Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Shortest Man In The Village Who Can Soar Like An Eagle

Why are there no pro-cyclists from Kenya?

I think many of you would already know I am unabashedly a fan of documentaries churned out by LIANAIN FILMS, and that the dynamic duo of James Leong and Lynn Lee continue on their fantastical journey around the world to bring us sights unseen, and more importantly, telling very touching, human stories. From their lens, I've seen forgiveness in Timor Leste, witnessed the clearing of land mines in Cambodia, and attended a world cup event for homeless people from Hong Kong, which is my choice for local documentary film of the year to date.

The teaser for their new documentary - The Shortest Man In The Village Who Can Soar Like An Eagle - is already up on YouTube, and you can view it above. A clip tells more than the words I can use to describe it.

I cannot wait to see the film already! However it's still a work in progress, and we can follow the filmmakers' adventures first hand from their blog entries here.

Related Link
Click here for an earlier interview I conducted with the filmmakers!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Money No Enough 2 (钱不够用2)

What Happened, Guys?

I am quite unsure why Jack Neo had decided to call this "Money No Enough" 2, because frankly it's a departure from the crux of the original movie, and the characters too are totally different, despite starring the same main trio of himself, Mark Lee and Henry Thia. Perhaps it's to bank on the resounding box office success of its predecessor some 10 years ago in getting the crowds back into the halls, in an attempt to repeat that miracle.

While I am relatively tolerant of Jack's movies to date and have seen almost all of it in the theatres when released, unfortunately Money No Enough 2 has none of the charm that its original possess with its raw spontaneity, and although the production values here are definitely ramped up, and Jack now having a more assured hand in direction, alas the story seemed to have fallen behind and what came through actually looked very tired, and in dire need of some tightening as the narrative started to go all over the place. The last third of this over 2 hours movie wallowed in heavy melodrama, which seemed to have followed an invisible hand to expand something similar in Money No Enough 1.

And what of the Jack formula, which is almost staple in all his movies, such that he's getting dangerously close to branding his movies into having jabs at government policies, drawing inspiration from contemporary social issues, and being a wonderful advertising darling and a product placement showcase.

For the first part, yes, the first scene opens with a Singapore skyline of the near future, complete with patriotic national day songs sung in Hokkien no less, in full parody. And it doesn't take Jack too long before harping on really contemporary issues like price hikes and the ERP gantries (labelled as EPR here), together with mock rallies and strangely violent demonstrations of throwing the gantries away, playing to full effect what most of the drivers here would like to see happen, but lack the balls to. Jack doesn't mince his words here as he launches into social commentary of our contemporary psyche, of complaining ad nausem about many things, but fail to take action to effect change for the better. His characters in the movie try, like Henry Thia's obvious fight against the law, and the outcome is almost always similar - we just can't fight a good fight.

But Jack's story and script do have some balls of its own, and he continues to push the envelope here. I cannot recall any movie to date being quite blatant with characters jibing at "PAP", rather than the more general term of "government" or the "authorities". However, he did pull the punches back and had Vivian Lai's character be the pro-government mouthpiece in order to provide an expected and more balanced viewpoint in airing coffeeshop criticisms. And what more, the Health minister in question here was a lookalike, a far cry from his usual random "ministerial" like actors like the one featured in Just Follow Law. Aside from that, the other innovation for a local film is how Jack continues to employ technical wizardry in his movies with special effects, and here, a rather huge recreation of future landscapes, as well as a one-lap Formula 1 night race that will grace our roads come September. While it does look cartoony at times (it ain't no Speed Racer after all), you have to admit that overall it looks quite decent, for local film standards anyway, since they could be used quite inconspicuously until the end credits NG reveal some of the moments they were used.

But while he may have taken a few steps forward, the huge step backward would be the heavy product placements. While I am rather OK with it because film financing doesn't come easy in our tiny island, here it becomes a tad too blatant, with television commercials making their appearances in TV sets, and having brands from banks to drinks being thrown around. All the male characters only guzzle Carlsberg (probably the best beer in the world), and non-alcoholics drink the same brand of green or chrysanthemum tea. And you can rattle the brands on, like Singtel, OCBC, BMW, and I like Mitsubishi's appearance best, where characters comment about the new air conditioner being powerful, and a cut shot to a spanking new AC on the wall. Such is how many would be up in arms to say that MNE2 should have enough Money from product placements, and had sold out to unabashedly, unsubtle ads, especially in the first 10 minutes. Yes it can be a statement of consumerism and brand consciousness amongst us locals since the characters do grapple with status consciousness (with a branded bag being able to sooth one's day in court you know?) but I guess it's all in the delivery - a stark in your face approach might not sink in well.

But you can't deny that Jack continues to have a firm grasp in translating our social woes for the big screen, drawing upon plenty of material in the last few years to bolster and bloat the storyline, ranging from en-bloc sales, poisonous health supplements, MLMs, old folks and the aging population issue, as well as healthcare and rising hospital costs. I thought he had a keen eye on contemporary family squabbles too where siblings and their spouses cannot come to terms with being filial and being selfishly practical, but here in dwelling upon this primary issue, Money No Enough 2 detracted from its money issues indirectly and spent significant amount of time on melodrama, especially playing up on Lai Ming's role as the unappreciated mother of 3.

While the original movie was probably almost laugh a minute with its skit and delivery, this one was bogged down by its second half, though the laughs never really started in the first place as the audience I was with found themselves quite hard pressed to laugh at anything. Don't expect a lot of comedic moments, as genuine laughter comes very few and far between. You still get the usual coffeeshop talk and complementary loan-sharking characters, but truly it's Funny No Enough. The movie probably scored a coup too in having the Ming Zhu sisters (the real voices behind the Papaya Sisters in Royston Tan's 881) in front of the camera performing with some shades of rushing from stage to stage worked into the story, and with Getai and Hokkien songs being staple in its soundtrack, Jack has indeed fired first salvo at Royston's upcoming 12 Lotus, even using (coincidentally?) one song about wishing for a million bucks.

Akin to a line in its opening song, while there are quarters who will complain on Jack Neo's movie being too "Jack Neo" for its own good, the fate of his movies is similar to that of our ruling political party. While we may complain (which we do best) and be unhappy about certain things, when the time comes for judgement, we return them to power, and we give Jack the box office returns of more than a million dollars, which in my opinion this movie will probably find easy to reach. Perhaps we hate to admit that we are still rather entertained by his movies in general, despite obvious thorny issues with the flaws in this one as already mentioned. Does Jack deserve a box office failure with this movie? I hate to see that happen, seriously, and I think his pedigree and appeal will buffer anything unexpected.

And by the way, at the end of the movie, there is a moment where a telephone number is flashed on screen. According to the official movie website, it's actually a bona fide contest where you need to respond to the number you should dial, and retain your movie ticket stub. If the sketchy ad is to be believed, then the prize should be the car that Henry Thia's character drove around in the movie. It has big headlights, and comes with airbags, ok?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

DVD Launch: Gone Shopping and The Tan Pin Pin Collection

August... the month where patriotism probably is at a sky high here, which probably explains the slew of local movies lined up to be screened this month, with Jack Neo kicking things off with a follow up movie to the 1998 original in Money No Enough 2, documentaries with Tony Kern's Month of Hungry Ghosts and Pek Lian's Mad About English, Foo Fung Koon's The Spirit Compendium, Royston Tan's 12 Lotus, and Cheng Ding An's Kallang Roar the Movie.

But let's not forget the DVD releases, with both Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping and Tan Pin Pin's collection of movies hitting the retail shelves in August as well.

Those who have seen Gone Shopping in the cinemas last year (and frankly, there aren't too many of us), might still want to grab this DVD for the director's cut which was the version that toured a number of film festivals, such as Udine Far East, Shanghai, Hawaii, New York's Asian American International Film Festival, Rome Asian Film Festival and the Puchon Fantastic Film Festival. The DVD comes with a load of extras too, such as trailers, photo galleries, and the usual deleted scenes, but what is always sorely lacking in local DVD editions, is the commentary track, which to date if I recall correctly, only Perth's DVD came with one by director Djinn and another by lead actor Lim Kay Tong. Now what I couldn't fathom of course, is why the cover art looks so awful, compared to those in the theatrical posters. But I guess what matters most is the contents right, despite the packaging making the movie seem awfully fluffy and frivolous, when in fact it is not.

Anyway, not to be outdone, Tan Pin Pin's boxset collection is really something. I'm glad I held out from purchasing my own copy of Singapore GaGa in the hopes of something better coming in the pipeline, and this is it. Contained within the collected set are 3 of Pin Pin's wonderful movies - Singapore GaGa, Invisible City, and Moving House, which (horrors!) I have not watched, but available in DVD already under the Singapore Shorts Collection as published by the Asian Film Archive. But the idiosyncrasy in me says I prefer the films of one director in the same boxset, thankyouverymuch. So now's a dream come true!

