Showing posts with label film. Show all posts
Showing posts with label film. Show all posts


against time and place

Friends, go watch The Impossibility of Knowing by Tan Pin Pin at the Singapore Art Museum as part of the Singapore Biennale 2011. It is screened together with another new film by Tan Pin Pin, Snow City and four other films.

For all the criticism that the Singapore Biennale seems to be getting in the press and as part of the general reception, the works at 8Q SAM seemed to be pitched just about right in terms of accessibility, criticality and... er, indoor temperature. For me at least, most of the works at 8Q all had this dual quality: one is the aesthetic, peculiarity and assertion of a singular or individual vision; and two, the encounter of a collective or common reality, memory or experience. In some ways, this tension or conversation between the individual and the collective is art's unique value and contribution.

But perhaps one should not expect a Biennale platform to always achieve that "just about right".

Unlike the public museum or any other institutional presentation, the Biennale platform should allow for some incongruence, error and dissonance between the curatorial or artistic and public or audience expectations.

Its advantage is that, as a form, it need not be inhibited by an institutional mission, collection or space/physical infrastructure - an advantage that allows it to be "ahead of its time", "off centre" in its approach, or even completely "missing the mark" in some aspects.

Its challenge, however, is that such advantage comes with a price tag so large that it often requires significant city or federal government funding. In the case of Singapore, where art's primary patron is still the government or rather public funds, a certain structure of accountability for the use of public funds is necessary; and with that, perhaps less room for "failure" or "dissonance".

It is a tall order: to feel right in its time and place, yet to go just that bit further to stretch the public's imagination of where, when and why.


truth or dare

insane/love (狂/愛)

I've shortlisted only 3 films from this year's Singapore Film Festival. A record low! The truth is, without a physical programme booklet and the website's tedious navigation, I gave up after two rounds of reviewing the programme online. But I guess my cautious approach is entirely in line with this year's rather flat (*yawn*) programming:
- Yan Lei (Tears), directed by Cheng Wen-Tang
- Dear Doctor, directed by Miwa Nishikawa
- Jao Nok Krajok (Mundane History), directed by Anocha Suwichakornpong

Friends, may you possess more daring in clicking on the "Buy Tix" button.


a drifting line

Click on each image for a larger view

JasN (B in the above sequence) suggested that we record our experience listening to and queuing for the inspiring Yoshihiro Tatsumi in a single panel drawing. Being less disciplined, we needed fifteen panels instead to mark the start and end of our groupie fanboy/girl days. And of course, the amazing 74 year-old artist wins our respect for his tireless dedication to signing/drawing for the line...

Well friends, while we enjoyed our Sunday afternoon pondering the intricacies of whether one should order 10 packets of prawn mee if there was a long queue standing behind, we recommend that your afternoons are better spent reading his short, sharp and shock(ing) stories instead. They have been collected, translated and published by Drawn and Quarterly in three volumes thus far.

The manga master's lengthier autobiographical tome A Drifting Life moves at a less punishing pace, but nonetheless leaves you wanting to read more. If so, there's Singaporean film maker Eric Khoo's animated adaptation of A Drifting LIfe (artist Brian Gothong Tan will also work on the project) to look forward to.


watch design

Video from here. More from the Herb and Dorothy website.

A librarian and postal clerk amass lots of art in their tiny New York apartment. Sounds like the premise for a short story? Well, it's one of many films you can watch at the Design Film Festival.

I guess there are enough films about architects and designers (and the odd collector) - those folks who create so much of what we live in and live with - that they could constitute a genre of their own. Anyway, J and I are just glad two of our interests are coming together at this festival from 20-30 January at Sinema/Old School. Click here to find out more.

Writing this, I am also reminded of designers Charles and Ray Eames and the short films they made as another way to record or communicate their ideas; including the still amazing Powers of 10. Enjoy.

Video from this youtube link, but you can also view it from the official website that requires just a simple registration process.


here, not there

After Transformers on Wednesday, I can confidently say Here was definitely more enjoyable. It was playful and beautifully filmed, playing up the density of nature and the cold concrete of the hospital. Friends, if you are thinking of visiting the cinema today, why not spend your 90minutes and $8.50 on a film by Singapore artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen at the Picturehouse/Cathay?

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Here's film-within-a-film (within-a-film...) structure is not new. But it did give rise to some interesting devices. The mockumentary and multiple "videos" made of and by the mental patients constantly shift the audience's gaze, keeping our curiosity about the screen. In one transition, the closeup of a tree outside a window blurs seamlessly into what an impressionist rendering of the image would be, a sublime moment of nature, colour and transformation that takes the viewer in.

Another device of introducing each character via a shot of their signature on a consent form (consent for participating in the "documentary") takes place throughout almost 90% of the film. This serves as a kind of default opening credits. Of course, this could mean that the film that we are watching is, in effect, only the repeated opening and closing sequence of the lead actor killing his wife, followed by his arrival at the Island Mental Hospital.

This loop of action and arrival - is it meant to reflect the mental patients' state of being trapped in their particular moment of criminal action or obsession? Or is it in fact reflective of their conscious choice to remain in their "here" and "inside", the safe "island hospital" where they are happily drugged and made to perform repetitive tasks that aim to condition them for the world "outside"?

