Programme 3: Strictly for those with an identity crisis, so basically everyone

By Brandon Chua

Growing up in a melting pot that is Singapore, the question of who I am as an individual has taken on immense importance. Am I the entitled and ignorant millennial that society perceives my generation to be? Or could I be more than that – entitled and ignorant, but also making a living off my film writing ability? I explore this identity crisis in the article below.

With Southeast Asia rapidly evolving, the debate between the principles of Asian values and individualism has become more urgent than ever. In the pursuit of economic growth and social stability over the past few decades, the region has been promoting an ideology that emphasises collectivism over the expression of individual identities. Codified in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, some of its principles included a preference for social harmony, concern with the collective well-being, and loyalty towards family and nation. The people mostly looked at themselves as part of a greater, shared group identity. These values are still imbued and prevalent in many of the films that come from the region. With today’s thriving cultural diversity and increased consciousness, there is a greater need for individual freedoms. The call for greater expression of personal identities can be heard louder than ever. Amidst this contention, the five Southeast Asian short films of Programme 3 hope to explore the challenges of finding one’s true self in these confusing times.

Image Credit: ‘A Time For Us, dir. Alvin Lee, 2018

A Time For Us, while not to be confused with popular Taiwanese romance movie, Our Times, is in fact Our Times with a twist. Singaporean director, Alvin Lee is a past winner of Best New Director at the China Short Film Golden Hummingbird Awards and his latest short explores the identities of people struggling in society. Through a sham marriage, the disparate needs of two people have brought their lives together. It shows us how a moment of real personal connection, no matter how brief the interaction, could redefine someone on the fringes of society. On one hand, a woman, unsure and afraid as she begins a daunting new phase of her life, finds comfort in the most unlikely of places. Similarly, a man, who has trouble creating meaningful relationships and is shunned by society, can now see himself as part of it. What’s more impressive is that this is a feel-good film, a trait that’s not too common within the competition.

Image Credit: ‘A Gift’, dir. Aditya Ahmad, 2018

As the winner of the Best Short Film at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, A Gift tackles gender identity and friendships through a snapshot of an androgynous teenager’s life. Directed by Aditya Ahmad, the Indonesian coming-of-age film follows parallel stories of her birthday surprise preparations for two different friends. Despite the the well-trodden topic, the film subverts expectations by avoiding huge declarations and revealing details in ways that feel organic to the protagonist’s mundane life. Peeking into her daily interactions, we not only witness the happy moments of her life, but also experience the internal conflict that comes with self-discovery, as she is forced to face the grave realities of her situation. Taking place in a conservative country, the film also touches on the differences in perception of gender roles between two generations. With naturalistic camerawork and colourful details, the film balances a lighthearted tone with bittersweet moments, just like how our protagonist slips in and out of her various identities.

Image Credit: ‘Bo Hai’, dir. Duzan Duong, 2017

The programme closes with Bo Hai, already a winner of many film festival awards. Based on the true story of director Duzan Duong’s relationship with his father, the short delves into the relationship between first and second-generation Vietnamese migrants in Czech Republic. Put in a situation where the values of the East meet those of the West, the idea of one’s identity as a migrant becomes even more significant. These second-generation Vietnamese are not only treated differently by locals, they also have completely different upbringings and ambitions from their parents. Their struggles to connect with each other on one hand, and the locals on the other have further raised questions over their place in a foreign land. One way the film cleverly highlights this point is by using the character’s contrasting proficiencies in Vietnamese and Czech. Due to the autobiographical nature of the short, instead of being plot-driven, its real strength lies in the intimate moments between father and son. The former learns to express his concern, while the latter tries his best to help with the family business, straddling the midpoint between his Asian heritage and Western upbringing.

Perhaps, not all millennials are entitled and ignorant.

Catch  Programme 3 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition  on 8 December, 2.00pm at National Gallery Singapore.