Dip into International Cinema

in 14th Singapore International Film Festival

by Derek Malcolm

Sometimes the best laid plans for publicity go astray. And now the Singapore government has decided that the city state, known for its business and commercial acumen, has decided to emphasise its rather thin cultural aspects as well, it must have seemed a good idea to plaster the taxicabs and hoardings with the motto “Catch the arts bug!” Alas, thanks to the advent of Sars, it didn’t seem entirely appropriate as a helpful slogan for the 16th Singapore International Festival. Singaporeans, however, are fond of their annual dip into international cinema and audiences held up well. There was hardly a mask in sight, even though many foreign delegates and visitors decided to stay away, the hotels were running at only 20 per cent of capacity, the airport looked like a desert and the government, counting the losses from the tourist trade, gave the Festival a considerably smaller and pretty mean budget.

The programme this year was one of the strongest for some time, with the line of Asian films qualifying for the Silver Screen Awards, judged by a smaller international jury than usual, looking almost as strong as the European entries. Almost as strong, but very different in tone and emphasis, though the Asian treatment of sex is now beginning to seem just as free as that of most European film-makers. Gone are the days when censorship decreed caution in this respect. At least half a dozen of the films this year were frank enough to shock conservative film-goers and even surprise cynical critics.

Chief among these was 15, the Singaporean entrant from Royston Tan which was developed from the short film about disaffected Singaporean youth which won a prize from the jury last year. This was an angry, totally frank but sympathetic portrait of a group of young men who, having deserted school and rejected the authoritarian society in which they live, play havoc with their own and other people’s lives. It was made by Tan for very little money, and produced by Eric Khoo, another highly promising Singaporean film-maker. They used the actual kids themselves and so the film could almost be called a docu-drama. There’s a misogynist tone about it that the director probably didn’t intend since there are few parts for women and the boys view of the female sex is basic, to say the least. There are also uneven patches where the short film’s frenetic MTV style gets tiresome before it is replaced by more intimate work which delves into the boys loneliness and desperation. But there is no doubt that Tan, not yet 30, is one of Asia’s most promising talents and one not likely to be cowed by any thoughts of what may happen to the film when it is submitted to the local censors. The film deservedly won the International Critics Prize, given by a jury which combined FIPRESCI and Netpac, its Asian equivalent. It is certainly shocking as the boys try to swallow drugs wrapped in condoms or run around town carrying a rubber woman while insulting almost any real one who gets in their way. But Tan’s view of them is clearly humane. He seems to know what has made them the way they are – Asian rebels with a definite cause trapped within a society that is otherwise so well disciplined that there seems no room for them.

The other Asian film that surprised a great many was the Sri Lankan Flying With One Wing, in which Asoka Handagama uses his wife as the lead actress in an extraordinary story of a woman who becomes a mechanic in the male world of the garage, wears men’s clothes and even marries, somehow concealing her identity from the woman. When her secret is exposed by a doctor all hell breaks loose in a hypocritical and highly patriarchal society. Like Tan’s 15, Flying on One Wing has a radical and sometimes fractured style that some might find uneven and disturbing. But, also like Tan’s, it is utterly honest, highly critical of the society it portrays and contains a superb performance from Anoma Janadari as the woman who wants to be a man in a man’s world. The film deserved its Special Jury Prize coupled with the Best Actress prize for Janadari.

A third extraordinarily frank Asian film, already prized at Cannes, Thessaloniki and Tokyo, won the Best Young Talent award – Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours, from Thailand. This was as quiet as an Ozu film and almost as effective as its poverty stricken characters, including illegal immigrants, form lasting relationships within another hostile and uncaring environment. Much of it shot in seemingly real time, it has a long picnic interlude in the countryside which would have been boring in other hands but sustains itself remarkably because of the skill and sympathy of its director and actors. A quite exceptional talent is clearly on display here.

The worthy winner of the Best Film Award, though, was Chang Tso-chi’s The Best of Times, from Taiwan. You could call it a coming-of-age tale, set in the mean streets and ugly suburbs of Taipei. But that would be to categorise it in such as way as to downgrade its flair and subtlety a little. It is much more than that — impeccably acted, especially by Wing Fun and Gao Meng-jie, and directed with poetic conviction by Chang. Not only is the scene superbly set but the development of the characters is much more than outwardly convincing. This is a film which succeeds in saying as much psychologically as externally. A small masterwork on fact.

Not all the Asian films were well attended — the mostly young audiences rushed towards award-winning European films like Aki Kaurismaki’s Man Without A Past, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Me, Ken Loach’s Sweet Sixteen and Peter Mullan’s The Magdalene Sisters even though most of them will eventually be distributed in Singapore. They also rushed to anything that looked controversial in the sexual line as if there was no prospect of seeing them again, which in some cases was undoubtedly true. But that happens everywhere, even in a less censored society than Singapore. What the Festival proved once again was that the hunger for better films there is boundless and that its organisers know very well how to mount an event that is attractive without compromising standards. Even the Sars epidemic couldn’t dent it substantially and that is praise indeed.