Welcome to our recap of the 28th Singapore International Film Festival! As this year’s jam-packed edition progresses over 11 days (November 23 to December 3, 2017), our team of writers are attending film screenings, panel conversations and masterclass events and reporting on our favourites as we go.
FESTIVAL OPENING: ANGELS WEAR WHITE
SGIFF ’17 launched Thursday, November 23 with a starry red carpet event at Marina Bay Sands surrounding opening night film Angels Wear White, the second film from Chinese director Vivian Qu (who attended alongside her young star Zhou Meijun).
Over the next weekend, festivities continued, with morning-to-night programming through Saturday and Sunday including a screening of Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki and a subsequent talk, as well as a 15th-anniversary screening of Singaporean classic Talking Cock the Movie. These were some other highlights.
THE SONG OF SCORPIONS
Friday, November 24, 8 p.m., Marina Bay Sands
One of four Special Presentation films this year, Indian director Anup Singh’s The Song of Scorpions certainly marches to the beat of its own drum. Set against the picturesque backdrop of Rajasthan, Scorpions sings the twisted tale of a camel herder, Aadam (Irrfan Khan) and a mystical woman, Nooran (Golshifteh Farahani). Singh (who earlier Friday afternoon was the center of an In Conversation event alongside his producers and one of the film’s actors, Waheeda Rehman) gave an introduction to the screening. When asked what he wanted viewers to take away from the film, he imparted a wish to the audience: that no matter what obstacles you may encounter in life, may you never lose your ability to sing.
The Song of Scorpions was a visual spectacle, though I felt that its substance didn’t quite match its style. I found myself wishing for more cultural context: Folklore lays at the heart of Scorpions, but I’d have preferred more explanation of the myths and traditions central to the film, so that the plot would sit better. Despite this, the film showcased wonderful performances. Irrfan Khan played his part as well as you’d expect, but Golshifteh Farahani was the highlight for me. It felt almost as if the magical actress could brighten and dim the light in her eyes at will—something she used to great effect bringing Nooran to life. Rehman, as Amma, was graceful, and you could genuinely feel a bond between Rehman and Farahani. Overall, an incomplete tapestry made up of wonderful individual moments.
– Tanvi Rajvanshi
FOCUS: SHORTS PROGRAMME 1: REDEFINING TOGETHERNESS
Saturday, November 25, 2 p.m., the Arts House
Beliefs are the center around which communities revolve: That was my key take-away from this set of Indonesian short films, bracketed under the title “Redefining Togetherness” (and part of SGIFF ’17’s overall spotlight on contemporary Indonesian cinema). A common theme amongst the shorts was the layered coexistence of different beliefs in a community. Typically, such a theme lends itself to a specific focus on the conflicts that arise from these differences, so it was refreshing to see films instead shed light on how a society can function together despite differences.
A touching moment was the ending of Bani Nasution’s “Along the One Way”. Throughout this autobiographical documentary, Nasution highlights how his own secular beliefs stand at odds with his mother’s deeply religious ones—and no matter how hard she tries to get him involved in campaigning for a Muslim candidate during the elections in Surakarta, he does not budge. In light of this, the final scene (in which the filmmaker is convincing his mother to be in his film), interspersed between end-credits as a sort of epilogue, shows how despite believing in different “Indonesias”, the mother-son bond cannot be broken. As that short, and the rest of the block (“The Silent Mob”, “Terra Machine” and “A Goat”), demonstrated, our challenge is to figure out how we can retain our beliefs without compromising the bonds that matter.
PANEL DISCUSSION: HISTORIES OF TOMORROW: INDONESIAN CINEMA AFTER THE NEW ORDER
Saturday, November 25, 4:30 p.m., the Arts House
If you’ve seen Joshua Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking documentaries The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, you’re familiar with the 1965 nation-wide genocide in Indonesia sanctioned by Suharto, the man who, three years later, succeeded Sukarno as the country’s second president. This panel featured critic Adrian Jonathan Pasaribu (founder of Indonesian film collective Cinema Poetica), filmmakers Yuda Kurniawan (The Ballads of Cinema Lovers) and Hari Suhariyadi (The Talisman), and Bowo Leksono, the subject of Kurniawan’s film and co-founder of the Purbalingga organization Cinema Lovers Community. The main focus of the discussion was the panelists’ personal experiences before, during and after the fall of Suharto.
Pasaribu began by recalling the Indonesian government’s tight hold on the country’s cinematic output, especially during the earlier years of Suharto’s reign when the country was still in its anti-communist hysteria. He shared a ridiculous example: how the film censorship board changed the title of a movie from Kiri, Kanan, OK (Left, Right, OK) to Kanan, Kiri, OK (Right, Left, OK) because the board felt that the filmmakers were prioritizing the leftist/communists in that title. Pasaribu (now the Head of Film Literacy, Appreciation and Archiving for the Indonesian Film Board) also spoke of an article under the Law of Cultural Progression, whereby all film-related activities, like festivals, are to be supported by the government. This vague “support” often isn’t financial in nature, but comes with all kinds of strings: For example, filmmakers are fined for screenings of uncensored movies.
