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Youth Meets Film: The Next Generation of Writers on Regional Cinema

New Waves #1: Capturing the Ephemeral with Gladys Ng and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow

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The first New Waves session began with the spotlight on local filmmaker Gladys Ng, whose short film My Father After Dinner (trans. as 隔夜饭) was awarded the Best Singapore Short at the latest Singapore International Film Festival. The session began with a screening of the aforementioned short film, followed by a dialogue session with Gladys and Yu-Mei. Thereafter, there was a script-reading of Gladys’ first short film, The Girl With a Pigtail, together with some concluding thoughts.

The overall feel of the dialogue is rather casual and laid-back, with plenty of questions being thrown around for everyone to contemplate. The crowd was made up of a healthy mix of the young and the ‘slightly’ more mature. Rather than dealing with the common technicalities of filmmaking, this dialogue aims to create a more intimate atmosphere that enables conversations about the creative and artistic sides of filmmaking.

Gladys’ short film is a slice of life drama of her own everyday reality. It is intensely personal in the way that she celebrates her father (who is cast in the film) and her presentation of the mundane, fleeting details that people often fail to notice. Much of the film is told through such minute details; the small gestures of her father that appear insignificant can be profoundly important. His careful and meticulous preparation of food, his quiet demeanour, presents the father as a parent who is more comfortable showing affection through actions rather than words. It is these seemingly little things; the chopping of vegetables, scaling of fish, washing dishes, the arranging of shoes, that the film evokes this notion of the everyday. In a way, nothing much really happens in this film. Yet, like pretty soap bubbles that are quick to disappear, the film finds beauty in the fleeting moments of reality.

Unlike filmmakers who tend to cast their horizons outwards, dealing with seemingly larger-than-life topics through their films, Gladys looks inward — her stories remain grounded in her own experiences. Her label as a Southeast Asian filmmaker is one that is distinct in that way. Gladys does not make any grandeur claims about Singapore or Southeast Asia, and she need not. Yet, this burden of representation is often tagged onto filmmakers in the region. Perhaps, what is significant for Gladys and Yu-Mei is the representation of language within Singapore. One thing that Yu-Mei brought up during conversation was just the idea of having an ear for how Singaporeans speak, and to notice the many types of Singlish that are used in Singapore today. It is often neglected how much effort goes into writing believable and authentic dialogue, be it for the screen or for the page. Through the discussions on capturing the ‘Singaporean-ness’ of language, it seems that Singlish is itself a fluid entity, with its various colloquialisms and intonations becoming markers of a whole spectrum of Singaporean identities.

The conversations sparked off in various tangents, from the form of the short film vis-a-vis the short story to the thought processes that go behind making fictional or non-fictional writing. While one might question the relation between these two mediums, i.e. text-based to image-based, Yu-Mei actually highlighted certain surreptitious similarities and inter-relations between them. For Gladys, films are collaborative processes, with many stages of production involved. However, the idea behind the film tends to start with writing a script. In this light, Yu-Mei highlights how the act of writing is singularly generative, which is to say that the writer is fully responsible for each and every word on the page. An interesting tidbit from Yu-Mei pertaining to writing: often she writes from a place of observation, in that her characters are depicted based on what she perceives — almost like taking portraits. Unlike Gladys, her writing is often removed from her own personal experience. In this regard, she also notes that the lines that divide non-fiction from fiction, documentary from fiction, are inherently blurred. Returning to film, filmmaking involves translating text-based ideas into images, and for that Gladys highlights the multiple inputs from other creative people that distinguishes filmmaking from writing. She even claims that she leaves the cinematography entirely out of her own hands. The great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said something that attests to the significance of good writing within filmmaking:

“With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.”

Personally, I find that not only do good films rely on good writing, but good writing is often cinematic as well. After all, do we not imagine films going on in our heads as we read novels? Perhaps the cinematic form itself already exists in the way we naturally imagine stories unfolding.

27apr-1Moving onto the script-reading of Gladys’s first short film The Girl With a Pigtail, the scene is set with the two lead characters facing each other. Gladys is narrates the scene, and the two actresses carry the dialogue. The scene is of the last moments at the airport, before one of them leaves the country for good. The script evokes a lot of momentum; of movements and transitions, employing an almost episodic way of narration even as the actresses remain static here. Furthermore, the story presents the friendship between the two girls in an implied way, as their humorous interactions slowly unfold as a way of diverting their attention away from the difficulties of saying goodbye. Often, a filmmaker’s first attempt at a short film is rather telling, in that it captures the filmmaker at a stage whereby they are seemingly more naive and unafraid to make mistakes. There is a cantankerousness, a kind of raw honesty that comes through in one’s first attempt.

In all, the very first New Waves session is one that is both intimate and critical, both contemplative and inquisitive. Much of what is said sheds light not only on the processes of filmmaking itself, but its relationship to other works of art. It is within such creative spaces that we can gain new perspectives and develop a greater appreciation of art in its multifarious forms.