What's the extras in the boxset you say? For Singapore GaGa, it has an interview with Pin Pin, deleted scenes, trailers, and one of her short films titled Rogers Park. In Invisible city, you have the trailer, linear notes by Alfian Sa'at, Ivan Polunin's Sound Archive, and (yay) an audio commentary by Tan Pin Pin and script consultant Tan Siok Siok.

How can I get my hands on the DVDs? Here are the details:

Gone Shopping
It's set to hit the stores today, but the official launch is on
Date: 2nd August 2008 (Sat)
Time: 6.15pm
Location: IMM Jurong Level 3 Garden Plaza

As detailed in newsbites section, there will be 50 Gone Shopping tote bags filled with goodies available for redemption which can be redeemed for a minimum of $3 going to the “Make-A-Wish Foundation”. Kym Ng and Wee Li Lin will also auction 2 sets of autographed items which include a Gone Shopping poster, a DVD and a tote bag.

The Tan Pin Pin Collection
This 3-DVD set is being launched on 2 separate dates and locations:
Date: 16th August 2008 (Sat)
Time: 3pm
Venue: Kinokuniya at Ngee Ann City
Date: 29th August 2008 (Fri)
Time: 730pm
Venue: Books Actually @ No 5 Ann Siang Road

See you there!

Monday, July 28, 2008

Jack Neo Shorts

There is without a doubt that Jack Neo is one of Singapore's most hardworking feature film director, having more than ten films made in a decade, and like it or not, you have applaud his tenacity at telling stories which cater to the heartlanders, and sometimes getting flak for his movies being a haven for product placement. But like he mentioned before, securing funds for films is difficult, especially in a market as small as ours, and this is something that he had to resort to in order to get his films made. Some may also balk at how his stories tend to be skits pasted together, or complain about the TV-quality of his movies, but I guess the box office response for his movies would more than silence his critics, and unless I'm wrong, he still holds the record for having raked in the largest gross revenues for films that he directed.

So as a prelude to the release of his latest movie Money No Enough 2, which is a follow up (and not a narrative sequel) of his Money No Enough movie released some 10 years ago (he wrote and acted in it, leaving directorial duties to Tay Teck Lock), I thought I should go back in time to watch how he first started with his short films, and the type of stories told, because it's quite hard to track these shorts down, but Sinema Old School had them screened for free tonight.

Replacement Killer
This was the short that won him the best director award at the Singapore International Film Festival in 1998. One can almost see how Jack is indeed a Jack of all trades, as besides writing and directing duties, he also doubled up to provide the voiceover narration, probably to compensate for the relatively average acting skills of his cast (not the familiar faces we now see as his frequent collaborators).

It tells the story of a company boss Ah Kow, who looks down on his best friend and employee Ah Seng. One day an insult he hurled became the last straw and Ah Seng turns to Sure Die Killers Unlimited for professional hitmen to take out his boss. Since it's a peak period in their business, they had no choice but to send the titular character to serve Ah Seng with a climatic shoot out in a cheesy looking karaoke lounge.

Naturally this is material which is very dated, and a movie of this quality these days would probably not win an award locally. Not to put Jack's short down, but I believe, and he would agree, that local short filmmaking standards these days have indeed come a long way.

Sweet Sweet Sweet / 甜蜜蜜
This is a local spin off on Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story. Centered on the love story between Dusk and Money, employees of Seksun. Jack again provides narration for the short, coupled with self-made sound effects, and tells a story that contains his brand of humor which had some genuine funny moments especially when the couple go one up against each other. Again acting is nondescript, and I believe these shorts serve as a testbed for Jack to test out his ideas and formula, with proper casting actually taking a backseat in these experiments.

The Mysterious Murders / 冷血狂人
For those who don't understand the Hokkien language, they might be slightly lost as this short doesn't come with any subtitles. Simply put, it tells of two lecherous friends who are in for a nasty shock, as the audience got to be in the know when the introductory scene before the opening credits set the stage for things to come. As mentioned earlier, if experimentation is what Jack was after, then this short had probably provided him with the opinion of staying clear of horror. Which might be a pity as he had a good eye for a horror piece as seen in the first few minutes of the film. With his brand of comedy in his movies these days, I can only wonder what would his movie be like should it combine comedy with horror... surely not another Men in White?

Made in the 90s and with quality that is very raw by today's standards, probably made worse by being projected through Sinema's high definition projector, Jack's shorts might seem pretty amateurish then, but take a look at where he is now. I guess everyone has got to start somewhere, and a reminder to self would be to just do it, learn and continuous improve.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna)

Looking For Mama

It's been a while since I experienced in the movies, a mother's love for her young child, and vice versa, being the primary focus of the film, especially with one that dealt with distance and longing. The last one that truly moved me was the Japanese film Be With You, and no prizes for guessing that this Mexican number Under the Same Moon will join its ranks.

The title is nothing new though, as with movies as far back like An American Tale, where its theme song played on that exact same premise, of having to gaze up at the moon knowing that the person in your heart is probably doing the same thing and thinking of you too. Yes, such saccharine sweet sentimentalism, but it worked wonders here.

Directed by first time feature helmer Patricia Riggen, the movie follows both mother and son characters in separate threads, having been separated for many years, but keeping in touch through weekly Sunday telephone calls from public phone booths both sides. For Carlitos (Adrian Alonso), despite the gifts that mom sends back home to him, he misses her much and prefers that she is back in Mexico rather than working in the US. For mom Rosario (Kate del Castillo), she smuggled herself illegally to Los Angeles for work in order to raise their lot. But when his guardian grandmother passes away, Carlitos begins to plot his way to get himself to the LA within the week, to look for Rosario lest she calls home and worries that he's missing.

So begins the adventures of Carlitos as he begins to learn that the world is indeed full of unseen bad folks who will not hesitate to traffic him to child smugglers. And many of the scenes for his character have him interact with a reluctant surrogate father figure in fellow illegal Enrique (Eugenio Derbez). For Rosario, her character piece becomes like a showcase of the much generalized exploitation of illegal workers, as well as going through the usual aspirations of being a naturalized citizen so that she can finally bring her son over for reunification. Otherwise for the most parts she's often debating within herself whether it's high time to return to Mexico since her intention and goal seem to slip by every day, given being swindled as we are told, by her previous owner, and of course making sense of the love that a fellow Mexican has for her.

Some might complain that they can probably see how the story would develop as it wore on, but you have to admit that Adrian Alonso's charismatic Carlitos will still have you engaged throughout with that cherubic face of his, brimming with faith and confidence. While he might have started off pondering a lot on why his mom did what she have to do, soon he will learn, and we accompany him on this journey, a thing or two about love and concern. Given that he doesn't share the same screen for the most parts with his mum, it sort of became key that he constructs and builds upon his initial dislike for Enrique much like a parallel contrast with that relationship with his mother, up until the final moments which was probably a bit deus ex machina, and felt a little rushed somehow.

But on the whole, Under the Same Moon serves its purpose and delivered itself well thanks to its great casting. And it also makes for a perfect date movie too, with a reminder to bring along some Kleenex for the finale. Highly recommended.

Strange Wilderness

The High Crew

One of the reasons why I decided to watch this, is because I needed a comedy to laugh at, if it's not possible to laugh together with it. The DVD is already available at the shops, but I don't think I'm ready to fork out a Code 1 DVD price for what's essentially a short comedic film which is based from a Saturday Night Life comedy skit. Written by the same creative team of Peter Gaulke and Fred Wolf with the latter taking on directorial duties as well, Strange Wilderness delivered some genuine laughs, but only if you're tolerant of being insensitive to the kind of subject the film makes fun of.

Strange Wilderness is a long running wildlife programme which is now succeeded by Peter (Steve Zahn), the host of the show, whose father had made the programme into one of the best loved prime time shows. Under Peter's leadership, ratings have plummeted, and needless to say even their 3am timeslot is in danger of being cancelled. In a last minute desperation for survival, he and his crew have to look for a new way to ensure their programme continues, and dropped at their laps is the opportunity to follow up on a solid lead to the whereabouts of Bigfoot.

Eseentially this movie is one big road trip that tells of the crew's journey to documentary history, with the likes of soundman and co-collaborator Fred (Allen Covert), Cooker (Jonah Hill), the only female in the team Cheryl (Ashley Scott), and cameraman Junior (Justin Long), amongst others. And throughout the movie, we see each and everyone of them getting into enough funny scenarios that made this film look like many pieces of skits being glued together, with laughs coming courtesy of sexual innuendos (you just got to hand it to the turkey), sight gags, slapstick and just plain buffoony. In fact, I even suspect that everyone in the cast were on a high as they shot this, as dialogues were laced quite incoherently with plenty of ad-libbing, especially Justin Long, though of course if he's really acting, then kudos to him for being stoned all the time.

