts the serious tone. My #1 on the list. Japan, 1998, 101 minutes, PG: Contains brief nudity. (3½ stars out of 4)

06) Last Night If you know that there are only six hours to the end of the world, what would you do? This is precisely what the characters in Last Night must choose, for the end of the world comes in six hours time. One of the better feature, this film does not let the audience know what is causing the doomed fate, but rather the film revolves around the characters, what they really wanted to do in the last hours. Indeed, panic is fruitless, for there is nowhere to hide, so they instead celebrate (!) the end of the world in style. Supported by a stellar cast, Last Night is definitely worth a look. Canada, 1998, 093 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity, sex, and adult situations. (3 stars out of 4)

07) The Longest Summer (Qu Nian Yan Hua Te Bie Duo) When the Hong Kong Military Service Corps, which made up of local Hong Kong Chinese, was disbanded due to the 1997 Hong Kong hand-over, it created a series of problems for those in it. Joblessness was the major problem among these people, and this film traces these people as they try to solve their dilemmas. A rare misfire from Fruit Chan, whose previous Made in Hong Kong (Xiang Gang Zhi Zhao) won awards worldwide. It suffers from a lack of plot toward the second half of the film. Hong Kong, 1998, 128 minutes, R(A): Contains profanity and some strong violence. (2 stars out of 4)

08) My Name Is Joe (Ken Loach, 1998, UK): Joe, a recovering alcoholic, is living a normal life as a football manager after a wild previous life. He meets a woman, Sarah, and falls for her. But one of Joe's members, Liam, is in trouble and is about to give both Joe and Sarah trouble.... Ken Loach's direction is terrific, and the film is watchable and easily understandable. But My Name Is Joe is not on my favorite list, for one simple reason: the accent is practically inaudible and subtitles are needed for this film. [The US release had subtitles. - Editor] 105 minutes, PG: Contains brief nudity, strong profanity, drug use and violence. (2½ stars out of 4)

09) Ordinary Heroes (Qian Yan Wan Yu) Truth is, I enjoyed Ann Hui's work, particularly her Summer Snow, but her latest work, Ordinary Heroes, which is also incidentally the opening film for this year's film festival, is too political to be enjoyable, at least in my opinion. There are just too many issues here to be discussed, and this is the director's most personal work by far. There are too many things to be understood, but I still like, if not anything, the film. Hong Kong, 1999, 128 minutes, PG: Contains adult situations. (3 stars out of 4) Note: This year's opening film.

10) Perfect Blue When Mima, a popular pop-idol singer leaves her singing career for acting one, she realizes that she only has a small role. So further her careers, she agreed to do all sorts of things, like posing nude. Then, threats are being sent to her and worse, the murder begins... A mystery murder if you've ever seen one, but it is well crafted and the tension is held to the point where the real murderer is revealed. An exciting film, but not for the fainthearted. By the way, this is my favorite Japanese animation among the four I have seen. Japan, 1997, 081 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity, rape sequence, violence and gore. (3½ stars out of 4)

11) The Poet (Gu Cheng Bie Nian) Tracing the life of the real life poet Gu Cheng, also well known as the Chinese John Lennon, to his tragedy of murdering his wife and then taking his own life. It would have been great if not for the fact we are treated to his personal sexual life a little too much. An arty misfire, only slightly uplifted with the beautiful choreographed scenes of the surroundings. Hong Kong, 1998, 112 minutes, R(A): Contains violence, nudity and sex. (2 stars out of 4)

12) The Red Violin Possibly one of the best films this year's festival has to offer, The Red Violin is essentially a story about, well, a red violin. Chronicling on its creation and history, the film spans centuries over five countries, finally ending in the modern day. The characters, though playing second fiddle to the main title, are made up of a choice of excellent cast. One of my recommendations. Canada/Italy, 1998, 130 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity and sex. (3½ stars out of 4)

13) Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998, US) One of the more original productions to come out of USA, at least better than Velvet Goldmine, another film I've seen at this festival. This film has an interesting premise as well as an award-worthy performance from veteran actor, Bill Murray. Benefitted from a good writing and cast, this is a good film to catch, but the writing goes slightly astray toward the midpoint. USA, 1998, 093 minutes, R(A): Contains profanity and brief nudity. (3 stars out of 4)

