An omnibus showcase that very much confirms what we have suspected – Singapore cinema is on another wave of triumph, and this time it shall not decline.
Dir. Eric Khoo, Jack Neo, K. Rajagopal, Royston Tan, Tan Pin Pin, Boo Junfeng, Kelvin Tong
2015 | Singapore | Drama/Comedy | 116 mins | English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin, Malayalam
PG (passed clean) for some coarse language
Plot: An emotive anthology by seven of Singapore’s most illustrious filmmakers, celebrating SG50 through the lives and stories of Singaporeans.
International Sales: Chuan Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
(Reviewed at Capitol Theatre Premiere – first published 13 Aug 2015)
The premiere of 7 Letters was sold out, as were two additional screenings at the newly refurbished Capitol Theatre. There were additional screenings at the National Museum of Singapore over the weekend of our country’s Jubilee, and they were sold out too. It better be, because this omnibus showcase is an outstanding collection of new and original shorts by some of Singapore’s most prominent filmmakers.
Running close to two hours, the showcase features seven shorts ruminating on the questions that most Singaporeans have been struggling with, perhaps even more so in this day and age: Where is our home? What is our home? Why is it our home?
For the reason of brevity, I will say a few words on each short, with my observations and opinions:
‘Cinema’ by Eric Khoo
Eric Khoo has been our country’s most acclaimed narrative filmmaker, and the short once again shows his remarkable consistency in his craft. A heartfelt ode to the community spirit that the medium brings to its practitioners, and also to our rich cinema heritage, particularly the Malay Pontianak movies, ‘Cinema’ is absorbing from its first frame of a singing Malay woman to the very last.
Not surprisingly, it is also the most arthouse-leaning of the lot, but through its use of familiar visual cues, not least the elements of the horror genre, and the reminiscences of an old passionate man of cinema, this short remains accessible, though it will resonate more with audiences who share a similar passion for the medium. The Juliette Binoche cameo moment could have felt out of place, but in Khoo’s assured hands, it is a moment to savour. [A]
‘That Girl’ by Jack Neo
Jack Neo has made so many derivative features that this should come as a breath of fresh air for him, and it does feel that way for us too as audiences. ‘That Girl’ is perhaps the most ambitious short of the lot, shot in Malaysia, with extensive period setting and costuming. It is a vibrant and colourful piece, full of energy and trademark humour by Neo. For once, the storytelling could not be found wanting.
The best part of ‘That Girl’ is its casting, with Neo showing why he is still one of the best around in casting new and young faces. At its heart, it is a kampung style infatuation story between a boy and a girl. Look at it deeper, and it becomes a story of memory, reconciliation and moving on (or forward). [B+]
‘The Flame’ by K. Rajagopal
K. Rajagopal of the Akanga Film Asia collective is an underrated talent. His eye for visual composition and use of silences are quite remarkable. In ‘The Flame’, shot in beautiful black-and-white, the visuals stand out as polished and exacting.
Set in a house as the radio announces the withdrawal of British troops from Singapore, an aged father, his adult son and his son’s wife find themselves expressing their inner struggles through a mix of defiance and quiet contemplation.
It is a film of controlled interior space, yet it feels spacious, with the characters on the brink of making a key decision that would shape their destiny. Rajagopal could have made a claustrophobic piece, but he lets his characters comfortably (if reluctantly) seek their own choices. It is also an emotional short, with the lead actress giving a standout performance. [A-]
The film was selected as Singapore’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 88th Academy Awards.
‘Bunga Sayang’ by Royston Tan
Royston Tan, the key driver of the 7 Letters project, has been the most obsessive of all Singapore filmmakers in capturing things that would one day disappear – an old coffee house, a rusty textile shop, the tradition of getai (a kind of makeshift outdoor stage with singers), and cultural delights, culinary or otherwise.
In this short, he weaves a simple but sincere tale of a young Chinese boy and an old Malay woman. They are neighbours living in a first-generation public housing flat, but connect through generosity, friendship and a mouth-watering delicacy.
There’s a musical interlude in the middle of the short that comes off as Royston trying too hard to be Royston, when subtlety could have worked better. Still, this is generally solid with strong performances, and a final still shot that stretches and stretches, and makes us want to be there. [B+]
‘Pineapple Town’ by Tan Pin Pin
Tan Pin Pin’s foray into fiction filmmaking is promising but flawed. ‘Pineapple Town’ is the weakest of the lot, but that doesn’t mean it is not made with heart. Tan’s expertise in the documentary genre has not gone unnoticed in such films as Singapore GaGa (2005), Invisible City (2007) and To Singapore, with Love (2013). In ‘Pineapple Town’, she gives us a visual style not so different from her documentaries.
The short is about a mother adopting a child, and insists on meeting the child’s biological mother in Malaysia. By the very nature of its plotting, we get a brief but familiar tour of the sights and sounds of Johor, be it in a moving vehicle or on foot. However, it is in the drama that ‘Pineapple Town’ falls short – the characters don’t quite come alive and the takeaway message doesn’t resonate as it should. [B]
‘Parting’ by Boo Junfeng
Boo Junfeng’s Sandcastle (2010), while not quite the brilliant film that it was made out to be, showed us a filmmaker of incredible promise. His follow-up short, ‘Parting’, continues that upward trajectory. Centering on an old Malay man suffering from dementia who longs to find a woman he left behind decades ago, the short sees him travel across the Causeway to Singapore.
Boo’s skillful interweaving of the man’s lonely journey with a dreamlike period film shoot at the old Tanjong Pagar railway station is the mark of an artist exercising possibilities with his medium (there’s even a cheeky ‘Kiarostami’ moment for the director).
‘Parting’ is a strong and layered effort. Despite having to juggle two plot strands in about 15 minutes, Boo’s grasp of tone is assured and consistent throughout, regardless of the visuals he provides. [A-]
‘Grandma Positioning System’ by Kelvin Tong
Kelvin Tong’s crowd-pleasing finale is a masterstroke, a thoughtful reflection of the things that bind families together – very often etched in the memories of those who loved and was once loved. Structurally, it could not have been simpler: a family visits the grave of a deceased, and then visits again the following year.
‘Grandma Positioning System’ will make you laugh out loud, and also tear profusely. You cry not because it is sad, but because your connection with the characters suddenly forces you to remember something that you held dear, whatever that may be… and it gets translated into an intense mix of emotions marked by loss, nostalgia, guilt and regret.
The performances are top-notch and the screenwriting never misses a beat. The short also reminded me of Still Walking (2008), by the great Hirokazu Koreeda. I think Kelvin would consider that high praise. [A]
7 Letters very much confirms what we have suspected – that Singapore cinema is on another wave of collective triumph, and this time it shall not decline, and it shouldn’t be when it is left in the hands of astute filmmakers who have the freedom to exercise full creative control over their art. This omnibus showcase is genuine, 100%.