While giving no respect to wildlife, the funniest moments were reserved for their voiceovers of Nature, and it's really quite incredible should anything like it be actually aired for television. They are intentionally full of factual errors, lapse into unnecessary judgemental and slanted viewpoints, but always just plain ridiculously funny. Perhaps I was in crap mode, but the humour here doesn't apologize for any offence made, since after all, the subject matter can't fight back anyway. I know I'm shallow if I say I really couldn't get enough of the film poking fun at the physical features/defects repeatedly. There is no plot in the movie, besides everyone being perpetually broke as they try and scrimp or come out with more hare-brained ideas to fund their movie and fuel the laughs.

So the bottomline is, don't expect any genius from Strange Wilderness, but if you're in for some low-brow humour, then this movie might just be the perfect laughing medicine for anyone wanting to chase the blues away, without any medicinal assistance.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Book of Revelation

Somebody Save Me!

You'd be forgiven if you thought that this movie was nothing more than the final chapter of the biblical text. Although itself based on a novel, this is a far cry from doomsday, though for the lead character, his life has been made a living hell for the sheer psychological and physical torture he goes through even after his unfortunate ordeal. And it does provoke some thought into the issues it put on screen, though it doesn't provide any answers, which I suppose in a real world equivalent, it's likely to remain under wraps too, for the shame.

There are many movies out there which deal with and center around the topic of rape. But this would probably mark the first time I've watched a movie where the male lead gets set upon by a gang of three masked females, who for the protection of their identity, prefer to keep their kinky sexual exploits from perhaps each other as well. In fact, their dressing is so well designed, that they have openings for their eyes, and a flap to expose their mouths for the purpose of providing pleasure. And being clothed for the most parts, it prevents the victim from trying to identify any tell-tale signs like tattoos, birthmarks or moles.

Tom Long (no offence, but what a name, really) plays Daniel, a renowned dance practitioner under the tutelage of Isabel (Greta Scacchi). To Isable, Daniel is her star, and she fiercely guards her protege, up until he decided to go around a corner and buy a packet of cigarettes for his fiance, that he gets kidnapped, and the production has to rely on a stand-in. Daniel of course returns, but returns as a changed man. Meek, irritable, and with a feeling that he's lost his skills. He becomes obssessed, and we slowly learn why - he's become a victim of a gang rape by an all female trio, who in their own words, just want to see him perform a dance for them privately, failing which the punishment is... rape.

To justify its R21 rating, we're given a full blown account for Daniel's inexplicable disappearance from the normal world he's used to, and now find himself chained to a dark basement like an animal, responding to the whims and fancies of his captors as they take turns to deal with him up his rear. And to a hunky, muscular guy, I suppose this would be a breaking down of resistance, as the power play between the captors and the captive turn psychological, and at times blurring the lines whether Daniel is actually enjoying his current situation.

Wait a minute, who in the right mind would enjoy being in such a situation? Here's where the crux of some of the issues are. Can a man be raped (obviously if against his wishes, yes), and what's with the stigma of having such a stain? Is it hard to imagine the kind of reaction for a guy to make a report and say "Excuse me Mr officer, but I've been raped for days repeatedly by three women wearing masks"? While we can easily understand and sympathize with female victims, could we say and feel the same for a male one, especially one who potentially has the propensity to fight back? Hard to fathom of course, which speaks volumes when the screening I'm in had its fair share of walkouts from amongst the full house audience.

But in a tale of two halves, the other showcases Daniel's struggle to try and rebuild a normal life, but again, with such a traumatizing event that he experienced, it does turn some screws loose, as he begins to suspect and mistrust, just like female victims would, all women whom he encounters and who in his estimates, fit the bill of his kidnappers, for reasons none other than vengeance. I thought the second half was more engaging than its earlier portion as it boiled down to an individual struggle, and with an ending that spoke volumes for the things left unsaid. Not an easy movie to sit through given its pace and storyline, but you do get plenty of discussion topics when you emerge from the theatre.

[5th Singapore Short Cuts] 3rd Week

I guess the full house in today's session continues to attest to the popularity of this event in our cinematic calendar. With works from familiar faces like Victric Thng and Boo Junfeng, today's session also marks the very first public screening of Martyn See's Speakers Cornered. Green Zeng's Blank Rounds unfortunately was pulled from the today's schedule.

Twogether - Victric Thng

This is an extremely short piece running 1.5 minutes long, and goes to show that you don't need to artificially bloat your movies in order to get your point across. Effectively sweet like a Hallmark card like message, it's played out to the tune of the childhood song "The More We Get Together". Been quite a while since I saw something this short, but still packing a powerful punch. Not to mention the visually interesting scene too, where you're wondering "How?" (Victric did explain during the Q&A session, as recounted below)

Bedok Jetty - Boo Junfeng

Filmed as part of the Digital Homelands project by the National Museum of Singapore, this film is presented quite uniquely in having 3 permanent panels, one for the visuals that transpire at what I would like to interpret as in a different timeline from the other 2 panels. Filmed at the titular jetty, we get to see avid anglers doing their thing, as well as the myriad of folks who pass by, amongst which are a couple on the brink of a break.

The other 2 panels showcase an internet messaging session using MSN between d and f, as they talk about school, and one of them inevitably gears the conversation towards his difficulty in moving on, despite the other being able to do so with ease. Nonetheless this aspect of the story might strike a chord with the audience. The film's totally silent (i.e. not a talkie), save for the ambient sound of strong winds at the Jetty.

Caramel / 黑默糖 - Kelvin Ke

I wonder how many in the audience today would have silently wished that the female character in the short would stand up for her rights and not idly sit by and suffer from being a victim of domestic violence and emotional blackmail. The husband, being a drinker, gambler and womanizer all rolled into one by director Kelvin Ke, makes him a vile character to begin with, though his sweet talking and tender moments where he obviously wants something, somehow manages to anchor his wife from flying the coop.

But of course, there's always the last straw that breaks the donkey's back. And when that line is crossed, then revenge is a dish best served cold. Being a PG rated film, you don't get to see any related violence although this movie is inspired by body parts murders in Singapore. You get the idea, and so there's no necessity in having the film play out these moments to satisfy our blood lust. I thought the casting was excellent given that we aren't presented with aesthetically pleasing to the eye candy, but actors who managed to flesh out their roles adequately without unnecessary distraction.

Speakers Cornered - Martyn See

Filmed in September 2006 where Dr Chee Soon Juan and his supporters wanted to lead a protest march from Hong Lim Park's Speakers Corner to Parliament House during the IMF-World Bank meet, this documentary just charts the proceedings between Dr Chee's group and the police in their stand off and stalemate between one another, neither side willing to budge, and neither side willing to compromise. Without a commentary in order not to run afoul of the law again, Martyn See's film covers the highlights of the 3 days standoff (most of which of course you don't get to see in the mainstream media), where you can see that there's a disproportionate amount of resource poured in order to keep perceived lawlessness at bay. Troops on the ground really need to be empowered, or given adequate information to deal with harassment, because being tight-lipped when questioned by people around, doesn't really make for a good impression.

In any case, I'm still amazed by the number of cameras and photographers at the scene (not counting Martyn's), and the entire incident played out like a media circus, with journalists wanting to cover every angle, and both sides employing tit-for-tat videographers to document all angles of the incident as well so that neither side could point an accusatory finger at the other, without contradictory evidence popping up.

LtoR: Low Beng Kheng (Substation; Moderator), Kelvin Ke, Martyn See, Victric Thng

As staple in the programme, a Q&A session was conducted with the directors, although Boo Junfeng was unable to attend today's session. As always, here's the excerpt from this afternoon's Q&A session, and any inaccuracies are faults of mine alone.

Beng Kheng: Perhaps the filmmakers would like to introduce the films they made and share a bit more about their respective films?
Victric: This is a 1.5 minute short which was completed last year. I actually had the footage for quite a while, which was shot in 2004 during a filmmakers exchange between Singapore and Malaysia at the Asian Film Symposium. I love the footage and I knew I had to do something about it some day, and inspiration hit me last year. Often I'm asked about whether I'm making the transition into feature length films, and it gets frustrating when asked "what's next?" so this film was in direct response to that!
Martyn: This was made 2 years back, and one month after the making of Singapore Rebel. This is the first time my film has been passed and allowed to be screen publicly. Today's occasion is a symbolic exercise, since it's already available on YouTube and more than 15,000 people have seen it. This was shot as a newsreel and edited in the way the event had happened.
Kelvin: This is my first public screening. I had decided to stop making crap short films and to tell a story instead. It was tough shooting it but ultimately fun to watch with a group of people.