"The island hospital", supposed to be previously an actual asylum. Photo taken from here

For J, the film was rescued from contrivance by the "non-acting" of the amateur actors, giving it the charm of a mockumentary. Plus you can't deny the humour with some of the characterisation and situations. The wannebe-actress auntie and the toastmaster man...J recalls and impersonates over lunch today.

But for me, there are places where the film's cleverness inevitably runs into contrivance. Scattered through the film are the usual predictable references to the state of being "here in Singapore", an island. The hospital assistants are dressed in a white shirt and trousers, held up by a black belt (*yawn*). The hospital is called "Island". The patients fantasise about being watched by an abandoned house on a hill. The cleverness of the film is, of course, whether the patients' paranoia reflect the state of paranoid fear among us islanders, or whether the audience's reading into these signs is itself a sign of our self-reflexive paranoia. Are we reading too much as an audience? How much is this a critique of the audience's condition "here" on this island, a conscious choice to remain in a safety zone?

At the end of the film, the narrative suggests a romance instead. We are first prepped for this by the nostalgic strains of 80s song <我找到自己> by Liu Wen Zheng, a musical cue borrowed from Tsai Ming Liang's inspired use of Ge Lan's music in his films. The final shot, resting on a female mental patient (acted by Jo Tan), confirms their enduring and redemptive relationship. Perhaps the decision to settle for a sort of emotional resonance provided a necessary balance and relief.

And so expelled back out there, we were able to go for a late dinner of fish and chips.

For an interview with Ho Tzu Nyen on his film, see this blog and here. Criticine also features another interview.

Post-script: Singapore comix found this journal article about the day release scheme for patients at the previous View Road Hospital, where the film was shot.


from another island

outer/space (外/星)
image by J, in a Taipei pub/cafe

On the way to the cinema last evening...
J: What's the film about?
Y: Er...something about migrant workers in Taiwan.
J: Hmm, why did we decide to watch this? The tickets are really expensive!
Y:I don't know...I think we got tickets because it's a Taiwanese film!

It's been several years since we last caught the opening film of the Singapore Film Festival. The last time was probably Makhmalbaf' Kandahar in 2002. I remember that the opening and closing films were screenings I always looked forward to - Wong Kar Wai's Happy Together, Edward Yang's YiYi and A Brighter Summer Day, Ann Hui's Ordinary Heroes, Tsai Mingliang's The Hole... films by established directors that cinema operators at that time did not want to take a risk with (but now do).

This year, we were initially skeptical about Rich Lee's Sincerely Yours (Chinese title reads: Qilutiantang ~ On the way to heaven). Was the SIFF budget so stretched that it is opening with a debut film by a film academic-turned-director? But Sincerely Yours did not disappoint.

Trust the academic to make a first film with all the textbook ingredients! The actors were convincing, attractive and likeable. The narrative played with every conceivable emotion - the classic 喜怒哀樂 - happiness and joy of lovers fulfilled and at play; awkwardly comic moments (actress Yang Gui Mei grimacing when she learns that a Film Festival wants to programme a retrospective of her films; men costumed as Chinese deities dancing in a Thai disco); anxiety if a "theft" would be discovered; anger at unjust treatment of the workers; sorrow and sadness on occasions of partings and selfless suffering. It had a evocative soundtrack and a very apt theme song - Taiwanese electronic pop veteran Lim Giong's love song 愛情研究院, sung at times by the leads in their Thai and Indonesian-accented Hokkien.

Movie still

For us, the film worked because the first-time director had sufficient discipline and restraint. It was a film that could easily exploit the pitiful plight of the migrant workers, candy-coat the cross cultural relationships, further vilify the abusive "employers" and chastise the unforgiving and indifferent globalised city. Imagine Jack Neo in the director's seat!

Instead, Rich Lee's script left room for the characters to breathe and to take their own decisions, even if only within the limits of their economic and legal situation. There was a certain dignity. In so doing, the script also left open situations which invites questions, but for which the answers may not matter. Was it inevitable that the lead actress would one day become a karaoke hostess, and what does that change? Was the lead actor being cheated by his fellow countryman, and does it matter if he is? What does one's religious faith mean in a foreign land, a cultural expression, a personal faith, a way to stand apart or to draw closer? Is it possible to compare suffering - is physical pain more enviable a state than poverty? Or that perennial question - was it true love?

Before the film's screening, Rich Lee mentioned that Singapore was an appropriate place for his film's international premiere given its "multicultural/lingual/religious" environment. With similar restraint, he stopped short of saying that this island is an apt venue because it is also an island that relies heavily on transient foreign workforce, though he did add a general comment in that the maturity of a society can be measured by how it treats and relates to its temporary migrant population.

Friends, the point of this post is not so much to recommend a film that has already been screened, but to say that it's not too late to get your tickets and support the rest of the Festival!