14) Spriggan This is possibly the weakest of the four Japanese animations shown this year, but if you are in for a roller-coaster fun-like movie, you should go for it. A highly entertaining film that follows in the likes of Indiana Jones with combination of new gadgetry similar to the James Bond films, Spriggan is about the secrets of the Noah's Ark. If you are bored, catch it, you'll be entertained. Japan, 1998, 090 minutes, R(A): Contains strong violence. (2½ stars out of 4)

15) Striking Back (Jue Di Fan Ji) A satire of various films, both East and West, but a high film to understand and even harder if you are not a film buff. The story goes like this: A film production company is on the verge of closing down when a sponsor offers money to make a film on conditions: To make a Hollywood film but on a small-scale budget. Thus the script is written to absurdity as it delves into films like Pulp Fiction and The Piano. Shot beautifully in black and white, this is a film of total enjoyment if you can get the inner jokes of the film. Possibly the hardest film for me to review. Taiwan, 1997, 106 minutes, R(A): Violence, profanity and Simulated sex. (3½ stars out of 4)

16) Sweet Degeneration (Fang Lang) The most serious film I caught in this year's film festival, Lin Cheng-sheng's fourth feature deals with the taboo theme of incest. Another film that is hard to review, the only thing I have to say that this film deserves full attention when watching, or you might miss vital plot. Taiwan, 1997, 118 minutes, R(A): Sex and themes of incest. (2½ stars out of 4)

17) Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998, UK) Rock star Brian Slade staged his own assassination in 1971. But the plan backfired, and he disappeared from the public eye since then. In 1984, a reporter tries to find out what happened to Brian Slade, and what he discovered is bigger than he thinks... The film is mediocre, despite all the shock antics, the costumes and the music in the film. Too much substance and too little plot spoils the film, and not even a good cast can save this show from falling apart. But ironically, it is the music and the splendor of the costumes that saves it from total turkeydom. USA, 1998, 123 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity, homosexual themes, drug use and profanity. (2 stars out of 4)

18) Via Satellite Possibly the funniest film I have caught in this year's film festival, Via Satellite deals with the dilemmas of family problems. When one of the members of the Dunn family is about to win the Olympic gold medal, a television crew comes to interview the family. At this time, all secrets are being let out, but in the end of the film is a happy ending. One of the best crowd pleasers I have caught. New Zealand, 1998, 090 minutes, R(A): Contains profanity and sexual situations. (3 stars out of 4)

19) The Wolf Brigade (Jin-Roh) This Japanese animation is from the creators of the critically acclaimed Ghost in The Shell, but do not expect it to be a high tech film. Rather, this film deals with an alternate future of Japan having difficulty recovering from the Second World War, and this film is very, very political in nature. It is also a film that explores the beast in human nature, exploring it in layers. The over-complexity may drive away some animation fans, but is a well-told tale. Japan, 1998, 098 minutes, R(A): Contains some strong violence. (2½ stars out of 4)

Note 1: All censorship ratings to the film are as in the Singapore International Film Festival. Ratings to the film might change if scheduled for commercial release.

Note 2: All censorship ratings pending the Singapore Censorship Review Board.

The Ranking: 19th: Longest Summer, The (Qu Nian Yan Hua Te Bie Duo) 18th: Poet, The (Gu Cheng Bie Nian) 17th: Velvet Goldmine 16th: Bullet Ballet 15th: My Name Is Joe 14th: Spriggan 13th: Hole, The (Dong) 12th: Wolf Brigade, The (Jin-Roh) 11th: Sweet Degeneration (Fang Lang) 10th: Rushmore 09th: Ordinary Heroes (Qian Yan Wan Yu) 08th: Via Satellite 07th: Black Jack 06th: Last Night 05th: Checkpoint, The 04th: Striking Back (Jue Di Fan Ji) 03rd: Perfect Blue 02nd: Red Violin, The And 01st: Ikinai

Regrettably Missed: Due to study commitments and/or time clashes with other films, or even suffer from a ticket sellout, I missed the following I wished to catch: -After Life (Japan) -Black Cat, White Cat (Serbia) -Book of Life, The (USA/France) -Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, The (Korea) -Day Silenced Died, The (Bolivia) -Dr Akagi (Japan) -Dreamlife Of Angels, The (France) -Happiness (USA) -I Married a Strange Person (USA) -In the Winter Dark (Australia) -Jam (Guo Jiang) (Taiwan/Japan) -Lake(Georgia) -Personals, The (Zheng Hun Qi Shi) (Taiwan) -Waking Ned Devine (UK) -Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (Japan)

Anyone who watched the above following please post/e-mail me a short review! Thanks in advance!

