Tag Archives: Singapore Film

Ilo Ilo (Singapore 2013)

Jaile brings Terry some shark's fin soup at his grandmother's birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

Jaile brings Terry some shark’s fin soup at his grandmother’s birthday party. Terry has to sit outside the function room because there are no free chairs for her.

The title of this film refers to a province of the Philippines, Iloilo, from where a new maid arrives in Singapore in 1997. The collapse of the ‘tiger economies’ is underway but it hasn’t yet hit the parents of ten year-old Jaile. He is a bright but unruly boy, missing his grandfather who died recently. Now his heavily pregnant mother is finding housework and a full-time job too much to cope with. Tension exists between her and the boy’s father, a not very successful salesman. The family is described as ‘middle-class’ in several reviews but this is a definition of Asian families that in the West might be better defined as ‘lower middle-class’. The family has little extra money and the maid is a necessity to allow mother to work.

The film is informed by the memories of its young writer-director Anthony Chen who developed a strong relationship with his own ‘yaya’ as a young boy. What he has created here is a well worked out and beautifully executed family drama which allows space for each of the four principal characters to have their own separate narratives – though it is the boy and Teresa (‘Terry’) the maid who tend to dominate. Chen studied film first at home in Singapore and later at the National Film School in the UK (where he met his French DoP Benoit Soler) – he is now based in London. There is that same mixing of influences – British social realism, Chinese and Japanese family drama/melodrama – that we associate with films from Ann Hui and other Hong Kong filmmakers as well as Taiwanese New Cinema directors. Edward Yang’s Yi Yi is a useful reference, but I’ve also seen references back to Ozu and to contemporary Kore-eda. Not surprisingly perhaps, there are also glimpses of Eric Khoo’s work on Be With Me. The result is a first feature (after several shorts screened at festivals) that won the Camera d’or at Cannes in 2013.

The film is quite ‘clean’ and ‘open’ in its depiction of 1997 – it doesn’t have that same sense of atmosphere and city vibrancy that is often evident in the Hong Kong films leading up to the handover. Partly, I think, this is a function of the very different ‘feel’ in Singapore, characterised perhaps by the orderly ‘pledge to the nation’ made by the pupils at Jaile’s (English medium) grammar school. The sense of time and place is created in quite a subtle way, although younger audiences will probably spot the period markers more easily than older audiences. Jaile’s mother works on an electric typewriter and his father drives a battered Honda Accord. (I have difficulty in distinguishing car models over the last twenty years.)

The drama is quite straightforwardly constructed as a conventional ‘getting to know you’ narrative between the maid and the boy set against the problems arising from the stress the parents begin to feel as the recession bites. At first Jaile resents Terry’s presence and deliberately tries to make her life miserable but a dramatic incident brings them together and soon they are supporting each other. Overall, this is another of those ‘nothing much happens’ family narratives that stand in stark contrast to Hollywood entertainment. But what ‘doesn’t happen’ is actually absorbing, partly because of the excellent performances (by actors drawn from TV and film industries in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines plus a remarkable boy) but also the attention to detail. The only disappointment for me was not finding out more about the life Terry left behind to come to Singapore – there is a dramatic revelation but then little more. Is there any other nation that has exported so many workers overseas as the Philippines? There is a story there that needs to be told in more depth. In the meantime I look forward to more from Anthony Chen. This is another little gem, picked up by Soda Pictures in the UK, that requires much more exposure.

Press Pack (from US Film Movement website)

Official Trailer (which does give away many plot details):

Films From the South #12: Tatsumi (Singapore 2011)

Tatsumi is a rather wonderful film that was released domestically in Singapore after winning plaudits at various festivals. It’s an unusual animated film that successfully manages to combine a biography of a Japanese manga author with representations of several of his stories to produce a coherent narrative. But as director Eric Khoo remarked after its screening here in Oslo it still has to go to the Tokyo International Film Festival and that will have a bearing on how the film fares in the Japanese market. It’s due out in the UK in January 2012 via Soda and international sales are stacking up via the German agents The Match Factory.

The Oslo screening was accompanied by an exhibition of the original artwork used in the film and introduced by Eric Khoo himself.

Eric Khoo introduces his film with some of frames from the exhibition visible behind him.