Finally, as a treat for all you 世界的男男女女,here's the Karaoke/MTV of Lim Giong in the early 90s (?) singing 愛情研究院 (i.e. Luuurveve Research Institute!).


asking for answers

nature/unnature (稙/器)
image by J

And my unimaginative answer, similar with half of the folks interviewed, would be "home/my bed". See the film project "Fifty People. One Question" here. Friends, what would your answer be?


family history

For someone who counts film as a...hmm, second third love, I've never been drawn to watch the Academy Awards ceremony. The only televised film award ceremony I've sat through is Taiwan's Golden Horse, as a kind of teaser for what films to look out for during the Singapore film festival or on DVD. One of these films was Wu Nien Jen, 吳念真's film A Borrowed Life or Duo Sang (mangled shortform for "father" in Japanese).

I had bought a copy of its screenplay almost ten years ago, but it was only at our recent trip to Taiwan that I found an inexpensive copy of its DVD and finally watched the film.

But first, who is Wu Nien Jen? To most folks in Singapore, he is probably recognised as the older man in the Jolin Tsai Visit Taiwan TV commercial below.

Of course, he got to be the "Visit Taiwan" ambassador because he is also well-known as a prolific writer for the cinema, having crafted screenplays for countless films since the 70s (e.g. Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness), and an actor for half as many films (e.g. the lead in Edward Yang's fantastic Yiyi). His 1994 directorial debut A Borrowed LIfe is a restrained yet moving film.

When Wu directed A Borrowed Life or Duo-sang, he perhaps had picked up from Hou the habit of keeping the camera a respectful distance from the characters, literally framing the individual histories against a larger social and historical backdrop. But A Borrowed Life is, if nothing else, about personal history.

The premise seems typical enough - the narrator is a Taiwanese boy growing up in a coal mining community, eventually goes to the university and forms a family in the city. But the film is, more accurately, about the narrator's observation and remembrance of his father's life - a coal miner who had grown up during Japan's largely benevolent rule over Taiwan, remains enamored with Japan (he is referred to in the film as "Sega", and his children call him "Duo-sang"), and dies of a lung disease without fulfilling his dream of visiting Mount Fuji and the Imperial Gardens.

The English title "A Borrowed Life" is apt in several ways. The film borrows from Wu's own life - he, too, was a son of a coal miner. The narrator, the eldest son, remains almost fiercely filial to Sega throughout the father despite Sega's shortcomings (his biggest vice was gambling), conscious of a son's debt to his father - a life borrowed from one spent in coal mines. Sega is representative of a generation lose to modern Taiwan - a generation for whom Mandarin is not a native language, a generation that had grown up under a Japanese schools and riding Japanese railways. Sega's life is one of borrowings from cultures foreign and distant - Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese modernity.

I am reminded of Pa J and his strange defence of all things Chinese (as in People's-Republic-of-China Chinese), including his insistence that Taiwan is a renegade province that should be "reunited" with China. Strange because he left that country for Malaya at the age of 8 or 9. Yet any relative from China, however distant, is welcomed by Pa J with open arms today. He keeps track of developments of his extended family in China via frequent phone calls. In fact, he even disapproves when any vaguely disparaging comments, even in jest, are made relating to China. At the same time, it is not so strange. Despite having spent most of his 70-odd years on this island, besides the few family relations he maintains, there is very little on this island today - its culture (heh, did you say "what culture"), its people, its society - that Pa J can connect emotionally with.

p/s. The 22nd Singapore Int'l Film Fest (better logo this year!) is coming soon! For preview of its website, click here. Tickets are supposed to go on sale 14 March only.


what is XXXXL and 18 Grams light/heavy?

3/men (三/人)
This is what we've been doing instead of blogging about Taiwan.Click on images for larger flickr view.

The good folks at this research-driven architecture and ID studio moved not too long ago into one of the best offices in Singapore - the previous campus of the Trinity Theological College at the top of Mt Sophia (i.e. right next to Old School). More specifically, the company is housed in the College's beautiful 1969 chapel, its roof shaped to resemble the Chinese word for man "人" leading to a cross.

They asked if we could make some art for the large glass surfaces in their office, and we could not resist such flattery (heh)! Even harder to resist was their motivation and the brief they gave us - to create works that reflected their ethos and the site, engaged and were not too inaccessible to most folks, and resolved some "practical" issues of light/reflection/identity.

good/world (好/界)
"and it was good" - cities, trees and daydreams on a meeting room

J and I really admired their open profession of their Christian faith in a professional context, and how it seemed to ground the folks who ran the studio. As such, we made 3 illustrations inspired by Genesis and around the idea of creation/creativity, trying to tease out the kinds of relationships - positive or antagonistic - between creation/creativity that is divine or human. 2 of the 3 illustrations also continue the whole train-series we've been making, except that the idea of sleep and repose takes on a new dimension in a space that used to be a chapel! As you can see, we are really excited about seeing our usual images XXXXlarge and watching the folks walking by interact with them.

He/Names (他/名)
"to each of them he gave a name" - balloon animals, labour and rest, flesh and air, reality and fiction on the external wall

architecture/tree (築/樹)
"union" - 2 versions of a tree, natural and urban habitat

So friends, if you happen to be at Mount Sophia (like you wanted to get some exercise!) and if you see anyone coming out from the chapel-now-turned-design-studio, tell them how you much you like the illustrations on their walls! Of course, don't let loose that you've received specific instructions to do so by us...