Victric to Beng Kheng: Did you guys face any problems in screening Martyn's film?
Beng Kheng: There's no insurmountable problem, and this is an NC16 session. When we applied for the license it went without a hitch, and the change of venue was actually a logistics problem instead.

Q: Where was Twogether shot?
Victric: It was shot in Malaysia somewhere near JB, as it was part of an exchange programme where filmmakers had to cross boundaries.
Q: How was the sliding done?
Victric: It was done digitally frame by frame by my editor, and it had to coincide with the time of the music.
Q: Was it shot at an artificial or natural environment?
Victric: It was partially artificial and natural, where the local community actually goes there for a swim.

Q: Your short has been screened overseas. What were the audience reactions like?
Martyn: It's not much of a response. In Taiwan, the audience size was 5, and in Malaysia it's something like what it is today. But this is something no big deal to them, and I'm probably the last of the videomen and cameramen that day to have put out the film.

Martyn had also shared that there were other stuff shot, but were mostly the boring stuff, like groups of people staring at each other. The more dramatic stuff are found in the movie, and there was no self-censorship on this one, as he felt that he was filling a vacuum of citizen journalism where the mainstream press don't cover.

Q: What was your inspiration, and was it based on a real situation?
Kelvin: A few years back, there was this series of murders involving body parts. I was curious and the story started coming out, for example, the one involving a Singaporean man and his foreign lover, from love to macabre murder. I was interested in exploring this relationship, and things that men and women do to each other.

Beng Kheng: And to wrap up, perhaps you could share with us your upcoming projects?
Victric: An idea for a feature script has come. I will probably be doing more short films before I start writing that script.
Martyn: I spend most of my time doing freelance editing for directors. The last piece of work is Money No Enough 2 which will be released soon.
Kelvin: I have a couple of projects, and I hope to be able to screen one next year!


Next week will be the final installment for this year's Short Cuts, and the venue will be switched back to The National Museum Gallery Theatre. No doubt that Anthony Chen's Haze would be one of the highlights in next week's lineup. So do make sure you're found at the right place!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Spirit Compendium (靈問)

If I want to be truly nutty and live up to summarizing The Spirit Compendium in a nutshell, then perhaps an Ascii picture will tell a thousand words: -_-"

Going by the synopsis, stills and posters, one would have expected a supernatural thriller at the very least. But you know what they say about expectations, and this being the first feature film of writer-director Foo Fung Koon, I have had friends who have given me that wry look and stifled laughter when I told them that I am prepared to be scared. And the usual trappings of a first film, with its raw delivery and unpolished feel, comes an accidental, unintentional comedy.

If I may be blunt, this movie had a lot of potential given its breadth, but instead of focusing on the depth of its available material, everything became superficially scattered, and ultimately, emotionally empty for a story that hinges very much on its characters being able to engage the audience into the strange habits that they are getting themselves into. Granted it's a spiritual movie, but it takes its unrealism to an extreme, as The Spirit Compendium becomes stuffed with plenty of unbelievable, inexplicable, and terrible scenes which were disparate and don't carry the narrative forward, preferring to linger around some very childish homo-eroticism.

Tom (Benjamin Ng) is your typical clueless hero, inheriting mythical prowess from lineage as well as after long stints of training led by a mysterious monk from the Heavenly School of I-Ching. As with all doubtful heroes, he suffers the unnecessary loss of fiancee Bella (Maylene Loo), a chirpy toothy girl who only kisses cheeks, has amazing orange-squeezing techniques of filling up a full glass of juice with 1 orange, and whose tough running regime to keep slim does her in. Nursing his broken heart for more than a year, he is reminded of his obligation to complete his training at the School, and is given the mythical items of some beads, and the titular Spirit Compendium, which functions as a glorified 8-Ball, where you have to tweak your question to get the answers you want, and at times functioning like an Ouija Board when meddlesome ghosts lend a hand. So for this full time National Serviceman who's about to ORD soon, you know where his spare time is spent on - the occult. In essence, this is your quintessential Luke Skywalker, given his father's lightsabre and taught the use of the Force.

Living alone after the death of his parents, his house mate May (Foyce Lim) is introduced so that she will function as a fodder to contribute to the questioning of Tom's sexuality. She's an unlucky person, because only those down on their luck can see spirits. And as if seeing spirits is not enough, she has to suffer from being possessed by her sleep disorder, of being unable to harness the powers of her trance where she reenacts scenes and is able to straddle between the spiritual and earthly realms, all the while being suspicious of everyone, expressing that through her wooden expression of one - just by having her eyes wide open.

And given Tom's penchant for massage sessions in his bedroom, in comes hunky Sam (Michael Kwah), whose parents can't support him with his university fees and are suffering a downturn in their business. He's an expert masseuse, so much so that his tittie twisters, nipple pinchers and around-the-abs power rubs provide so much pleasure to Tom that they both agree to move in together and sleep naked on the same bed with each other. You begin to feel sorry for Sam, as he drew the shortest end of the stick having to live with 2 weirdo roommates, but in a high inflation environment, the draw of cheap rental is just too attractive, though he had to pay the price of being sexually violated, falling sick, and then finding himself stuck in limbo as a result for his conduct. You read me right, it just doesn't add up, and it could actually become worse.

At this point, you can't help but to chuckle at the meek Matrix-like references. You have a character dressed in white, a bald old man akin to The Architect who spouts mumbo jumbo against a really bad CGI backdrop, and his female counterpart as a power hungry Oracle who wants Tom's power items so that she can power up and rule the spiritual universe. But you know both as being fraudulent, because they're just acting as mouthpieces for sections of the I-Ching, religion, and philosophy, without bringing any deeper meaning to their supposed wise words of wisdom. In fact, one of them likes to play silly guessing games too. Without natural charisma or intelligence brought to their characters, they serve little or no purpose, except in an attmpt to add certain gravitas which backfired badly.

What will make you really sit up in this movie with disbelief, are the scenes of massage, which seem to be the silver bullet of the movie. Everyone seems to be really into it, being serious practitioners or swearing by its effects. Got possessed? No problem, a massage will exorcise your blues away. Can't get over a girlfriend? A massage will remind you it's better than sex. Need a change of underwear? Hey, a massage will give you opportunity to take it all off. In a ridiculously conceived scene that lingered on artificially enhanced cod pieces, you wonder what all that showing of well toned bodies is for. And in a separate scene, it becomes even more absurd to want to tape down a session for "educational purposes", which of course happened to serve as a convenient plot element 30 seconds into the scene.

I guess in the hands of a rookie, the usual pitfall is probably to try everything, no doubt having a possible rationale of letting the first film be one's film school, where you would allow anything and everything to go wrong, from an experimental standpoint. So we have special effects, lots of it, which was quite poorly rendered, and brought down production values by a couple of notches. Also, like my friend Jeremy mentioned, we don't really need anymore explanation of the 7th month, given that relatively superior films with box office success have already included them to death. But I guess to foreign audiences, some background knowledge won't be that bad, but what's worse if for foreigners looking at this and shaking their heads in the belief that Singapore Cinema had taken a few steps back. I also felt that the subtitles were hastily done as they looked sloppy with random grammatical, spelling and even punctuation errors, and when it comes to translating the heavier I-Ching material, it just failed. Editing was also choppy and inconsistent, going at a frentic pace in the beginning.

But having start off from rock bottom does have its advantages, because if lessons are learnt the hard way from this movie, the only way to go is up. The score comes on and off abruptly, with songs that can raise goosebumps. The actors come across as quite jittery in their delivery and are consciously unsure of what they're doing, whether it makes sense. I suspect if bold moves in having characters dropped, and having the story very narrow and focused, coupled without the need to explain things in verbatim, this might have milked its potential a lot more. Storytelling technique definitely needs to be improved, without the need to resort to CGI gimmicks - remember, some of the best scenes in the Matrix are not the loud and brash action sequences, but those in an all white room which distract you from the message delivered.

Having a real Spirit Compendium will definitely help too, to know in advance if you're going the wrong way with this movie, If I may offer my own Compendium statement as a companion piece for this movie, it will be that "In life, you sometimes need unnecessary evils to help maintain a fine equilibrium".


Thursday, July 24, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

We're Ready To Believe You

It's not hard to imagine how time flies, when you realize that one of your best loved television series of all time had already ended its run, and you reminisce the times back when one of your weekend nights revolved around sitting in a bunk with your army mates, all glued to what Chris Carter had conjured as adventures for the two best known goggle box FBI agents, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson). While we always needed to crank up the volume to try and make sense of the murmurs involving shadow governments and secret conspiracies, our favourite episodes almost unanimously were those one-off ones, so called the "monster" episodes.