Eric Khoo was once himself a comic book artist but he had not thought that he had the patience to undertake an animated production . . . until he read the autobiographical manga, The Drifting Life by Tatsumi Yoshihiro published in 2009. See this website for previews of Tatsumi’s work in new Canadian published editions. Tatsumi (born 1935) became associated in Japan with a new form of manga dealing with much more realist themes and named gekiga, a term Tatsumi is said to have originated and which was taken up by some other writers. This might be seen as similar to the development of ‘graphic novel’ as a term in North America. Khoo’s problem was that he didn’t speak Japanese and he knew he must get full co-operation from Tatsumi himself. He managed to arrange an interview via a friend at Fuji Film and managed to convince Tatsumi that any film that he made would be faithful to the Tatsumi drawing style.

To produce the film, Khoo’s company Zhao Wei films  worked with Infinite Frameworks (ifw) a company based in Singapore and the Indonesian island of Batam (only 40 miles away by fast boat) with whom Khoo had made several previous films. This local co-operation produced Tatsumi relatively quickly and inexpensively – without sacrificing any quality. They developed a very simple animation style that used Tatsumi’s original drawings as a model but also colouring some of the earlier black and white outlines. In this YouTube clip, Khoo and the animators explain how they approached the task (beware it is also an ad for Intel and Hewlett-Packard!):

Tatsumi was a young teenager in the immediate post-war period in Japan under the Allied Occupation. His first success as a manga story-teller came early and he was inspired by both competition from his brother and by meeting one of the leading manga/anime figures of the day Tezuka Osamu. But eventually Tatsumi tired of what he felt were the constrictions of manga aimed primarily at children and he developed the gekiga form in the late 1950s. Interestingly he returned to his memories of the immediate postwar period in his new work. Stories such as ‘Hell’ (the aftermath of the Hiroshima bomb) and ‘Goodbye’ (about a prostitute whose clients are American GIs) set up a tone that is also present in more contemporary (i.e. 1970s) stories about alienation from work and family in ‘Beloved Monkey’, ‘Occupied’ and ‘Just a Man’. I’m fascinated by these two periods of Japanese Cinema (and literature) so I found these stories – and the surrounding material relating to Tatsumi’s struggles to get them published – very engaging. It will be interesting to see what kinds of audience reactions the film gets on its international release. I would hope that it would receive as much attention as Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, but I think that film has a much more recognisable story and theme. I would urge you to give Tatsumi a go. I’m sure that you will recognise some of the images from Japanese Cinema and then find the story of Tatsumi the artist as interesting as I do.

London Film Festival #1: Family Melodramas

My first festival day comprised three very different family melodramas. Plans for Tomorrow (Planes para mañana, Spain 2010) is the debut feature of Joana Mancias coming after several well-received shorts. The film comes in a now familiar format comprising four interweaving stories each triggered by the same ‘inciting incident’ with the main events occurring over 24 hours. I don’t want to spoil the narrative tension, but you will have seen this before in the scripts by Guillermo Arriaga, especially Amores Perros. This was pointed out to me after the screening. I was thinking more about the films of Kieslowski, Tykwer and Medem, but on reflection these directors are aiming for something more narratively and thematically complex than this modest but engaging film.

Goya Toledo as Inés in Planes para manana

Three of the characters are women of a ‘certain age’. Inés is 39, with a career and an important job when discovers that she is pregnant – much to her long-term partner’s surprise. He doesn’t want a child. Antonia has been married for 20 years but the marriage is not fulfilling and on this day she has an interview for a new job and a phone call from an old lover who is in town and wants to see her. Marian is in a similar marital quandary, but her husband has already provoked a potential split and he has left the apartment, only to violently return when Marian refuses to let him in. Today he makes a scene at the bank where she works as a cashier. Mean while, Marian’s daughter, Mónica and Antonia’s son, Raúl have begun a virtual relationship involving intense exchanges of images and video and webcam dances for each other.

I enjoyed this film a lot and I found all the central characters interesting. The performances are all excellent (the players are all experienced in Spanish film and TV). Cinematography and direction are strong and there are some expressionist touches with blurring of focus etc. There is also a fantasy sequence and strong use of popular music, which I identified as rather soft indie nu-folk/rock, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. I recognised something similar in the French psychodrama Anna M. (2007) but the bands meant nothing to me. I surmise from this that the focus of the film via the music is the teenage couple, though most of the narrative involves their parents’ generation. It may be important that when Monica and Raúl are with their mothers, they are often listening to music or communicating via the computer. Their world may be virtual, but they are ‘connected’ – which is more than the three women are with their partners.

