Written By Justin Ian Chia
29th Jul 2016
Cover Photo from Han. Image courtesy of the filmmaker.
Last Saturday, the National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) announced its 20 winners – pulled from over 260 submissions, a record for the Awards. The film-making competition was launched by SCAPE as a platform for students and graduates who specialise in filmmaking or animation from Institutes of Higher Learning (IHLs).
Only in its second year, the NYFA added seven new award categories focused on technical filmmaking crafts, such as Best Colour Grading and Best Editing in Documentary Film.
With a vision to establish a benchmark in national excellence and talent identification between the film industry and IHLs, what this means for young filmmakers is a chance to showcase their work and start to gain recognition for their craft—a feat usually achieved at the peak of a filmmaker’s career.
Apart from the nominees, the youth audience in attendance also got the opportunity to participate in workshops and screenings, baby steps of a concerted effort to elevate Singapore’s film literacy.
A few shorts caught our attention as well, and while the following films on our list might not all be the competition’s winners, they’re worth checking out.
Winner for Best Direction Award (Jonathan Choo) and DBS Best Picture Award (Shammini Gunasegaran)
By now, most of us would’ve heard about Han through mainstream media. The lead protagonist is after all Mediacorp veteran Zhu Houren. But before one mumbles about this being unfair and that, here’s a thematic breakdown of why we think Han deserved the accolade.
In Han, the thematic concerns of regret, loss, and forgiveness are located in the film bodies onscreen. The elderly father visits his son in a prison that the latter is sent to after committing an act of hit and run—a glass panel separates them from physical contact, demarcating not only who is guilty and who is innocent but also the limits to which either man can endeavour to make amends for the heinous crime that has robbed a South Korean family of their daughter.
The father is old and alone, the crime having deprived him of a companion at home. The knee guards he wear to sleep attest to the strain age has wrought on him. The son is unable to physically manifest his regret and contrition to the girl’s family. The injury he receives from “falling down” in the prison cannot be sighted by the girl’s family and adjudged to be his just desserts, if that is indeed their wish for him. His only recourse then is to withdraw into himself, even from his father. The son gives monosyllabic answers and is dismissive when his father brings him his old sketchbook. He does not wish to redeem himself. Instead, he asks that his father give the girl’s family a sketching he did of her in prison.
The father does indeed give the girl’s father the sketch during the last leg of the former’s stay in Korea. Having shared a meal loaded with unsaid emotions and inadvertently caused a scene with the girl’s mother as a result of his presence, the father apologises in Korean and beseeches that the girl’s father forgive his son as he presents the sketch. Both fathers are laden with a burden which their progeny cannot help carry for them. Both children are absent, the son languishing in prison and the daughter only ever represented through the sketch and a matryoshka doll which contains her ashes. The handshake which the girl’s father offers the son’s father as they both sob and break down over their respective loss attests to the potentiality and limits of forgiveness, reparation, and presence, a presence which has to be unveiled, very much like the last and smallest doll in a matryoshka doll, ever present and yet always contingent.
Film still from The Invoke.
This animated short plays on familiar motifs of the jiangshi genre that was exceedingly popular in Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s. Dressed in ceremonial robes, the Taoist priest strides into a mausoleum and invokes a huge jiangshi into animation. His facial features contort into all manner of comedic effects as his invocation runs into troubles, such as the jiangshi being too huge in size to pass through a doorway or when the jiangshi attacks him because the protective charm has fluttered away. The 3D backgrounds are well-rendered, with dust and shadows playing a prominent role in supplying the suspense elements in an ostensibly comedic short. The shortfall of this short comes from the sound design, wherein hokey sound effects overpower and dominate the viewer’s attention. Rather than complementing the visuals, which are already comedic in themselves, the sound effects, as well as a modern electronic ambient song, over-amplify and pull viewers away from the ancient period in which the short is set.
Sweet Bloom of Night Time Flowers
Winner for Best Production Design Award (Julie Heather Liew)
A girl explores an abandoned building and encounters a demonic figure with long claws. A mysterious woman appears and scares away the figure before disappearing herself. Horror elements play a huge role in the opening sequence of this short film and stand out as its highlight. A pity then that more screen time was dedicated to exposition that did not lead to a satisfying narrative pay-off. The girl visits the mysterious lady, drinks a strange-looking concoction and meets the demonic figure again.
The lighting and costume design of the short are a visual delight as the abandoned building feels claustrophobic and threatening with danger lurking in every pocket of shadow without being reduced to a black hole onscreen. The demonic figure plays on the “woman in white” visual trope well established ever since The Ring was released upon viewers. When the figure’s long appendages tentatively probe the girl’s face, the tension generated is palpably felt.
Barring the shortfalls already noted earlier, the short highlights the unexpected ways antagonism manifests itself in the onscreen encounters between the girl / demonic figure and the girl / her mother. When the girl initially encounters the demonic figure, she is rendered paralysed by the sight. The monster is itself tentative, as if fearing that the girl poses a threat to it. The effect of fear or unease generated in this encounter is placed alongside the effect of resentment or unease that manifests when the girl’s mother confronts her about her late-night shenanigans. The girl is sullen when her mother berates her: “Why can’t you just be a normal girl?” What is “normal” then when the girl feels more comfortable and expectant when faced with the monster than when she is faced with her mother?
Chicken Beauty Pageant
Winner for Best Editing in Documentary Film Award (Eunice Tan Hui En and Nurul Amirah Haris)
Reminding us of Ernest Goh’s COCKS (that’s the name of his book and you may purchase it here), Chicken Beauty Pageant takes inspiration from its subject manner in which the jaunty and flamboyant gestures of the chicken owners are replicated in the film’s sound design and visuals (especially in typeface). The documentary captures footage of boisterous chicken owners flailing about in a bid to cajole their own chickens to strut about majestically and impressively in order to win the beauty pageant. For people unfamiliar with the phenomenon that is chicken beauty pageants (like this author), the documentary does a good job establishing the major players involved as well as the staggering sums ($10,000 USD!) that are exchanged within this specialised economy of beautiful chickens
It is in the second half of the documentary that things get heavy. The festive mood established in the first half give way to footage of animal cruelty and greed as chickens are sent to “beauticians” in order to prep them for the pageants. Such preparations include stitching the wings so that only a certain flap pattern emerges or cutting the crown of the head into a specific shape. These are not the genetically modified chickens that are invoked in horror stories of the monstrosities that fast-food chains rear in their animal farms/slaughterhouses but rather, they are aesthetically modified chickens who seemingly suffer no less punishment than their brethren destined for diners’ tummies. This practice of body modification is seemingly allowed and even encouraged, as a judge remarks that point deductions only occur if judges spot said modifications, thus ensuring more painful “beauty treatments” being done on the non-consenting chickens.
The filmmakers of the documentary do not present a neutral perspective of this as they give away their hand through inserting a montage consisting of shots of a male chicken being judged which cuts to shots of female humans being judged, a rather patriarchal gesture as the chicken owners/participants/judges/enthusiasts are shown to be males, as well as the judges of the female humans, barring one lady on a panel of 8 judges. Filled with wistful and loving chicken owners who nevertheless subject their beauties to painful modifications, the documentary asks after the ways in which we modify “lesser” creatures, whether genetically or aesthetically, and whether the enjoyment we receive is justification for the suffering.
While not all the films are available for viewing online, do check out the respective film's Facebook pages for updates on future screenings. A full list of nominees and winners may be found here.
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