And it's been 6 years since The End, and 10 years since the first X-Files movie hit the screen. While that movie was intricately linked to the major conspiracy thread, this movie, as the trailer led us to believe, was a one-off monster episode, or so I thought. While it's indeed a one-off episode, it's no monster of an episode in the mould of those in the television series, though it really felt like an extended, stand alone episode which gave us a slightly more in depth look at the dynamics of our beloved duo, especially what happened to them in the last few years they went off the FBI radar. But as the saying goes, you can't put a good man, and a lady, down for too long.

This is a story about obsession. As we all know, Mulder's obsessed with everything X-classifiable, and in the years of absence, here comes an opportunity for a breath of fresh air when Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) comes knocking to seek his expertise, as the FBI now has a case on their hands and a psychic, convicted pedophile of a Catholic Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly) who volunteers key information to help in that case. The FBI isn't sure if Father Crissman is a liar, or worse, connected to the crime, and hence Mulder's help is to be their lie-detector. Naturally with religion and her usual cynicism in the mix, Scully is disgusted by the sheer presence of the religious felon, and thus set the stage for some conflict with her beau.

Like an old, quarreling couple who can't seem to give way to each other, their philosophies clash as their interests - Scully battling the hospital system to save her young chronically ill patient - differ, and threaten to pull the couple apart. He thinks that she's not being supportive of his venturing into an X-case even though they're now civilians, while she thinks he's latching onto Father Crissman to use his prowess, if proven true, to find Samantha Mulder. Which I thought would probably make an excellent sub plot, but alas the potential was dangled like a carrot in front of us, and then went totally off tangent.

Don't expect any big sets or intricate subplots here, as it really looked like it's done on a shoestring budget, with the look and feel of a typical classic television episode, a two-parter in fact. There are strange aberrations of course, but all these go unexplained, and you know they're just going to be glossed over since everything will be wrapped up by the time the end credits roll. However, there are adequate moments to keep you at the edge of your seat, and some developments do enough to leave your mouth gaping wide open, especially those involving extreme medicine.

David Duchovny does look more comfortable reprising his role as Mulder, but Gillian Anderson, as interviews have revealed, required a lot more time trying to get back into character, and this uneasiness unfortunately shows on screen. The chemistry's still not lacking, but given that their respective characters have aged and grown more comfortable with one another, gone are the tensions between them, though the problems that surface here did try to rekindle some of the opposition they felt during the course of their long running series.

Chris Carter and X-Files regular scribe Frank Spotnitz did incorporate a nice surprise in the movie, so do keep your eyes peeled as you will silently cheer when it happens. But I thought what was a ghastly way to bid farewell, was the little coda toward the end of the credit roll, which somewhat signals the finale of everything, though in a very out of place manner. Anyhow, this X-Files movie episode isn't going to win any new fans over, but for X-philes, I'd bet we're probably just satisfied already with our heroes appearing in celluloid one more time, that no matter how wafer thin the plot is, it's not going to dampen our collective fan spirit.

And to thank our lucky stars that Mark Snow's iconic theme song, didn't get played in the movie under the horrific techno rendition.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Where's The 3D?

Too bad the upcoming theatrical release is the non-3D version, and we have to wait until the later part of the year to watch this in its 3D glory during the first ever 3D Film & Entertainment Technology Festival (3DX). So while it's still rather enjoyable as your mind tries to picture in real time how the obvious set action sequences would look like in 3D, with all the hints given when objects fly toward the screen, ranging from a yoyo to saliva, you can't help but feel a little short changed.

Journey to the Center of the Earth opens in local theatres on 7th August 08.

You can read my review of Journey to the Center of the Earth at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008

[DVD] The Take (2007)

I'm Framed

OK, so I'm a fan of John Leguizamo, whom I feel is one of the most underrated character actors at the moment. In The Take, he plays your average Joe working as a security guard, who in one eventful day find himself involved against his wishes in a heist, and gets himself shot in the head. Only that he survives, but no, it's not an all out revenge movie, but one heavily focused on the man's recovery, with the vengeance theme slowly brewing in the backburner in time for a climatic chase sequence on foot in the last act.

You can read my DVD review of The Take at by clicking on the logo below.


Monday, July 21, 2008

[DVD] Fail Safe (2000)


I've enjoyed some of Stephen Frears past works like High Fidelity, Mrs Henderson Presents and his latest The Queen, so I was intrigued enough to pick up a DVD movie released some 8 years ago made for television, a CBS TV special that was broadcast live during the time. I'd bet it was a novelty and I could have seen it before, but nonetheless it didn't stop me from sitting through this rather gripping drama from start to end.

Filmed in black and white, Fail Safe is set during the Cold War, where hostilities between the US and the Soviets are at an all time high, and military doctrine on both sides dictate world annihilation should anyone decide to provoke the other by firing off their nukes to the other's territory. And to ensure they don't get caught offguard, the US military has a system of checks and balances to ensure continuity of their battle plans even if there's a break in the chain of command, a mixture of fail safe elements involving processes, hardware and the men who take instructions down the line.

Except for having to deal with Murphy's Law. In certain aspects, it might seem like Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, but this movie, based upon the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, doesn't include satire, and played it out in more serious tones, where there are enough going on that keeps it fast paced. The story revolves around four fronts, each having to face their own dilemma and having to contemplate their actions, and those which have moral implications, are always never easy to be dealt with. From the top you have the President (Richard Dreyfuss) and his Russian translator Buck (Noah Wyle) trying to convince the Russian premier about what's going to happen, and to defuse potential hostilities while at the same time having to build trust. You got to hand it to Dreyfuss for his role here in political gambit, acting with opposite Wyle, and a phone.

The second front takes place in a war room where generals and think tanks trade blows in deciding what next to advise the president, with some naturally urging restraint, while others wanting to seize the opportunity to gain the upper hand through an accidental pre-emptive strike. Harvey Keitel goes up against Hank Azaria here, as a Brigadier General whom the President trusts, up against some dangerous philosophy of Professor Groeteschele's. The third front perhaps has the most actors placed in a single set, the war room where a complete view of how the plot is unfolding, gets put on display here. Loyalties come into question, and so does basic human decency. The characters here are also mixed and provides a more balanced view, from the military with Brian Dennehy and John Diehl, to politicians represented by Sam Elliott, and the vendor who provides the military with the computerized hardware, as represented by James Cromwell.

Last but not least, the fly boys who are on the execution (pardon the pun) front, perhaps there to provide some possibility for action, but again, the sets are purpose built on soundstages. George Clooney and Don Cheadle partner in this area as they play guess and second guessing each other, being cut off from the chain of command, and as per their training, are out to carry their mission to a T, regardless what else they are told.

Fail Safe tells a precautionary tale, that while we may plan for every conceivable scenario using a siege like mentality, there really isn't a totally fool-proof plan, and there are bound to be loopholes or cracks due to the assumptions we have to take or accept. Do we trust a human to make a judgement call, or rely on a calculating machine to do so based on predicates and cold logic? And what if the machine fails, do we know enough that it is wrong, and what measures there are to be placed for rectification? Can we do that fast enough? There are of course enough movies out there with machines like HAL and SkyNet going rogue, and addressing similar issues.

Ultimately it's about control - when do we decide to relinquish, and whether we are able to seize it back when the need calls for it - and the moral dilemma that comes with weighted decisions that has repercussions beyond the immediate. Superb character acting and nailbiting setup all the way to the unexpected finale makes this film a winner.

Code 3 DVD by Warner Home Video comes in letterboxed format. Audio is presented in its original English track, or dubbed Japanese track. Subtitles are available in English, Japanese and Chinese. Bare bones version comes with a 25 chapter scene selection, and a trailer of Ocean's 13 (1:35).

Sunday, July 20, 2008

[DVD] Over Her Dead Body (2008)

You're Dead!

Eva Longoria Parker really needs a starring vehicle to cement her attempts at crossing over from TV to the big screen, otherwise she might just go along the paths of many who have failed to do so, especially when Desperate Housewives will likely be all over come 2011. The movie here clearly belonged to co-stars Paul Rudd and Lake Bell as a couple whom Parker's Kate is trying to break up, until she learns what her mission on earth is exactly all about, and go about completing that bit of her unfinished business.

You can read my DVD review of Over Her Dead Body at by clicking on the logo below.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Wedding Daze / The Pleasure of Your Company

Will You Say Yes?