And if you need an excuse to troop up to Mount Sophia, here's a good one: the screenings at Sinema at Old School. On the strong recommendation of friends, we will be watching Han Yew Kwang's 18 Grams of Love , last shown at this year's Singapore Int'l Film Festival. Watch and find out how much love really weighs.

So far, the reviews have been positive. We saw Han Yew Kwang's 2006 comedy Unarmed Combat on DVD and found it a very watchable debut feature film.

To find out more about the film:
> Watch the trailer here.
> Read a review of the film here and here, or an interview with the director here.
> Check out the Film's schedule at Sinema here. It will be screened daily from 4-13 December, but there's usually only 1 screening a day.
> Better yet, go watch the film itself!

To get to Old School and the previous Trinity Theological College campus: Take the train to the Dhoby Ghaut MRT. Exit the station and cross the road to MacDonald House. Walk towards the new condominium 8 Mt Sophia, and you'll find a flight of steps leading to the top of Mt Sophia. Take a deep breath (or two) and trek up. If you survive, both Old School and the ex-theological college are right across the road.


dvd memories

Get this now. Comes with a limited edition Invisible City poster at Kinokuniya and Books Actually.

Despite this being a small island, I'm a little ashamed to confess that I don't have any recollection of ever having been to Lim Chu Kang - no memories, I imagine, of its squishy red earth, low houses, damp greenery or live animals.

J and I had wanted to catch these 2 documentaries that investigate the filmmaker's memories of the community and subsequent development of Lim Chu Kang, but we have somehow always missed the screenings. If you're like us, don't miss the upcoming screenings at the Arts House on 19-20 September. Tickets are available here.


when I was a child

when I was a child
...I thought like a child - new painting after months!

At the beginning of the film Taxidermia by Hungarian Gyorgi Palfi, a narrator drawls on that "it is only towards the end that the beginning becomes important" (or something like this).

In a film that is really 3 short short films on 3 generations of men and their accidental fathering of the next, you are invited to witness a grotesque parade of physical (and sexual) deprivation, followed by excess made into sport and ultimately greed, then the slow paring away as skin sheds flesh and all other semblance of life. Of course, running parallel to the men's stories are post-war Hungary (a land-locked state trapped still in its feudal society), Communist Hungary and, I guess, today's republic. Their lives reflective of, yet strangely displaced in these 3 transformations of their society.

This is a rather dull summary of a visually rich and entertaining film! I assure you the cinema laughing, cringing, squirming and fairly nauseated. [I think it is still screening, though probably at odd times, at the PictureHouse.]

The film aside, it was the narrator's initial statement that stuck because it reminded me of critic Edward Said's memoir Out of Place I was reading.

Said died in 2003, having struggled with leukemia for several years. In the preface, he wrote of how his illness and the closeness of death set him the writing of a memoir - revisiting his childhood in Cairo and Palestine, and all the associated ambiguities in the inexplicable genesis of his seemingly English name, his Christian family, his long period away from Palestine, his adopted American home and the contradictions or ironies these seem to pose with his criticism and works on Orientalism, the Palestinian state, American imperialism etc. It is towards the end that the beginning becomes important.

It is a quietly reflective and sometimes difficult book. It is difficult in its honesty about Said's feelings towards his parents, family, homes. Reading Said's memoir somehow also brings out just how difficult growing up can be! For all the romanticism surrounding childhood, being a child is perhaps not easy. The uncertainties and insecurities. The need to de-code the adults' insinuations and whispers with what little you are given to know.

One of the words I learnt from reading Edward Said years ago while I was in university that I will always remember is palimpsest

palimpsest \PAL-imp-sest\, noun:
1. A manuscript, usually of papyrus or parchment, on which more than one text has been written with the earlier writing incompletely erased and still visible.
2. An object or place whose older layers or aspects are apparent beneath its surface.


flowers' city

bubbles (泡)
bubble city - image by J

There is nothing correct - politically speaking - about Saint Jack, the 1979 film by Peter Bogdanovich based on Paul Theroux's novel of the same name.

A Chinese shopkeeper repeatedly refers to the American pimp Jack Flowers (Peter Gazzara) as ang moh, and eventually gets chided by the deadpan Jack "hey, you don't want me to call you chink" (or something like that). The British colonial castoffs in Singapore get drunk, prance around in their undies, mumble some cynicism and sleep with the prostitutes Flowers pimps. The Americans are horny Michael Fays off to Vietnam or men in cowboy hats and big cars. And of course, our favourite Asian men are either loutish gangsters with no style even when they swear, a dwarf, grouchy suspicious old men in a shophouse (or behind the bar counter), or a pimply teenage male prostitute along Tanglin Road. The first Indian woman the camera has any interest in is a Ceylonese "black" beauty who later unravels her sari and becomes Flowers' bedmate. And there are plenty of Chinese tarts with hearts - for Jack the saint, of course - even his Ah Mah loves Jack enough to nag him to eat everytime she appears - "if don't eat you will die."