Leksono spoke about his history of struggling against both the censorship board and local authorities. Kurniawan recounted an incident where a group of police called up Leksono to cancel his film without having even seen it.
After Suharto’s fall in 1998 (known as Reformasi, or the reformation), though the government sets the rules, the society dictates the norms, the panelists opined. To play it safe, most Indonesian filmmakers adhere to Islamic doctrine in their films. Suriyadi credited the internet for giving some freedom to local filmmakers, making films more accessible and allowing some titles to be released unnoticed by the censorship board. (Instead of “selling tickets”, Pasaribu added, filmmakers “ask for donations” from audiences, allowing them to enter a grey area of the law.) Ultimately, government interference in the country’s cinema seems to have lessened over the years… though the rules become less defined, new problems arise. As Suriyadi said, it feels like “nowadays anyone can do anything”, which he admits is in its own way scary.
– Hansel Arief
THE FIRST LAP
Saturday, November 25, 4:30 p.m., National Gallery Singapore
Picking open a scab within the South Korean society, The First Lap is set against the uncomfortable backdrop of Park Geun Hye’s impeachment, with the nation facing political news and protests that douse its citizens in uncertainty. In a contrast, the film opens with a calm picture of a young couple that have lived together comfortably for some time. This calmness is quietly interrupted by Ji-Young (Kim Sae-byuk) telling Su-Hyeon (Cho Hyun-chul) that she might be pregnant. From here on, director Kim Dae Hwan unravels the thread of the couple who, together for seven years, have made no moves towards getting married, owning a home or having kids. Unknowingly (perhaps), through their being together, they’ve empowered each other in a quiet defiance—against both their family and their society. As we sit with them at the dinner table, in the car, at a birthday party, we are let into conversations that silently spell another reason for the couple’s stand-still: the spectre of their parents. Every scene yanks on the comfort zone that protects the couple, until it is almost completely unravelled, leaving them to face each other in the cold. In their climactic make-or-break moment, we gradually realise that they are both just as afraid and uncertain as the other. As they embrace, the relief in the cinema was apparent.
– Priscilla Alexandrea
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
Saturday, November 25, 7 p.m., Filmgarde Bugis+
Most of the films with LGBT subject matter in this year’s SGIFF line-up—such as Call Me By Your Name and Malila: The Farewell Flower—have sold out, an unsurprising consequence of the censorship practices that restrict the exhibition of such films in regular Singaporean theatres. In a way, it feels like something of a triumph to see a fully naked penis (or two, even!) on the big screen in this country, as the rapt Saturday night crowd at God’s Own Country got to do. Yorkshire native Francis Lee’s directorial debut is graphic at times, yes, but never crass… though it is somewhat mercilessly preoccupied with bodily emissions: vomit, spit, urine, amniotic fluid and so forth (milk, too—though not human). These liquids slush together with the mud in the Yorkshire countryside where this story takes place: a love affair that develops between two men toiling away on a desolate sheep farm. The pair (played in break-out fashion by Josh O’Connor, brilliant, and Alec Secareanu, improbably attractive) barely speak—their reticence part of the necessarily cloaked, coded nature of male flirtation in rural England—so a highly cinematic world of gesture, expression and other non-verbal communication rises up. The language of touch becomes particularly significant, and emotionally loaded: sometimes blunt and brutal, sometimes as delicate and intimate as a knuckle softly grazed by a finger, or a lamb gently fed by bottle. God’s Own Country is a wonderful addition to the gay cinematic pantheon, one that I count myself very lucky to have seen in its lush, uncut, big-screen glory.
– Kelly Leow
Sunday, November 26, 11 a.m., Shaw Theatres Lido
“Will you save a human life?” is a line repeated throughout Ruben Östlund’s The Square, a parody of the art world that brings up questions of morality, social justice and masculinity, particularly in today’s Sweden. The protagonist, Christian, is a curator at a MoMA-esque institution. He is trying to garner media buzz for the opening of the museum’s new exhibition, “The Square,” central to which is a blank square installed in the museum’s courtyard. The fictional artist’s manifesto reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations”. Yet the film’s parade of inequality forces us to ask if such manifestos in contemporary art are simply a farce to satiate the do-gooder appetites of the rich. Premiering in Singapore to a full house, this film, Östlund’s follow-up to his brilliant 2014 feature Force Majeure, certainly could not have come at a better time. Given the recent proliferation of international contemporary art in Southeast Asia, one must pause to consider what it is all actually for. Who does art help? And indeed, is there any shame in admitting that maybe, sometimes, it only helps ourselves?
The 28th Singapore International Film Festival runs November 23 to December 3, 2017. Get your tickets here.