It seems that the success of the American Pie trilogy which starred Jason Biggs and spawned a franchise of spin off movies bearing the American Pie branding, had somewhat slapped an unfortunate tag on actor Biggs. Of all the movies to date that I recall him in, they inevitably revolve around teenagers, sex, or romantic comedies. He can't shake off this tag, and I will be curious to see him take a big leap out of this unwarranted comfort zone, unless of course these are roles that appeal to him, and pays his bills anyway. What makes it ideal for him in roles as these, is his average everyday man looks and attitude.

Isla Fisher on the other hand, I've got to admit, despite being in a similar boat as Biggs, has got that exuberant charm that I can't get enough of. I guess it was her infectious smile and laughter in The Wedding Crashers as the psycho babe Gloria stalking Vaughn's Jeremy that made me take notice, and her turn as the carefree, free-spirited April in Definitely, Maybe, had placed the movie as a contender for one of my favourites this year. Perhaps it is her relatively small frame that can always pass her off as a young adult, that she gets saddled with such roles, and again she repeats another rather conventional performance for Wedding Daze, but I'm not complaining.

Biggs stars as Anderson, a man in between jobs and who still cannot get over the death of his fiance (who actually hasn't said yes), spending twice as long a duration to mourn her, than the time spent with her. On his good friend Ted's (Michael Weston) advice to go out there and meet people. In a spur of a moment during a dare, Anderson proposes to the waitress serving his table, and surprise, Katie (Fisher) says yes. But of course things are never smooth sailing, as the couple soon discovers what they should have discovered during courtship, thus putting numerous spins and surprises that made this comedy go way out of control in the last 30 minutes, reminiscent of some of 80s styled comedies in this film written and directed by Michael Ian Black.

Sometimes you wonder what it would like to just take that leap of faith and plunge into deep waters. Our forefathers probably did that with matchmaking being the requisite way in which to find a mate. They had no say and everything's arranged through parents and parental contacts when a suitable age is reached. While in this case it's not matchmaking, but you just wonder if it'll work out should two people eye each other across a crowded room, like who they see on the surface of course, and decide that's it, he/she's the one? It's a fantasy proposition, but one which becomes key in love at first sight stories. Either that, or the usual courtship route would likely be a journey where flaws surface, and you start to question if you could live with them. Nobody's perfect, but the former way already bound you to an institution, versus a fairly constant probe where you can opt out at any time.

While the supporting characters specifically are present to provide laughter, they do somehow epitomize different aspects of relationships. Katie's mom personifies the typical indecisive woman who flits toward who currently can provide her certain advantages, while her real dad (Joe Pantoliano) and stepdad provide some laughs with the jokes on the latter seemingly a little culturally insensitive at times. But political correctness usually goes out of the window these days (unlike those of old) as it is possibly the quickest way to elicit laughs from an audience, and even sexual deviant acts come courtesy of Anderson's parents. Supporting characters also involve the maligned fiance of Katie's (but she didn't say yes too), and his finding of his soulmate, best friends of Katie who are into circus tricks, and the very perfect fiance of Anderson, who would inspire Anderson to have one of the best, honest lines toward the end of the movie, no matter how sappy it sounded, but made a lot of sense.

You might think that you've seen a number of similar movies already like What Happens in Vegas and Just Married, but those seemed a little more polished than the raw, indie treatment that is Wedding Daze, where jokes fly rather fast and furious, employing a whole repertoire of methods to deliver its punch lines, from sight gags to my personal preferences of extreme wit in dialogue where you really have to be at attention to catch them all. It might not be a big budgeted movie, but its charm more compensates for everything else.

[5th Singapore Short Cuts] 2nd Week

The 5th Singapore Short Cuts continues today with another selection of 5 fine short films, and as Beng Kheng revealed, were curated by Zhang Wenjie. Watching today's selection, you can't help but to discover some parental-child relationship themes in almost all the films, and with genres ranging from comedy to stop-motion animation, it's indeed a diverse selection that reinforces the notion that Singapore's short film scene is nothing short of eclectic, with good production values, some despite not being funded by grants from the film commission.

Wet Season / 水枪 - Michael Tay

When the narration came on, I thought it was going to be one of those arty flicks which will tread on longing and loss. A man narrates his missing of someone, and drones on the drudgery of life without that somebody. I could've sworn it was his partner, as it definitely could have swung that way, but it turned out to be a stunning tribute to director Michael Tay's own father, and with the Chinese title as such, I was indeed taken aback by a funny yet almost near impossible scene of that happening with most fathers and sons, I think.

But what I liked about this, is the stop-motion animation treatment. You don't get to see much of this in local films, so it's indeed a visual treat, not forgetting the effort it takes to make films with this level of technical sophistication.

Reflections - Ho Tzu Nyen

Ho Tzu Nyen's segment of Lucky 7 involved a number of mirrors as the character went through a series of self-reflection at a train depot, and the use of mirrors return as an important plot element in this short.

Narrated by Amy Cheng, I thought this movie bore some semblance, storytelling wise, to Victric Thng's The Mole. Both are highly imaginative fairy tales, although Victric's had added an additional level of complexity with its story's narration in rhyming couplets, and this one based on a story by the 19th century Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn. In Tzu Nyen's Reflections, the novelty was having children play citizens of a narrow minded, literally boxed in world, whose inhabitants are physically of child size, and probably in mentality too, especially with the "me-me" attitudes, and the inability to resolve conflicts within themselves, having to defer to a higher being.

Quite an intelligent movie to sit through, with an extremely wry sense of humour. I suspect we could be on our way in having more unique tellings of fairy tales spun from the imagination of our local filmmakers?

The New World - K. Rajagopal

In a landscape bygone, there used to be Gay World, Great World, and then there's New World, which this short uses to become the backdrop for a trip down nostalgic memory lane. Bookend in documentary style, K Rajagopal's The New World opens with Jacinta Abisheganaden's breathy rendition of Windmills of Your Mind, as we explore the days of old, a personal story of a young boy growing up during the 60s of song, dance and of course, the movies.

While the short shows the measured, experienced hand of a veteran filmmaker, I thought he was very creative with the use of figurines and stop motion to tell a story of an era long gone, through the usage of old photographs and such and juxtaposed with live action. Without expensive and exorbitant sets, Rajagopal had shown us how to work and take advantage of the constraints of a non-existent landscape, and weaved an aesthetically pleasing short film that dug deep into emotions.

Commissioned by the National Museum of Singapore (NMS) under the Digital Homelands project, you could also catch this again at the NMS as it had set aside a space for a video gallery to showcase all the shorts that were made with this theme, and you have until 30 Sep 08 to do so.

My Blue Heaven / 蓝蓝的天 - Yee-wei Chai

While Kelvin Sng's Kichiro probably became one of the most violent short films in recent times, I guess the short film with the most number of utterances of vulgarities, go unanimously to Yee-Wei Chai's My Blue Heaven. It's no wonder that this particular cut of the film was granted special permission by MDA for this one-off screening, and that an edited R21 version also exist for screenings following this one.

Based in the 80s where you have pornographic video peddlers prowling HDB flats with their goods (and then migrated to mail box flyers to reduce the risk of getting caught with smoking gun evidence), almost everyone, save for the kid, swore bucket-loads, with Hokkien being the language of choice, and the other being Bahasa used by a trio of pondans who don't get along with Vincent Tee's uncouth loan-shark runner.

The title referred somewhat to the proverbial, out of bounds territory in the home where kids aren't allowed to venture. To Ah-boy, this is his father's top shelve which is covered by a piece of blue-sky cloth, and contains his treasure trove of drugs and pornographic tapes. With his father out one day, Ah-boy ventures into the bold unknown with cunning preparation, only to discover to his horror, that VCRs sometimes do chew up your tapes.

There are plenty of hilarious moments which will leave you in stitches, and while the kid playing Ah-boy did have some pretty unnatural acting moments (he's a first timer), he managed to pull off an incredible moment when the time called for it. If you're not a prude and willing to overlook the language, you'll realize this short is making quite a statement at nanny-like suppression - do not do this, do not do that, stick to your harmless cartoons, and eat your food. With a supporting cast of familiar faces like Catherine Sng and Melody Chen, there would be plenty of elements that the authorities would have frowned upon (such as the scene with Vincent Tee and a Loretta Lee "artistic" picture book) that just adds onto the wicked glee of an audience watching this.

The winner for me, would of course be the inclusion of Sam Hui's 天才与白痴 into the soundtrack. Definitely deserving a second viewing.

With 4 shorts in the bag, 3 of which are of the comedy genre, it might be a little surprising that Yee-wei's debut feature film will expand upon his horror short Blood Ties. It goes into production later this year, and for sure my radar will be sweeping the horizon for it.

