3.5.06

Singapore Black Movies?

Lu Hsiao Fen looked at her torturers - she did not hate them as much as she despised them. Even her long curly hair expressed her disgust.

"You want to see my scar?" She spat, "Look! Look all you like - " and proceeded to rip her translucent white shirt apart.

The men gasped.

"Ha!" Her face in a sneer (the camera then pans from her barely covered bra-less chest down to the top of her trousers.) "There's another there if you want to see!"


At this point of this clip from The Shanghai Society Files(1981?), the audience of the documentary Taiwan Black Movies burst out laughing.

In the documentary a film critic tried to explain the explosion of a genre of "social realist" or rather "social sensationalist" films in Taiwan from 1978-1982. These films depicted gangs, convicts (reformed or not), lady avengers, murders, gang rapes, corrupted officials (in an imaginary communist state of course)and other assorted acts of violence/crime/injustice. His reason was that at that time, with a strict KMT-controlled censorship regime, political suppression, and coupled with all kinds of social anxieties as women entered the workforce, a booming economy and Taiwan's expulsion from the UN and APEC, cinema had to be escapist.

Yet the escapism in these "black movies" were an odd combination of supposed "realism" in escapist situations. Because these films, like the tabloid press, had claimed to be the true depictions of society - grime, grit and all - an audience could find in them all that they feared in a socially disruptive environment. Yet because their ability to seek resolutions through political engagement has been suppressed, they found relief in the simple, moralistic, yet deceptively exploitative films. During the 90mins in the dark, people were, paradoxically, reminded of yet released from their anxieties. (images from the black movie "Shanghai Society Files")

Two hours later, J and I caught another film at the Singapore Int'l Film Fest. The closing honours for the festival was reserved for Singaporean Royston Tan's 4:30.

Named for the quietest time of the night, when only the lonely are awake, the film is told through the eyes of an 11 year-old boy who lives alone (his mother is working in Beijing and his father is noticeably absent) with a 30ish Korean male tenant. It was an extended piece on isolation - the loneliness, longing, desperation, boredom and in the quiet, every unvoiced frustration and sorrow the audience can imagine. It was an improvement from 15 (excellent as a short film but a tedious, mis-directed feature). 4:30 was really moving in some parts, but as a whole, the film felt derivative.

With all that election buzz in the air and having just watched Taiwan Black Movies, I wondered what did the recent crop of Singapore films say about Singapore cinema and society? That when cinema engages with a social issue, we could only resort to the preachy 1-dimensional comedy of Jack Neo's I Not Stupid 1&2. Then we have our ghost stories - hauntings by the oppressed members of our society. And our art films - made for the film festival circuit - insistent on the still small off-centre heart of the lone Singaporean - boy, glutton, lesbian, hawker necrophiliac, self-mutilitating gangster/prostituting teen, frustrated/daydreaming taxi-driver.

Darktropic
Dark Tropic - image by J

Like it or not, these seem to be, for now, the stories our cinema tell. These are our cinematic strategies to escape from the flat whiteness of our political landscape to the fetishized, imagined dark life. And if you are unmoved by this fiction, perhaps like me you will find more art in the documentary. :>

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