But despite or maybe because of all this, the film is not dishonest about its essentially white/caucasian, male view of this island in the 70s. And while the writer/director may intend for the island to be the other character in the film (in a pointed scene, Jack Flowers tells a British visitor the Sang Nila Utama story - and how he named the island Lion City after seeing Tigers - yeah), the truth is that this island, its people and its context, is but a backdrop for what is essentially a story about an American middle-aged drifter in the tropics who is both trapped and redeemed by his romance of being an American middle-aged drifter in the tropics.

The title "Saint" and his surname Flowers is therefore both innocence and crude irony - all the "de-flowered" women and boys. When the island gangsters capture and tatoo cheap insults all over both his arms, he goes and tatoos flowers over them. Hearing one of his prostitutes lament about her boyfriend, he promptly removes his watch and gives it to her for her to appease her man. But he is, after all, her pimp. Paid handsomely to take photographs of an American senator in a tryst with a male prostitute, he in his final "redemptive" act, decides to destroy the photographs (and in doing, destroys his lucrative business contract providing "R&R" to visiting GIs) - but we also see him walking back into the squalid streets of this island to pimp some more.

bright lights, big city (放蕩)
image by J

Even if you live on this island and watch only action/thrillers/horror flicks, Saint Jack will be enjoyable simply for the scenes of the old Seletar airport, Bugis when hawkers would walk by and place dildos for sale on the table (or so the film portrays) and prostitutes (transverstite?) would sport big white afro wigs a la a Wong Kar Wai character, the relatively unchanged Raffles Hotel, a Shangri La hotel that is seemingly set in the wild... bum boats carrying goods in the Singapore River and a grotty Clarke Quay before it was disneyfied for tourists and yuppies. Heck, so what if all this only perpetuates the idea of the seedily "exotic" East and our own sad, distorted nostalgia!

It's a surprisingly watchable film and Ben Gazzara's portrayal of Jack Flowers so effective attracts and repels.

p/s Saint Jack is available on DVD at HMV or your regular video store.



SOTA student recital - phone camera pic

When you've been buried in your work for a while, take a step back.

It's simple enough. Everyone knows.

Step1 back
This afternoon, I took some time off work to be at the School of the Arts, Singapore (SOTA) and caught 15mins of a short recital session by a few of their young music students. Watching the 13 and 14 year olds take their art seriously and interacting with teachers who, I think, are not only developing their students' skills, but in performing alongside their students, demonstrating the values of the arts - I came away hopeful about this island.

The value of an arts education is not a career in the "creative industries" or even being a "well-rounded" individual. It's a whole bunch of other stuff - discipline and persistence, confidence, openness to new ideas and (contrary to all the stereotypes of self-centred artists), respecting others, whether the artist for your audience, or the audience for the artist.

Q&A after keronchong for pak bakar at sinema - phone camera pic

Step 2 Back
The SIFF this year did not yield any real gems for J and I. But last Sunday, after watching this film, its simple lyricism was refreshing - as was a short chat we had with a friend on the grounds of "old school" about films and what seems, to me, possibilities.

When you've been buried in your work for a while, take a step back. Even if that step brings you to places where it's, arguably, still about your work. It's simple enough. Everyone knows. The need to see alternatives, sense possibilities, realise that there's still space - around, ahead - behind.


coming of age

At 21 years, the Singapore International Film Festival comes of age with a whole new section "Singapore Panorama" with 17 titles by Singaporean filmmakers! I'm glad the SIFF has persisted.

Someone at work had observed that in 2015 it would be our island's 50th national day as a republic and the Padang and City Hall would need to be used for a really elaborate national day parade. 2015 that would make it the 28th Singapore International Film Festival. At that instant, I was thinking that the 28th SIFF would strangely make me far happier and "proud" to be a resident of this island.

Anyway, such fuzzy "sense of belonging" aside, Us amps missed most of the films we bought tix for last year, but we are determined to make it for these screenings this year:

Singaporean filmmakers Tan Siok Siok's documentary Boomtown Beijing, Abdul Nizam Hamid's documentary on P Ramlee's cinematographer Kerongchong for Pak Bakar and the collective effort of 7 Lucky 7.
[photos from the SIFF website]

And these documentary and ficition films about jazz musicians in Indonesia (Teak Leaves at the Temple), Bob Dylan (I'm not There), photographer Anna Leibovitz (Annie Leibovitz: Life Through the Lens by her sister Barbara), my nationalist hero Sun Yat Sen set in this city(Road to Dawn) and weirdos in Canada (Brand Upon the Brain).

It's still not too late to get tickets online via the festival's website or at Sistic counters.


in passing

almost (近)
image by J of an altar of sorts for Ma J at Pa J's house

I've never been particularly drawn to Chua Ek Kay's paintings, but today I found myself compelled to pay my respects to the Singapore artist who died last Friday.

Mr Chua was only 61 when he died and according to some, at a point of his career where he was set to make new breakthroughs.