Dreams of Youth - Daniel Hui

While the previous short had ended with a wry jab at the expected lack of funding and support from the authorities given its subject matter and content, the intertitle that came up for this short brandishing its support obtained, and the opening shot of blue skies, inadvertently drew stifled laughter from some members of the audience, who drew parallels between the ending from the previous, and the beginning of the current movie.

The contrast didn't just end there, as Dreams of Youth was shot entirely in English. I really didn't take to the story as it seemed to be a snapshot of the growing pains of an adolescent youth, with pretty mundane stuff happening in school, such as tests, crushes, and an unlikely sexual awakening, and it just went on. Perhaps it's reflective of Wei Tien's (Marcus Low) state of mind, of coasting through life here, knowing that it's only temporary, before he returns to Australia for further studies.

Aside from his best friend and dad, the rest of the characters who seem to have more impact in his life are the female characters, like the mother, like all mothers always doting. And the school girl with whom he develops a crush on, but a lack of guts prevented any further contact other than admiring from afar. And one whom I thought almost everyone would have seen coming, especially with the come-hiter looks on the replacement teacher.

Plenty of technical strengths in this short so that addresses most of the production values, and I look forward to more different stories from this young filmmaker.


LtoR: Low Beng Kheng, Yee-wei Chai, Michael Tay, Daniel Hui, K. Rajagopal

As staple in the programme, a Q&A session was conducted with the directors, although Ho Tzu Nyen was unable to attend today's session. As always, here's the excerpt from this afternoon's Q&A session, and any inaccuracies are faults of mine alone.

Q: I notice a special relationship with parents in all of today's movies?
Rajagopal: It's a personal story, which is based on my childhood memory in which my father was part of it. It's a commissioned piece by the museum with a specific theme of a piece of nostalgia. I too saw the common theme in today's shorts, and credit must go to the curator.
Michael: I didn't really think about what the relationship is, but what's the kind of goodbye you can say to someone. The passing away of a relative makes for a sad piece, and my priority was not to do a sad piece, but somehow to laugh about it. It's my goodbye to my dad, of reminiscence, and laughter.
Yee-wei: It's a little love letter to my past, and how I input the episodes all in one piece. Like the proverbial drawer we're told not to open. People like to explore, and not everything here is based on my own parents!

Q: All the films seemed to be anchored in a specific cultural background?
Yee-wei: I've got no strategy except wanting to tell a story that was interesting. It had to be set at the time it was, where there was VHS tape players. For example I think one of the fears was for a tape to be stuck inside the player, and you might have heard stories about it, but for the love of god you'd never want it to happen to yourself.
Michael: I tried to picture the kind of old traditional Chinese father, and used a skeleton to represent that. My initial intent was to base the story on that father figure we are familiar with.
Daniel: Every film will have some cultural, sociological background, and I didn't do anything specific.
Rajagopal: I've always used part of my childhood memory and life to make my films and that's my approach. i didn't think about it, and was just a response.

Beng Kheng: Your short has Chinese and Indian songs, do they represent moments from your life, or did you just include them for their part in cinematic history?
Rajagopal: The New World had screened lots of diverse films, and the strongest influence on me were the Indian films. As for the song "Moon River" I've always heard it in English, and to hear it in Chinese, I wanted to put it into the film.
Daniel: There were a number of films in your film, did they mean something to you for them to be included?
Rajagopal: Yes I specifically shoe the films and songs I heard and remembered.

Q: There seemed to be a focus on the women in your lead's life, with the female classmate whom he has a crush on, and the replacement teacher.
Daniel: There's one more woman too, his mom. It's a very feminine film with no strong male figure, and it seemed that his life has been subconsciously led by females.

Q: What were the difficulties faced when making your film?
Yee-wei: This was a one-time permission obtained by MDA to screen the movie during this festival. There's another censored R21 version I have. Most of the problems were because of the red tape faced, despite the other challenge of getting parents of potential kids to agree to making the movie. Most times when I send them the script, I get no response after that! With the HDB flat, we had found a suitable apartment and flat which was in an empty block going to be pulled down. While approvals were obtained from the Town Council, HDB rejected us. In a last move where I didn't had much hope for success, I wrote to the MP of the constituency Prof. Jayakumar, and I didn't expect a return call from the HDB with the approval after that!
Michael: It's the usual challenge of getting permission for locations. For me it was easy this time because it's set in one location and the rest are green-screened. It really is a great test of how creative you are with given resources, and to work within your means.
Daniel: I was extremely lucky with all the help given to me.
Rajagopal: I have been making films a decade ago, and back then I had no help. This time it's easy because of friends who helped for free. The credits list might be long, but it helps.


I didn't get advanced tickets for this week, and joined the wait list queue. The Substation despite its smaller venue, still managed to accommodate everyone, although it was quite a squeeze and you'll have to practice some serious mind over matter to stay cool and feel that you're not in a cell. Anyway enough gripes, as next week's venue will still be at the Substation, so please make sure you hit the correct venue. Blank Rounds by Green Zeng has unfortunately pulled out, but you can bet there's no lack of controversy given the screening of Martyn See's Speakers Cornered. See you there!

Friday, July 18, 2008

Art of the Devil 3 (Long Khong 2)


I suppose Thai horror movies are still popular and continue to enjoy theatrical releases in Singapore, and black magic still intrigues and provide numerous amount of material from which movies draw upon to conjure another round of scary movies. Black Magic's the dark arts in some parts of cultures of the east, and I still remember vividly some of the Hong Kong movies which elevated the Thai black arts as something horrific and truly scary, for a kid anyway.

While there are the usual spirit based stories from the well made Shutter to Dorm, Thai black magic somehow still provide that extra scare that's right up the alley of the West's torture porn genre. But practitioners usually require a great amount of skill and sacrifice in order to master such magic, and retribution is key to stories where revenge forms the basis for anyone wishing to acquire such abilities.

There's some confusion in the title Art of the Devil 3, that I shall revert to its English version of Long Khong 2. The reason being, the first Art of the Devil movie (titled Khon Len Khong, which I have not watched, but have on DVD) stars Supaksorn Chaimongkol as the protagonist exacting revenge on those who have abused her. Then Art of the Devil 2 (Long Khong) was a story about a schoolteacher Ms Panor (Napakpapha Nakprasitte) exacting revenge on her students. However, Long Khong has absolutely no relations to Khon Len Khong, only having black magic as a common denominator between the two, and Long Khong 2 instead ties in with Long Khong, except that the series of events here happened before those in the original, hence Long Khong 2 is actually the prequel.

Confused? Well, just wait until you get to the way the story was told here. In most cases, sequels (or prequels for that matter) build on the predecessor movie, and the audience would be expected to be fairly familiar with the characters. But watching Long Khong 2, I felt one would be better off in having no background knowledge from the previous film, and approach this clean. Unless you've watched Long Khong just before this one, your memory might need a little jog since it was released 2 years ago, and you might be fuzzy with proceedings, and start to ask unnecessary questions to try and piece together both timelines. It didn't help of course that Long Khong had flashbacks that touch on events that happen to be covered again in Long Khong 2 (also unfortunately done in some parts with flashbacks), and you're more than likely to do a double take, distracting you from what is current.

So we have recurring characters like Ms Panor the principle character who we follow and learn how she obtains her powers, Sommart Priahirun as the lecherous father and Namo Tonggumnera as Tah, while new ones like Suppakorn Kitsuwan (who was excellent in Wisit Sasanatieng's Mon-rak Transistor) joins the fray as Dit, a man obsessed with black magic and having within him uncontrollable powers that eat away his very being. To save himself, he must possess the Three-Eyed Devil, which resides in Ms Panor, and the two set themselves up for a climatic duel, only to have that turn out very limp.

Unfortunately for us in Singapore, despite its R21 rating, we still get this in edited format. Worse, these jarring cuts were made usually at the final moments of a black magic delivery, cutting away most of the gore that audiences turned up in droves for. Even the movie's climatic scene as suggested in the trailers, the one involving pins and the human eye, doesn't get spared the censor's scissors, and what's left intact of course were the more tamer sequences that even made Final Destination look better. And you'd have to wait quite a while before sorcery gets used, and when it got delivered in edited mode, you can't help but to feel short changed. Some deja-vu moments courtesy from scenes covered in the earlier movie didn't help too, making this feel like it's running on repeat.

