At the Crossing Point of Asian Cinemas

in 15th Singapore International Film Festival

by Max Tessier

Among the many festivals mushrooming in South East Asia, the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) has established a solid reputation of artistic quality and reliable organization, mainly thanks to the work and devotion of directors Philip Cheah and Teo Swee Leng, and their staff. The 17th edition (April 15 – May 1st, 2004) has not failed to this reputation, in spite of a rather limited budget range, compared with the new Bangkok Film Festival, for instance.

Understandably, the festival programme is concentrated on Asian cinemas – but not only. The main jury had to view a wide selection of films from Singapore and Asia, in the “Silver Screen Awards” section (since 1991), for best Asian films, features and shorts. So does the Fipresci jury, combined here with the Netpac (Network for the promotion of Asian Cinema) jury. Its five members this year (Radovan Holub, from the Czech Republic, and Max Tessier, France, plus Clodualdo del Mundo Jr, the Philippines, Ron Holloway, USA, and Hafeez Harun, from Singapore, for Netpac) had to view a dozen films for their prize. However, it was unfortunate that four of them were not eligible because of previous Fipresci/Netpac awards in other festivals: Matrubhoomi/ A Nation without women, from India, Good Bye Dragon Inn, from Taiwan, Uzak/ Distant, from Turkey, and South of the clouds/ Yun de nan fang, from China. Thus, the choice was reduced to only eight films, and, after a lively discussion, the jury decided to award its prize to Ira Madiyama/ August Sun, by Sri-Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage, “which depicts how three individuals struggle to receive what they have lost, and are willing to risk everything for what really counts in life: a longing for identity, and a yearning to love and be loved”, as Ron Holloway puts it in its Netpac motivation.

Naturally, the SIFF is the place to see a few films produced in Singapore, whether it be shorts or features. The selection offered the world premiere of the film Perth, by director Djinn (The return to Pontianak, 2001), a kind of film noir obviously inspired by Taxi Driver and others films of the kind, but that unfortunately fails to convince by going over its own limits, until a gratuitous ultra-violent ending. There was also a short films programme from Singapore, which offered only one talented opus, The Slipper frame, by Tania Sing, and the opening film, Kim Ki Duk’s Spring, summer, autumn, winter, and spring, was preceded by the already controversial short, Cut, by Royston Tan (15), an entertaining frontal satire of the Singaporean censorship system, a very hot issue here (1).

From the neighbouring country, Malaysia, came some films by young director James Lee, Good-Bye (short), and the feature The Beautiful Washing Machine, whose slow pace and interiority may remind us of early works by Edward Yang.

A focus was also put on Filipino cinema, including a restrospective of female director Laurice Guillen (a member of the main jury), and a programme of the multi-arts group Sine kalye (Street cinema).

Apart from Asian films, the curious festival goer could also have a glance at Italian cinema, through a Paolo Virzi restrospective, at German cinema, with a Werner Herzog homage, at the Goethe Institut, and discover the entire “Blues Series” produced by Martin Scorsese, and a programme of independant US features and documentaries, as well as a panorama of world cinema.

So, the SIFF has once again fulfilled its mission, to bring Asian and world cinema to a city-State that is overwhelmed by Hollywood images most of the year. Whether you like the festival films or not, it does bring a balance to the regular situation, in an intelligent and efficient way.