I find that remarkable. A couple of months ago, J was at the Singapore Tyler Print Institute where he saw some new works by Mr Chua. Mr Chua had started out working with Chinese ink, but in the later part of his career, moved on to work in oils and some 2 years ago, the print medium. What J saw were not only new print works, but paper-collage prints. What does it take for an artist in Singapore to have an artistic career, and more importantly, to develop artistically and remain open to new ideas, new techniques? How many of our artists today will, say 30 years later in their 60s, be able to boast of a similar career?

At the wake, one of Mr Chua's relatives spoke precisely of his open-ness to criticism and how, not too long ago, he was speaking to his family of some new ideas he was about to explore. Some months ago, I would have accounted for such "creative longevity" as commitment and dedication. Now, I would add to that, artistic humility.


Last night, J and I watched Edward Yang's Yi Yi (aka A One and a Two) again. The taiwanese filmmaker died mid 2007 at the age of 59.

In a way, death pervades the 2000 film Yi Yi. Death - and some sort of the filmmaker's manifesto.

Yang has always been telling stories of Taipei urbanites and their contradictory, random, cruel, pathetic, loving, exploitative and entirely human relationships in a society that is both cutthroat-materialistic yet strangely idealistic. His previous film Terrorizers, Confucian Confusion, Mahjong (A Brighter Summer Day set in 50s Taiwan sets the stage for contemporary Taipei), through different lenses, tell of this. Yi Yi, with the somewhat dreamy Jian family pit against these harsher realities, almost sums up these relationships and situations in earlier films.

The only person spared such grief is Grandma Jian who at the start of the film suffers a fall/stroke and throughout the film, remains in a coma at the Jian apartment.

Death - or at least the living death of a coma - demands that each Jian family member should try to share their day's experiences out loud with Grandma Jian. Their brief monologues or their inability to speak manifest the characters' own inner struggles. 8 year old grandson Yang Yang (perhaps Edward Yang's alter-ego) refuses to speak. His reason being that there is nothing that Grandma Jian, having lived the longest, would not know. And since she knew everything, it was pointless for him to share his day's experiences.

The idea of life as a journey about coming to some knowledge - about oneself, others, the past - is nothing new. In Yi Yi, this single idea provides for satire, comedy, tragedy and the film's elegiac tone. The knowledge itself is not necessarily redemptive, nor is it necessarily complete, but it is nonetheless important for the living to continue living. At the end of the film, at Grandma Jian's funeral, Yang Yang finally speaks to her. He reads an apology, then declares that he wants to be able to show others what they cannot see and do not know. This follows from a scene where Mr Jian discovers that his son has been taking photographs of the back of people's heads with the camera he gave Yang Yang. The reason for photographing the back of people's heads - to show them what they cannot themselves see.

There is no arrogance in such a declaration. By giving these words to a child, Edward Yang positions the filmmaker as someone who tries to show us what we cannot otherwise see - but not because of any superior vantage point, just a different vantage point - sometimes with the child's open-ness, the grandma's patience, the daughter's kindness, the mother's introspection, the father's honesty or the artist's craft.

[images above from the film are from framing]


Lust, Caution

Cover illustration by Eileen Chang/Zhang Ailing for her own book 流言 (trans. Rumour)

There are 3 reasons to watch Lust, Caution, and for this I shall quote the folks sitting around, beside and behind J and I in the cinema on Saturday. [warning: spoilers ahead]

(1) "[gasp] cute"
Even the dogs, cute white ones or saggy-faced Alsatians, play their role well. Every single member of the cast was superb.

(2)"Wah, Louis Vuitton ah"
This film being set in wartime Shanghai and Hong Kong, the costumes (and yes, the suitcases were beautiful too) and art direction are excellent. But because the film could be seen as a play within a film, starting first with the group of over zealous students taking their anti-Japanese play too seriously beyond the stage to the dangerous real world and eventually going undercover as spies for the resistance, the idea of stage and reality, deception and truth gets, a fabricated reality vs real life drama require elaborately set up apartments, fabricated lives, fancy cheongsums that were part-costumes part-real wardrobe. In order to "act out" her seduction of Mr Yee, "Mdm Mak" aka Wang Jiazhi must first has to lose her virginity to a student/fellow actor.

This materiality of their dramas finds its ultimate symbol in the gigantic diamond ring that Mr Yee (Tony Leung's character) purchases for "Mdm Mak" aka Wang Jiazhi. It is a mark of his love for her (since it is a gem he denies his wife), but perceived at first by Wang as a secret transaction with an imagined enemy. And when she accepts and understands the significance of this token, it becomes ironically the start of his betrayal of her - when confronted by the evidence of his complicity with this "spy" (or an insinuation that the money he used to purchase the rock is ill-gotten), Yee must deny that the ring is his.

For me, the biggest reason to watch this film (other than Lee Ang's interpretation) is that it is based on Eileen Chang/Zhang Ailing's short story of the same name.

It is not the first movie that has been made from her stories. There had been 紅玫瑰白玫瑰 (Red Rose, White Rose) by Stanley Kwan, 傾城之戀 (Love in a Fallen City) by Ann Hui and 半生緣 (Eighteen Springs). Zhang herself wrote screenplays, including the famous 不了情 (Unending Love).

