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!).


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