A Community Connected by Cinema

in 34th Singapore International Film Festival

by V K Joseph

After arriving in Singapore to attend the 34th edition of SGIFFI, I was surprised to feel the simplicity and warmth of the festival. When we travel to the film festivals, we get to disconnect from our devices and immerse ourselves in some of the year’s finest films. It is even better that cineastes can do it together in a darkened theatre as a community, connected by cinema.

Mr. Boo Junfeng, Chairperson of the festival, stated, “We are not just about showcasing films; we are also committed to nurturing emerging talents in Southeast Asian cinema. SGIFFI is a launchpad for the region’s rising stars, helping their voices to reach a global audience.”

The festival had a lineup full of brilliant Singapore and Southeast Asian films, many of which had been recognised with awards from top-tier international film festivals. Many of the films are the best independent films from the region and present imaginatively told stories that reflect the complexities of our society. These diverse perspectives draw from intricate personal reflections, sociocultural milieux, and histories, which collectively illuminate Southeast Asia’s rich cultural tapestry.

The Asian competition section and other packages of SGIFF captured the wonderfully textured and intertwined nature of the region, encapsulated in the astounding diversity of experiences and voices that came together for the audience to experience. The highlight of the festival, the Asian Feature Competition, was dedicated to uncovering exhilarating new cinematic visions by Asian directors making their first to third feature films. The competition section consisted of 12 films from the new generation’s promising directors working in Asia, including six directorial debuts heralding a thrilling new wave of filmmaking talent. Through kaleidoscopic artistic approaches telling stories deeply rooted in the local, these films collectively represent the pulse of Asia’s cultural landscape. FIPRESCI award-winning film The Tenants (Seibja) is an outstanding film, with a unique narrative structure and content. The director, YOON Eun-Kyung, is a woman who works in Korean cinema as a screenwriter. She mixes science-fiction, horror, mystery, and black comedy with a cast of off-kilter characters to deliver a biting critique on the ills of contemporary society.

Interestingly, the festival package was divided into seven categories with meaningful titles: Foreground, Altitude, Horizon, Standpoint, Undercurrent, Landmark, and Domain. Foreground presented six genre-driven works that captivated the film festival circuit. Altitude presented eight new works from the vanguard of contemporary filmmaking. These films exemplify excellence in the art of filmmaking; formally rigorous yet astounding in their emotional depth. I would like to mention some films in this section: celebrated Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge CEYLAN’s About Dry Grasses; one of the most important contemporary Southeast Asian filmmakers, Lav DIAZ’s Essential Truth of the Lake; renowned Japanese filmmaker Ryusuke HAMAGUCHI’s Evil Does Not Exist; and celebrated Finish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s Fallen Leaves.

Cinema can transport us to many places, broadening our knowledge and experience. The possibilities are endless if we just wander beyond the Horizon that highlighted 11 strong festival discoveries that presented eclectic perspectives. Goodbye Julia, Drift, and Totem were some of the gems from this section.

Undercurrent is a hidden force that forges its own distinct course, entering uncharted territories and awaiting discovery. This Undercurrent spotlighted audacious works within contemporary cinema.

Co-presented with the Asian Film Archive, Landmark was a new programme of international classics. It spotlighted five canonical works from Senegal, India, Iran, US, and Hungary—cult hits and arthouse gems from the late 1960s to the early 2000s that have been carefully restored. Ousmane Sembene, Aribham Syam Sharma, David Lynch, Bela Tarr, and Bahram Beyzaie were some of the shining stars of this carefully curated package. Domain focused on a sphere of activity and knowledge in cinema, a transdisciplinary programme that mapped out the milestones in Singapore’s experimental filmmaking history through the exhibition and digital interventions.

The most interesting and creative part of the film festival was SGIFF’s Film Academy film training programme that aims to nurture the next wave of industry trailblazers in Asia and Southeast Asia. Besides being an incubator for creativity, the film Academy also promotes developmental projects and collaborations. Nestled within this pedagogical framework is a series of initiatives that cultivate, empower, and inspire up-and-coming filmmakers and critics. These include Asian Producers network, the Southeast Asian Film Lab, the Youth Critics Programme, the National Arts Council.

In a nutshell, we can say that this festival offered unique programming, with a lineup of more than 100 films and other cinematic initiatives.

V K Joseph
Edited by Robert Horton