Confirmed/Suspected Commercial Release: -Amy (Australia) -Dr Akagi (Japan) -Gangland (Philippines) -Happiness (USA) -Ordinary Heroes (Hong Kong) -Poet, The (Kong Kong) -Red Violin, The (Canada/Italy) -Rushmore(USA) Any more I missed?

Conclusion With over 300 titles there was at least something to please everybody, but when compared to previous years, the sales of the tickets were slow this year. Maybe due to the two following reasons: 01) The titles are not as good as previous years'. 02) Economic Crisis.

And with this, I shall end this brief personal report of mine. Wait until next year's film festival and hope they provide a better selection!



Toh Hai Leong

The 23rd Hongkong International Film Festival, (31st March to 15th April), focused on a few interesting and topical issues, the most pervasive being the feeling of alienation and loneliness. The recent Balkan conflicts found their reflection in the festival as well, especially in the nonconformist Greek film-maker Theo Angelopoulos' Balkan Trilogy, a sweeping fresco including the 1991 Suspended Step of the Stork, the 1995 Ulysses' Gaze, and culminating in the sublime Eternity and a Day (Mia eoniotita ke mia mera, 1998). The reverberation of the painful Kosovo conflict is most noticeable in the Eternity, where the artist brings home the reality of the Serbs' ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Albanians through the portrait of a runaway Albanian street urchin who crosses path with the film's hero, a celebrated dying writer (played by the unsurpassable Bruno Ganz).

Theo Angelopoulos' protagonist is often a wanderer in search of truth, reconciliation and atonement, or for something profound and lasting. Forever crossing borders, he travels his long, sad journey in a cold and forbidding landscape haunted by history and mythology. The bleak scenery suggests the emptiness and loneliness of films' antiheroes, played respectively by the late Marcello Mastroianni (Stork), Harvey Keitel (Gaze) and Bruno Ganz (Eternity). Another Balkan film, The Powder Keg (directed by Serbian Goran Paskalievic) is, like Robert Altman's Short Cuts, a tale of adultery, betrayal and madness. Srdjan Dragojevic's The Wounds, tells the horrifying tale of urban youths sliding deeper and deeper into the underworld of violence, in a metaphor for the senseless Bosnia War.

The 12th Singapore International Film Festival (16 April-- 1 May), began a day after the Hong Kong Festival ended. Both events shared the seven features of the Films on the Year 2000 category; Tsai Ming-Liang's The Hole was arguably the most impressive of this group. The Taiwan-based director's most complex film to date, The Hole once again echoes the Antonionian themes of love, alienation and loneliness. A cat seems to be the only companion of the film's male protagonist (played by Lee Kang Sheng, Tsai's regular collaborator) while his female neighbor who lives below his apartment communicates through phone sex. The two characters are alienated from the world and from each other by their hemmed-in existence. They seem to be further trapped in their flats by the constant pour of heavy rain and the threat of a mysterious virus plaguing the city. The water leak in the woman's apartment may be seen as a metaphor for her womb-like existence.

This year, not only did the Hong Kong festival expand its awards to include the FIPRESCI Award, but several new sections were also added: The Age of Independents: New Asian Film and Video, was co-organised with the Hongkong Arts Centre; Born in Hongkong comprises three short, astute documentaries: Chan Kin-kai's and Stella Lai's 93949678; and China in Sight by Wong Yuen Ling and Yvonne Lo; Hong Kong Complex by Yuen Chan; a section on Kinderfest-Filme. The Zone Films Section included the most powerful misogynic French film to date, I Stand Alone (Seul contre tous, 1998), about a butcher whose slide into uncontrollable rage is harrowing to watch. In contrast, the Indian film, Sivan's A Journey (Oru Yatra, 1998), was a moving Ozu-like fable of a couple invited to the city to see their son. It may have moved the Jury but its Special Mention Award nevertheless went to Hong Kong's independent Nelson Yu Lik-Wai's Love Will Tear Us Apart (1998) -- a raunchy tale of a Mainland Chinese girl who freelances as a prostitute while on a social visit pass. By default, it became the Festival's closing film, when Zhang Yuan's Crazy English was withdrawn at the last minute.