In the bar afterwards I discussed the film with two women. One felt the film was ‘trite’, which always baffles me. It’s a genre film and works via the conventions of certain kinds of dramas. The other was more concerned with what the film ‘means’. I confess that as I reflected on the film, I realised that I’d been rather confused by the timescale and that I may have missed some of the interconnections. Perhaps it doesn’t stand up totally to scrutiny, but nevertheless it is an interesting film with plenty to offer to audiences. I would classify it as melodrama. No specific location was signalled, but I was interested to note that some scenes were shot in Cáceres, Extremadura with some funding support from the region. It opens in Spain next month.

En visits his grandma

Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) is the debut feature of Boo Junfeng and tells the story of three generations of a family over some fifty years. In some ways the approach reminded me of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Taiwanese melodramas of the 1980s, though with perhaps a less forceful presentation of the politics. The melodrama is also mixed with a ‘coming of age’ narrative. The first Singapore film website I looked at seemed to be put off by the politics and before the festival screening, the young star of the film, Joshua Tan asked us to consider the film as a ‘family story’ and not to focus on the politics. Politics is clearly still a source of tension in what is to outsiders seen as a society in denial and subject to ‘self-repression’. En is a young man who has finished high school and is waiting to be called up for his military service. Events conspire to make this a busy summer. I’m guessing that this supposed to be around 2000 since En has an original iMac running OS 9. His summer promises a first romance with a neighbour but then he is required to go with his widowed mother to help look after his grandma who has Alzheimers. In his grandparents’ house he finds mementoes and hears stories about his father who died when En was still a young boy. En’s mother is a Christian and a schoolteacher and we see her leading a school choir in a rendition of a ‘national song’ (in English). This ‘respectable’ teacher is also in a long-term relationship with a senior officer in the Singapore military – who, of course, is a man designed to irritate En. At one point, when En’s iMac develops a fault, this man buys him a laptop with Windows 98 – no wonder En is pissed off! En’s ‘journey’ is about discovering who his father really was. Was he a student radical and a Communist in the 1950s and early 1960s? Is that why he had to go to Malaysia? Was En’s mother always so conservative and if so why did they get together?

Noha and her elder sister prepare for her wedding

I enjoyed Sandcastle and I’m intrigued by Stray Bullet (Lebanon 2010) which is also a family melodrama but this time placed firmly in the context of conflict. In a community of Maronite Christians in a North Beirut suburb, 30 year-old Noha is still a spinster teacher. It is 1976 when as a title informs us “the Palestinian camps had all surrendered” in what was one of the many periods of the Lebanese Civil War. Noha has already withdrawn from one possible marriage and now a fortnight before she is due to marry a cousin under strong family pressure, she decides to meet an old flame. But as the director, Georges Hachem told us after the screening, Lebanon was then in a ‘time of warriors’ – there was always the possibility of some kind of violence and things soon start to go wrong for Noha and her family. I found the first ten minutes of this film quite hard to follow, trying to work out all the family connections, but the second half developed into a full-blown melodrama. It is quite a short film (only 75 minutes) but very intense. It also has at its centre the wonderful Nadine Labaki as Noha. Her star performance in Caramel is matched here as the stubborn and determined Noha who is not prepared to submit to the pressure to marry – whatever the cost. The cost is high and this is a real melodrama with a non-Hollywood ending. Yet in the interesting Q&A that followed, a Lebanese man in the audience asserted that he thought that the film was a ‘way forward’ in presenting the personal lives of people during the Civil War. Although it is specifically about one Christian community, the story is one with which all Lebanese could identify.

The story behind the film is interesting in that as an independent production, Hachem (who was returning to Lebanon after working in Paris) was lucky to find a local producer, Georges Schoucair, willing to put up the production budget. Unlike most films from the region this didn’t require co-funding, although the French experience of both director and producer was important. I thought all the technical credits were very good for a film on this budget and I especially enjoyed the music. I hope that the film gets a UK release.