What makes her stories great material for screen is Zhang's ability to turn the internal drama of her characters' lives (their motivations, thoughts, conflicts and contradictions) into social situations - not sitcoms - rather, micro/social situations born out of the larger political or rather historical forces. There can be cruel caricatures (I'll scann later some illustrations/actual caricatures by Zhang - her satiric eye/hand) but however harsh her portrayal of these characters (even the do-gooders have some suspicion cast upon their naivete), they are ultimately excused because humanity - however strong individuals may be - is weak. It is weak in the face of the historical and societal powers/forces/movements it has created in the first place, victim to this tyranny of our collective stupidity/folly/pride. We fail each other. History fails us. We fail ourselves.

You must admit it's a rather tragic vision! And this bears out in Zhang's own life (or at least, I think, that's what us "Zhang-mi"/fans like to imagine!). It is tempting to see 色、戒 with an eye on Zhang's biography. After all, Zhang's first documented love was a married man and a supposed traitor/collaborator with the Japanese. Her mother, like Wang Jiazhi's father, eventually also left for the UK, leaving Zhang alone to live her aunt in China. Zhang, too, spent her university days in Hong Kong, before returning to Shanghai.

But unlike Wang Jiazhi in 色、戒, Zhang was no hapless student who gets lost in the fictional reality of others or of her own device. Zhang was a writer. So with words, she survived. Words provided income. Words afforded a distance, distance gave her writing its wit and irony. But distance also confirmed the tragic vision in words. And if words were not enough (or too much), she created for herself the physical distance of a life in America at age 35. There she survived another 50 years, writing mostly essays and academic work and translations (inc. translations of Emerson) and died alone in her apartment.

p/s For those interested in Zhang's own reading of her short story and rebuttal to a critic in 1978, read her essay 羊毛出在羊身上,談<色、戒>



geometry (方)

If there was anything about math that I had vaguely liked, it was geometry.

There is something about the order, balance, symmetry, form and pattern in geometry that is pleasurable, even poetic. Maybe because these are qualities mirrored in nature, with its own bag of patterns and form, its own rhythmns, cycles and hierarchies that order life. If nature is the work of a perfect Creator, then in art - man's creative outcome - the principles of geometry have often held both their aesthetic and spiritual grounds on what could be considered perfect or beautiful.

I finally watched the Louis Kahn documentary My Architect that L had passed to J some time ago and had J talking about Louis Kahn virtually non-stop for days. Like J, I too had these scenes, images and ideas from the documentary that refused to leave my mind. And if there's a word to sum up these post-viewing thoughts, it would probably be geometry.

The documentary was made by 1 of 2 illegitimate children that Kahn had. Nathaniel Kahn knew his father through weekly visits up until his death when the filmmaker was 11. As such, his search and quest to understand his late father forms the other narrative of the documentary. For all the order and public monumentality of Kahn's most famous buildings that the filmmaker's eyes (and camera) scan, these views are balanced by the seeming disorder of the relationships in the intensely private personal life of the architect. And in a relationship between parent and child - a relationship not by choice, a relationship of inheritance and hence repetition/pattern - the need for order All of this makes the narrative of Nathaniel Kahn's search for his father among his work all the more poignant.

You could say that there is a similar pattern of contradiction yet beauty in Kahn's works. For all the austerity and grand scale of Kahn's works, they seem (at least to my untrained eyes) premised on the simple geometry of forms and planes - a circle, a triangle, a square, their intersections - and by extension, the geometry of nature in play with the structures. There is seldom any ornamentation. Instead, there is only the space itself, or the patterns inherent in nature/materials or the process of creation, or the forms and patterns and sense of space created by the falling or bodies of water.

What more, for the cold austerity and grand scale of Kahn's works, they also appear to have touched individuals at a personal and almost spiritual level. The documentary ends, for instance, with Kahn's last work - Bangladesh's parliamentary building in the capital Dhaka. (R above- photo by Karl E Roehl). The interviews with the Bangladeshi architects who had worked with Kahn on the project were strangely very moving. Both in fact spoke with tears in their eyes! After all, it was on Kahn's return journey from a working visit for this project (the buildings were completed some 9 years after Kahn's death) that he died of a heart attack in a train station and lay unclaimed in the city morgue for 3 days since the address in his passport was deliberately crossed out.

A man who spent his life creating spaces with a sense of place dies without an address, alone despite having 3 families, and bankrupt despite the wealth of meaning he has created for the users of his buildings. If irony had a geometric value, one could call it a dark symmetry.


song birds

7 (七)
karaoke for me - image by J

Three nights ago, the temple activities started in anticipation of the 7th month in the form of an all-out community Karaoke. From 6 to 11pm, auntie after uncle after auntie made their requests, trooped up on stage, and belted out songs of sorrow, joy. love and regret - off-key, nasal, all vibralto, or just plain croak-ish. The stage was at a corner of the temple, facing a small plot of empty grass. There was no audience, except the next auntie or uncle waiting by the side; and not even audience of the ghostly kind, since the time of their feasting and release had not started. If not for the coloured tubes of florescent light on stage, it was dark.