Singapore's Opening Gala, Ann Hui's Ordinary Heroes, was also shared by Hong Kong. This multifaceted film portrays a group of Hong Kong political activists in the 1970s and 1980s, dedicated to their cause but suffering from romantic delusions. Hong Kong's opener, Where A Good Man Goes (1999), was directed by the recently discovered local auteur Johnnie To. His latest world premiere is about a mobster debt-collector in Macau (played by Lau Ching-wan) and his romance with a strong-willed innkeeper (Ruby Wong) set against the Macau's backdrop of triad violence. Another film shared by the Hong Kong and Singapore festivals was Erick Zonca's The Dreamlife of Angels, an insightful study of the doomed friendship between Isa, a cheerful vagabond and an introverted garment worker, Marie.

The universal theme of isolation also runs through Igor Gonopolsky's sensitive documentary on the great Russian master of montage, Sergei Eisenstein to whom the Singapore festival paid tribute this year. In his Sergei Eisenstein in Alma-Aty: 1941-1944, Gonopolsky traces the great Russian film master's lonely life through his diary entries to his wife and lover. The documentary also includes the latter's drawings and rare archival photos. A film that left a lasting impression in this year's Singapore Film Festival was the Indonesian production Kuldesak. One of the most powerful stories in this anthology about Jakarta's young urbanities is that of Andre, an aspiring rock musician from a rich home but whose bleak emotional and spiritual life causes him to form an obsession on Kurt Cobain, Nirvana's lead singer who died from drug overdose and a shotgun wound in his head.

The Personals by Taiwanese director Chen Kuo Fu depicts a cross-representation of Taipei's male population -- actor, pimp, worker, mother's boy, teenager, shoe salesman -- when a lonely female eye doctor sets herself up in a teahouse to interview men to be her husband. In her desperation, she talks to her lover's phone daily without knowing he was killed in an air-crash. His widow listens to these messages in an anger which gradually gives way to compassion. In the Sri Lankan feature Death on a Full Moon Day (1997) by Prasanna Vithanage, a blind old, man refuses to believe his son has been killed by a landmine. When he finally tries to exhume the remains of his son, he finds that tree trunks have taken over the burial ground.

The most pervasive loneliness is suffered not by mortal men but by a vampire. In this respect, Werner Herzog's Nosferatu -The Vampyre (Germany, 1979), a remake of Murnau's 1922 silent classic, is as Herzog puts it, so desperately longing for love.

In Hong Kong, Christine Choy's defense of the ethnic American-Chinese immigrants' civil rights is portrayed in her documentary From Spikes To Spindles (1976), an articulate commentary on the sorry situation of the American Chinese. Her best work is arguably the seminal documentary, Who Killed Vincent Chin?, in collaboration with Renee Tajima-Pena which shows the various viewpoints about the racially-motivated killing of an American-Chinese engineer at a Detroit girly bar.

Experienced Japanese documentary film-maker Haneda Sumiko made a case for the aged in her sensitively crafted How to Care for the Senile (1986, Japan) which has since become an important work about the ageing population. In Akiko-- Portrait of a Dancer, she traces the footsteps of Japan's greatest dancer Akiko Kaneda whose single-minded commitment to her art destroyed her marriage. An American documentary called Dancemaster directed by Matthew Diamond focused on another dancer Paul Taylor whose choreography is influenced by his unhappy romantic involvement. Leong Sze-Wing and her father Leong Poh-Chih continued with their soap-opera like documentary Riding The Tiger (1997-98). It is, by far, the most important film to document Hong Kong's post-colonial localization policy which has prevented British expatriates from working on the island without work permits.

In Singapore, Lee Kwang-Mo's semi-autobiographical Spring in My Hometown and Hur Jin-Ho's Christmas in August, are both brilliant debut features by two of South Korea's New Wave film-makers. In Spring In My Hometown, set during the Korean War, two small boys, Sung-Min and Chang-Hee spy on American GIs making love with local women, until one day, they find that one of the women is the Chang-Hee's mother. Christmas in August is an elegiac portrait about the unconsummated desire of an older man (Han Suk-kyu) for a young girl. Both are deeply resonant films about the consequences of knowledge or lack of it, affecting our lives for better or worse.