This is one movie that the trailer had made it to be more frightening that it actually was, but for those curious to want to see this despite the edits, heed my advice - if you've watched Long Khong, rent the DVD to watch it again just before you watch Long Khong 2, but if you haven't, then forget it and watch this first, before the previous movie.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Dark Knight

This Is My City

Before you continue, as a Bat-fan I can't help it but to celebrate The Dark Knight because Christopher Nolan hit the nail squarely on the head again, giving us possibly THE definitive version of a Batman movie involving The Joker, wait, make that THE definitive Batman movie to date after Batman Begins, unless he tops The Dark Knight with a follow up (Warner Brothers would be mad to hand over the mantle to somebody else at this point). So if you're looking for a standard review of the movie, go somewhere else. Otherwise, allow this fan to indulge in plenty of fawning over what went EXACTLY RIGHT, and with my MASSIVE SPOILER WARNING, do not proceed any further until you've seen the movie, and want to discuss it a bit. Here we go!

Welcome to a world where Heath Ledger rules. Believe the hype surrounding his portrayal of Gotham's clown prince of crime, where his every little gesture mesmerizes, and is simple, effective and downright scary. That's right, scary. I remembered when he was first casted there were plenty of skepticism, just like how Michael Keaton was first casted in the role of Batman. But Ledger owned this role, and made it one of a kind, surpassing every other actor that took the role before him, and would take a monumental effort for anyone who comes after to top what he did.

There are those who took to Jack Nicholson's version as the best out there, so much so as to swear they saw the last minute eye twitch, or having a body double excuse, and the cartoon version with Mark Hamill's voicing of the character as having the best voice acting. Heath tops both with giving us a Joker leaping right out of the comic books coupled with his own creative flair, where he's just plain insane, but always, despite what he says, having a plan (and a big ambitious one at that) and exhibiting that he's just as intellectually an equal to Batman when it comes to a war of the minds. But what makes him truly dangerous, is his freehand toward execution and violence, with classic throwbacks to episodes from the books stretching all the way back to Batman #1, what with his issuing of midnight deadlines, and snooking everyone including the cops and the dark knight with his killings planned way in advance. This Joker shows absolutely no remorse for anything, and there was no need to dumb down his character by having to play up on the Clown factor and have him do silly tricks or spout (un)funny lines like the version from the predecessor franchise. There is no absolute need, even to excessively give out a maniacal laughter all the time, and who would've guessed a simple pencil would prove to be one of the most memorable violent gags, and one that defined the character in a brutally efficient manner?

And the posthumous Oscar? Well, not to damper the spirits of many out there, I thought the strength of his portrayal, stemmed from the rich storyline that Christopher and Jonathan Nolan, and David Goyer too, crafted based out of the distilled essence right out of the comic books. While we've heard of how so-and-so are fans of certain comic books, and were made writers/directors of some superhero movies, what we got usually as an end result are messy movies. I don't need to name names here. It's always about the story, and the writers have to dig beneath the surface to truly provide us a story that doesn't insult the intelligence of the audience. The Dark Knight ups the ante and throws down the gauntlet to every aspiring comic-book adaptation filmmaker out there to distance themselves from mediocrity.

Nolan-Nolan-Goyer nailed plenty of stuff in this film, one of which was the symbiotic relationship on the existence of both Batman and his arch nemesis The Joker. Frankly, one doesn't exist without the other, and becomes a constant plot point that many writers out there had already covered. But watching it take a life of its own on screen, was a real treat, an indication that the filmmakers really respected and understood the characters and their motivations inside out. That actually explains the longevity of Batman as a character of more than 80 years old, because it is the quality of his villains that ensured his popularity. With a rich rogues gallery filled to the brim with psychologically disturbed characters, Nolan, to paraphrase a line in the movie, truly provided s a different class of criminals from what we had experienced from the earlier movies which were not helmed by him, criminals from the rogues gallery who do not possess sesame street kind of friendly demeanour that don't strike fear and make you think that they could really hurt you bad.

Then comes along my favourite character with Harvey Dent/Two-Face, who in Batman Forever, was reduced to a Joker wannabe buffoon, totally without his psychological problems which made this character great. He's a tragic character, and The Dark Knight played him right, coupled with some eye popping (pardon the pun) prosthetics, make up and effects to bring to life his innate alter-ego. In the earlier franchise, we don't get to see much of Gordon, and even Dent made just a cameo appearance with Billy Dee Williams, before Tommy Lee Jones took over. Here, Aaron Eckhart too made this tragic character his own, complete with the corruption in his supposedly fair and honest scarred-coin toss, and disfigured face, seeking revenge for the unfortunate events that befallen him. The gem of his character comes from the interaction with The Joker, which unlike the Penguin-Catwoman clear-cut alliance, has plenty more in depth pathos fused into that short meeting of the minds. That scene alone, is worth the price of an admission ticket, and makes you wonder who the pawn in this game truly is.

The other scene which scored, was the formation of the trinity of hope, between Gordon, Dent and Batman. Drawing inspiration from countless of comic book material, this is a MUST have, considering the amount of potential the story had decided to go along with, and delivered perfectly. Whoever Gordon captures, gets charged by Dent, and if fallen through the cracks, then Batman will be there to mop it up. Dent is the daytime crimefighter who's out in the open, and true to the books, Batman always feels remorseful for who Dent will become, having to thrust him into the limelight and suffer consequences, for clearly he is the true hero without the need to hide behind a mask to protect his identity. While this alliance proved to be highly effective, just as in The Long Halloween storyline, having to see them fall from grace is one of the key plot points that makes this movie memorable. They won the battle, but lost the war, having one of their own fall into the clutches and entrapment of the villain. And by the time the end credits roll, this couldn't be more true as a sense of bereavement started to overwhelm.

Plenty of other moments as well continue to plough onto the plus list of The Dark Knight. Things like the relationship and trust between Gordon and Batman taking a huge leap forward from where we left off in Begins, and how rooftop interrogation remained a staple method by the Batman. Christian Bale continues his playboy antics with the Bruce Wayne character, although as in the Year One book, he does risk it a little by having to intervene in daylight, complete with motorcycle and crash helmet which I thought was a nod to Year One's direction. Jim Gordon too got a larger role here, and again Nolan understood that Gordon's a chief ally and can never ever be accorded the woeful characterization as played by Pat Hingle ever again.

Christopher Nolan clearly took some action-directing classes after feedback from audiences and listening to fans everywhere that we can't really see a thing in Batman Begins' fight sequences, and here, we get something more decent, and watchable when Bats gets into fisticuffs with thugs. While the action sequences make for great excitement and entertainment, Nolan too decided not to forget about the Detective in Dark Knight Detective, giving Bruce Wayne some ample opportunity to do some investigative sleuthing while in and out of costume. While I really disliked the Bat-pod from scenes from trailers, seeing it in action make me take back my words. Taking a leaf out of the Bat-missile from Batman Returns, here we get another sleek vehicle as a by-product of the main one, and put to good use here, especially with a specific stunt, and with the Joker forever taunting Bats to break his one golden rule about the taking of lives. Detractors of the Batmobile will rejoice as well, as it is likely we may look at another different design in future episodes, just like how in the comic books, this vehicle continue to evolve all the time.

Oh, and flying the Singapore flag sky high, is actor Ng Chin Han (credited as Chin Han here). The last time I remembered vividly where a prominent Singaporean actor who got a role in a big Hollywood blockbuster with lines, was Ivan Heng in Luc Besson's 5th Element, coincidentally, he was exchanging dialogue opposite Gary Oldman. Despite the mentioning of Singapore in Batman Begin being a transit point for Wayne's shipments, the movie decided to base Batman's cinematic excursion out of Gotham to Hong Kong instead, where there were some unhappiness amongst the residents with the cast and crew's presence in the territory and the plan for Batman to jump into the famed harbour was aborted due to pollution. Well, I'm pretty sure there'll be no such issues with him jumping into the Singapore River, and that our film industry here will likely welcome everyone with open arms, but then again, the character of a villainous businessman with triad links might have been a little unbelievable here given our reputation for being squeaky clean. Anyway, when in Hong Kong, Edison Chen's involvement drew some big hoo-har, but too bad, it's a blink and you miss role, probably cut to distant the film from his shameful scandals. But Chin Han on the other hand, had substantial dialogue, action, and played opposite every major character in the movie.

The Dark Knight is a brilliant film. Everything was done right, stemming from a totally rich and in depth story that never failed to deliver its punches where it mattered, and frankly speaking, caught me off guard a number of times with its superb sleight of hand technique. Every one of the A-list cast lived up to their potential, and evergreens from the previous movie like Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, have a lot more to do this time round. I enjoyed every bit of Lucius Fox's involvement in the plot, seeing how he took over from Gordon in the climax, while Alfred, well, seemed to be on the receiving end of one particular witty jibe from Bruce, which is indeed rare.

This is hands down THE movie of the year for me to date, and it'll really take a lot to knock it off its perch. I suggest you rush out of the door right now, get yourself tickets and watch it. I'm going to do so again. I believe in Christopher Nolan, and Bat-fans around the world would have followed suit too.
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