881Lian (蓮)
capture of the cinema screen, the closing shot of the 881 credits -image by J

Last night, J and I went to catch Royston Tan's new film 881 (click to view trailers), his musical tribute to the getai and the heartaches of the common man/girl. His previous films 15 and 4:30 were precocious; and the numeric title for his 3rd feature film didn't bode well at first. But 881 proved to an extremely likable film. There was laughter all throughout the first 70min and sniffly noises in the last 20min.

How not to like a film when next to you in the cinema are 3 women in their 50s who are probably real-life getai fans, wow-ed at all the sequinned costumes, and at one point in the movie, actually started singing along. How not to like a film where there was a generous serving of hokkien-style bawdry, most of it spouted by that fat lady getai superstar everyone loves (刘玲玲). How not to like a film whose leads are known as the papaya sisters and every other scene features extras who are the colourful folks you find sitting around in your neighbourhood the sad-faced bird shop owner in the film who spots a carrot-coloured poodle perm,

Cheesy as some of the lyrics of those hokkien getai standards may be, I cannot help but think that getais are what they are because they are relevant to their audience. There is a getai standard about suffering from a terminal illness in old age, "in and out of the General Hospital", "hoping your parents will come to get you quick" (all of which I can imagine Ma J thinking throughout her 1 year with stroke)...a standard about a hawker's life... another about the ungrateful child or lover who has abandoned you in your 1-room HDB flat... and the movie's default "theme" song, that classic about the equal sharing of everything you have with someone you love.

Getais are loved because their fantastic lights, electronic sounds and coarse humour provide a momentary escape, yet the earthy banter and vernacular lyrics remain right next to that sore or soft spot in the audience's heart - even if your life is never that dramatic or colourful. The glitter and the grime.

All of which almost makes you want to go do some cathartic bathroom singing.

p/s read wheyface's review(spoilers!!) here


ok, one last push!

World Premier (世界第一)
photo by J taken of the filmmaker at the official premiere at the NUS Cultural Centre on 19July

As if we cannot plug this film enough, us amps are giving one more shout to anyone who stumbles upon this blog to go buy a ticket to catch Invisible City at the Arts House. For tickets and more information, click here.


marjorie, mortal

the official eflyer with logotype by Mindwasabi. amps made our own unofficial guerilla "world cities" versions below. heh.

As a document, a witness and a consequence of human activity - creative, destructive, acquisitive, criminal - sometimes we think of cities almost as man's gesture at immortality. Well, no different from most human endeavour that's creative, destructivem, acquisitive or criminal, I guess.

Like writing a book. Ensuring a long line of descendents. Amassing an art or any kind of collection. Writing a book (or a blog!). Making a film.

This evening, ampulets went to watch a special "bloggers" preview of Tan Pin Pin's new video Invisible City. A few months ago, we saw an earlier cut and lucky J even got to tag along at a few of the shoots - but there would always be that excitement with watching a film, starting with the opening credits - a visual and aural staccato - that is its own.

I shan't say too much about the film itself. No doubt there'll be many reviews etc (and the film is rich and textured enough to afford long ruminations and reflections). Except this that if you have seen Singapore Gaga, then this is a quieter film, with a premise and references that are less "popular" and familiar (hey, how more popular can you get than Victor Khoo/Charlee and the $1 tissue-paper lady!). Of course, this being Singapore, someone at post-screening dialogues of films set in Singapore always reference the "political" (aiyo, like boiled peas at the university cafeteria!). But for me at least, what I always liked and admired about Tan Pin Pin's videos is the personal. I guess in poetry, it's cadence. An intimacy hidden in the inflections of a voice - silent - but communicative. And it is difficult not to hear the filmmaker's voice (this time, literally, in interviews), curious, open, human.

In this way, what holds the film together is not some abstract notion of memory and cities or Singapore and politics or - but the very existence of stories and lives lived (including Mr Han's here)- even if only barely glimpsed. In fact, as if recognising that a lifetime cannot be summarised and archived - however important and valiant the efforts to etch and record and excavate and (re)tell and document and preserve - the very brevity of each encounter in the film suffices.

The very briefest of these was Marjorie Dogget. For me, most lovingly shot and moving. She is seen only in her pyjamas, lying on her bed - her face is carved by time, her eyes large marbles rimmed red. Yet her voice is slight, almost shy and careful, girly - betrayed only by a breathlessness. Her tiny hands can barely hold up an old book of published photographs she had taken in 50s Singapore. To the question if she regretted staying on in Singapore all these years, her answer almost disappears into the air- just as her small body threatens to break apart. Perhaps, she says, only now, when she can no longer see or walk that she regrets. Singapore is not a place for growing old, she concedes simply.

Aiyah, I have already said too much.

Go and watch it instead! Catch it for free 19, 20, 21 July at the NUS CFA Theatre (Free tix are all given out!). Or for just $8 a ticket, watch it anyday between 22 July - 12 August at the Arts House at the old Parliament House (Ticketing hotline +65 6332 6919). More updated ticketing information at the film's website here.


Below are some online articles/reviews of the film so far at:
> Yawning Bread
> Yahoo News
> A Nutshell Review


Trailer on YouTube here
copyright ampulets 2005-2011