One of the best films, if not the most lyrical, in the Singapore festival is the 1998 Estonian film, Georgica, directed by Sulev Keedus. Jakub, an aged missionary lives on an island used by fighter aircraft for target practice. When he takes in a mute boy, both their lives are changed. Their initial awkwardness which grows into affection is captured in one of the best, understated performances in films of the master-pupil genre. It appears that this year, both the Hong Kong and Singapore International Film Festivals have come up with an excellent selection of films which is the best reward for their tireless efforts.



by Toh Hai Leong

The big and eclectic 11th Singapore International Film Festival (17th April-2nd May) started just before the closing of the more established 22nd Hong Kong International Film Festival on18th April. Big is the word for this year's festival and the 300 films shown is nearly twice the size of Hong Kong's output of 160 films.

Of course, more does not necessarily mean better. However, the Singapore festival this year did have an overwhelming number of entertaining features, avant garde feminist video works (Women About Women), a flood of South East Asian shorts and experimental films, seminar workshops with the proponents of the emerging Asian-American cinema, led by Chris Chan Lee (Yellow), Renee Tajima-Pena (My America ... Or Honk If You Love Buddha), lara Lee (Modulations), Jon Moritsugu (Fame Whore). There was a tribute to Cannes' 50th Anniversary with a slew of l5 French Golden Palm winners and a Wim Wenders' retrospective comprising l5 films. Homage was also paid to Thailand's Cherd Songsri with special focus on his country's cinema. This time the Festival Fringe held a screening of 33 shorts, mostly documentary. Not forgotten were the American independent films and Canadian films, one of which was Clement Vigo's memorable The Planet of Junior Brown as well as the usual array of notable World and Asian films.

While the prestigious Hong Kong festival seems to have waned somewhat in quantity and quality, its Singapore counterpart has continued on an aggressively eclectic path which has been rewarded with good attendances for the major Asian and international films. Film-going crowds have never had it so good: the festival opened with Japanese filmmaker Takeshi Kitano's Hana-bi (Fireworks), winner of the Golden Lion in Venice last year and closed with maverick Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai's Happy Together, a film about a gay relationship which won last year's Best Director award in Cannes.

The festival has its share of glamour too, with the likes of Winston Chao and Yang Kuei- Mei (A Little Life Opera by Allen Fong), Hollywood's Casper Van Dien (the new Tarzan), Hong Kong's E-kin Cheng and Jordan Chan, both from the highly popular Young and Dangerous series, cinematographer Chris Doyle, director Stanley Kwan (Rouge) to give glossy credence and keep starry-eyed film fans entranced.

The festival atmosphere this year is one of experimentalism: an uneasy mix of classic Asian and European art-house films with brilliant debuts made by young directors like Park Ki-yong (Motel Cactus), Chang Wai-Hung (After the Crescent), Pen-ek Ratanaruang (Fun Bar Karaoke) and Nonzee Nimibutr (Dang Bireley's and Young Gangsters). Like Wenders' cult film, State of Things which was completely overrun, the most sought-after film in this group was Zhang Yuan's East Palace, West Palace (1996).

Banned by the Chinese authorities for its gay subject matter, this highly controversial, guerrilla-made film premiered at the1st Pusan International Film Festival in 1996. Zhang Yuan's lyrical scenes of a traditional opera about a female prisoner's love for her executioner are juxtaposed with the contemporary story of a gay writer who gets nabbed during a police raid and who expresses his love for the interrogating police officer. At its heart is the relationship between power and sex as well as an examination of a Confucianistic society's uneasy fascination when it comes to confronting the issues posed by a subversive lifestyle.

Likewise, Wong's Happy Together, starring Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung Chi-Wai, is not about homosexuality per se but a diverting study of a relationship which may as well have been between a man and a woman. Here, the film focuses on two men in a relationship in which one partner is more committed than the other. It is the eternal problem of one loving too much, and the other too little with no hope of the two sides meeting.

Another type of obsession is seen in Jogho by director U-wei bin Hajisaari who is Malaysia's one-man New Wave institution. The film tells the story of a bull-trainer Mamat who thinks of nothing but his prized bull even when he is incarcerated for suspected collusion to murder his rivals Isa and Dolah who initiate a cycle of murder, retaliation and retribution.

