This is part of a two-part commentary on Singaporean short, My Father After Dinner by Gladys Ng.
In the Festival’s collection of highly ambitious and stirring Southeast Asian short films, My Father After Dinner is a welcome break. It is a quiet, understated portrayal of a father’s daily life revolving around the preparation of his family’s meal. Little vignettes of life come together in a beautiful way— scenes of the father chopping vegetables, reclining into an armchair, picking a fish to buy at the local wet market, having a meal, washing a stained singlet, making a phone call, working as a security guard… The film is simple, yet never simplistic.
The film opens with the father making a portion of fried rice and it is held together by this very meal, with the film’s end tying back nicely to the start. As many of us know, the best fried rice is made from rice that has been left overnight, harkening back to the film’s Chinese title “隔夜饭” (“overnight rice”). Though we may expect a film about a security guard (who works at night) who prepares a meal for his family which turns up for the meal and leaves soon after , to turn into a sob story of loneliness and neglect, this film is far from so. Instead, just like the tasty fried rice the father tucks into the next day, love is presented as a feeling that lingers long after, such that even in moments he is alone, we never ever quite feel that he is lonely.
In a local film scene already dominated by “social realism” and “slice of life” works, My Father After Dinner, which also belabours on about family and home, seemed doomed for disinterest and boredom. In an email interview, the film’s director, Gladys Ng, recognized this point as well, but she felt that she could “add to this theme by being really honest to [her] knowledge of the workings of a family, so it was in the details, like the mannerisms, speech and the art direction that [she] tried to give the film a tiny individual voice.” I enjoyed the conversations between the characters. It was haunting to listen to such familiar manners of speech, inflections and exclamations spoken onscreen. As both the film’s screenwriter and director, Ng displayed a great ear for dialogue and a knack for presenting family dynamics in a very natural way.
In a curious way, this short film reminded me of the earliest films ever made, where a camera was just left to record the passages of everyday life. People watched these films to see how other places were like and how people lived and interacted. (And also because film was so new and cool then. It still is.) Film made the personal space accessible. In fact, the role of the father in this film was actually played by the writer-director’s real father. Ng adds, “The film is based off my family and is really very much inspired by my father. Although the film isn’t an actual mirror-image of his life, it is largely true to my perception of him.” She also mentions that she calls her father ‘Lao Pa’, “so the characters in the film refer to him by the same name instead of the usual ‘Dad’ or ‘Pa’, that we’re often presented with. It’s more affectionate and I hope that resonates with the audiences.”
Initially, I was quite skeptical about what this short film would add to the current repertoire of home-family “slice of life” works. However, now I have learnt one thing— there really is room for more of such local works. There is still so much space for our ideas of family and its associated structures and traits to be supported, challenged or subverted. Deceptively simple, such works require a great amount of nuance, keen eye for detail and a good sense of how the personal can be protracted to speak for a larger group of people. Not every personal story can successfully be translated into a film for others to watch. But for those films that have worked, they make up an important part of our cinema and local consciousness of how we perceive and are perceived. What in the film do you nod your head in agreement with? Conversely, what do you point out and go “Nah, I can’t believe that will happen in real life”? By putting what is potentially real and personal onscreen, it can help shape the current discourse on identity and family.
What causes us to be classified as “Singaporean”? Yet, what makes us different?