The Godardian proclamation, All films are about death at work... was never more true than in the unassuming, yet monumental work by Korean director Byun Young-joo. Habitual Sadness is about old Granny Kang, a gifted painter who, with the rest of her elderly ex-comfort women colleagues, were forced into serving the Japanese soldiers during World War II. The film shows how they live a dignified, independent life in the serenity of the country, tending to vegetable gardens and chicken farms to be self-sufficient. Some stories of the evil and unspeakable injustice done to them are inevitably told. For example the straightforward narrative by Granny Shim Mi-ja, 74, who relates the terrifying sight of women (Korean and other Asian nationalities forcefully recruited for sex) who contracted syphilis from repeated rapes by the ravenous Japanese soldiers.

Despite the diversity of films, certain themes surfaced time and again: obsession bordering on the pathological ( Aoyama Shinji's An Obsession); warped, misguided love (Nobuhiro Suwa's 2 Duo); the power of evil (Takahisa Zeze's Kokkuri, János Szasz's The Witman Boys); creative and destructive impulses (Youssef Chahine's Destiny); painful memories and guilt (Park Ki-yong's Motel Cactus, Liv Ullman's Private Confessions); the issue of violence (Nicolas Winding Refn's Pusher, Nonzee Nimibutr's Dang Bireley's And Young Gangsters); and small narratives told simply, without embellishment or rancor, most notably in Abbas Kiarostami's The Taste of Cherries (last year's Cannes joint winner of the Palme d'Or), about the journey by car of a despairing man who wants to kill himself but needs someone willing to bury his body

One of the most memorable films was Western, directed by Frenchman Manual Poirer, a bittersweet road movie set in Brittany about two characters -- a handsome Spaniard, and a Russian immigrant who aspires to be a womanizer, are thrown together by fate, each looking for love and a place called home.

Another gem was the Iranian neo-realist homage to de Sica's Bicycle Thief, Majid Majidi's Children of the Heaven. Having lost his younger sister's shoes, Ali hits on the idea of sharing his pair of tattered shoes with her, a solution which leads to other complications. The film won the Silver Screen award for Best Film at the Singapore International Film Festival this year.

The coup of the film festival, however, was the introduction of a new wave of Asian-American documentary and feature filmmaking, led by Renee Tajima-Pena, Chris Chan Lee, Jon Moritsugu, Iara Lee and Eric Koyanagi. Their works reflect a relatively young and adventurous sensibility that is both penetrating and affable. Like his Hong Kong counterpart, Philip Cheah has steadily been gaining respect and recognition as the Singapore International Film Festival's program director, a reputation which will surely be enhanced by the inauguration of Asian-American cinema in the Asia-Pacific region.

Of considerable charm is the flawed road movie, Hishamuddin Rais' From Jemapoh to Manchestee, two and a half years in the making, boasting brilliant cinematography and at times inspired direction but the pacing is a little labored (for a film on the move and apparently going somewhere) and the casting of the two leads (who look more urban than rural) a little wanting.

On the other hand, its Taiwanese counterpart, Ho Ping's Wolves Cry Under The Moon is a near masterpiece described by one critic as the ultimate road movie in Taiwanese cinema. In this captivating story with the intelligence but not the angst of Wim Wenders' King of the Road (also shown at the Goethe Institut), various characters take to the road, converging at the film's end: an injured hired gunman (Tuo Chong-Hwa) hijacks a bus and holds the driver hostage; an unhappy driver of a company's president takes the staff car out for his own pleasure; a woman takes off with a man's vehicle and holds an amusing mobile phone conversation with the incensed owner who later becomes besotted with her.

Taiwan's working and middle-classes now increasingly affluent, are the subject for parody, satire and serious treatment in three very different films. Wang Shaudi's Yours and Mine pokes fun at bourgeois citizens fighting over car parking space, displaying uncivil behavior in high-rise apartments and a host of unhealthy urban habits. Chen Yu-Hsuan's Love Go Go is about two unattractive protagonists who long for love while Lin Cheng-Sheng 's Murmur of Youth looks at the lesbian relationship between two cinema ticket sellers which develops as a result of loneliness and an uncertain future.

Ironically, the local surprise box-office hit this year has been the highly entertaining satirical comedy called Money No Enough, a true-blue Singaporean feature about three friends who are always in financial straits. The film stars Jack Neo who also scripted the movie which is about 85 percent in the Hokkien vernacular. Money will prove, at a later date, if not now, to be a local landmark comedy well worth its admission price of Singapore dollars 8.24.

Jack Neo also won the festival's Silver Screen award for Best Director for his 9-minute short, Replacement Killers (not to be confused by Antoine Fuqua's film of the same title starring Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-Fat), about how hired killers are engaged.