Red Dot; Silver Screen: SGIFF showcases Singapore films

For inSing

Red Dot; Silver Screen: SGIFF showcases Singapore films

Glimpse the future of local film with the festival’s Singapore Panorama program

By Jedd Jong

The Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) is an annual event that takes pride of place on the calendars of local cinephiles. Now in its 28th year, the festival and its associated mentorship programs have served as a platform and incubator for homegrown filmmakers. In addition to showcasing cinematic hidden gems from around the region and in-competition films that are judged by an international jury panel, SGIFF shines a spotlight on homegrown talent.

The Singapore Panorama section of the festival is home to a varied selection of feature-length and short films created by Singaporean and Singapore-based filmmakers. The festival has served as a launching pad, helping to boost the careers of notable Singapore filmmakers including Eric Khoo, Kelvin Tong, Kirsten Tan, Royston Tan, Boo Junfeng, and K. Rajagopal, whose films have gone on to garner acclaim at home and abroad.

At the Objectifs gallery, inSing heard from several filmmakers whose works are being included in this year’s line-up. The festival’s Executive Director Wahyuni A. Hadi and Programme Director Pimpaka Towira moderated the panel, as the filmmakers discussed their influences and experiences in creating their works. Hadi is a film producer, author and curator who has been SGIFF’s Festival Director since 2009, while it is Thai writer-director Towira’s first year as a member of the SGIFF team.

Back row: Ric Aw, Chew Tze Chuan, Gavin Lim, Don Aravind, Michael Kam, Ivan Tan, Chiang Wei Liang, Wesley Leon Aroozoo, Hamzah Fansuri
Front row: Pimpaka Towira, Wee Li Lin, Wahyuni Hadi, Laavania Krishna, Tang Wan Xin, Rachel Liew, Shammini G

Some of the films that audiences can take in at 28th SGIFF include Diamond Dogs, a gritty revenge action thriller in which a deaf-mute man is forced to do battle in an underground fight club; I Want to Go Home, a moving documentary about a Japanese man who lost his wife in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami; Areola Borealis, a light-hearted comedy-drama short in which the uptight mother of the bride frets over an inconvenience-turned-crisis at her daughter’s wedding; hUSh, a documentary about an aspiring singer who moves ventures from Bali to Jakarta to find success and live out her wildest dreams, and Angel, a coming-of-age short of a young man struggling to fulfil his grandmother’s last wish as he and his family grapple with the grief of losing her.

I Not Stupid

There will also be screenings of two landmark Singaporean films, which are both celebrating their 15th anniversary this year: Jack Neo’s comedy-drama I Not Stupid, and Woo Yen Yen and Colin Goh’s satirical anthology satirical comedy TalkingCock the Movie. I Not Stupid portrayed the struggles faced by schoolchildren who must endure Singapore’s unforgiving education system, while TalkingCock the Movie was an expansion of the satire website TalkingCock.com, founded by lawyer-turned humourist and illustrator Goh.

Nyi Ma Lay

As is SGIFF tradition, the winner of the previous year’s Best Singapore Short Film award is commissioned to make a new film to screen at the current year’s festival. Chiang Wei Liang, who helmed the award-winning Anchorage Prohibited last year, directed Nyi Ma Lay (Little Sister). The dialogue-free 20-minute-long film is about a troubled young Burmese domestic worker. Chiang wanted to bring attention to the plight of Burmese domestic workers in Singapore, many of whom under-report their age to get work here. In June 2017, a Burmese domestic worker leapt to her death from a condominium in Singapore.

Diamond Dogs

Gavin Lim, who has directed television shows and short films, makes his feature debut with Diamond Dogs. The gritty, violent action thriller stars actor/stunt performer Sunny Pang as a cancer-stricken deaf-mute man who is coerced into competing in an underground fight club for the entertainment the sadistic uber-rich. “For me, it’s to make the hero suffer, then we make the villain to be someone you love to hate,” Lim said. “It’s a fight show, there are 12-14 fights,” Lim said, adding that there were no injuries on set. The film also stars MediaCorp artiste Andie Chen and Japanese adult film starlet Anri Okita.

I Want to Go Home

Wesley Leon Aroozoo’s documentary I Want to Go Home is about Yasuo Takamatsu, a bus driver who learned how to dive so he could search for the remains of his wife, whose body was lost after she was killed in the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami. After hearing about Takamatsu’s heart-rending quest, Aroozoo reached out to the Japanese man. Over a year’s worth of communication, Aroozoo decided to tell Takamatsu’s story in the twin forms of a novel and a documentary film. “It took a few months to track him down,” Aroozoo said, saying it was only after seven months of translated email exchanges that he raised the subject of Takamatsu’s search for his wife. Twin animators Harry and Henry Zhuang contributed animation to the film. Aroozoo hopes to raise awareness about emergency evacuation measures and how similar tragedies can be prevented. I Want to Go Home had its world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in October 2017.

Areola Borealis

Having helmed films like Gone Shopping and Forever, Wee Li Lin is no stranger to the local film scene. For her cheekily-titled short film Areola Borealis, she turned to real events for inspiration. Wee was attending a friend’s wedding, and the bride’s bra broke right before the ceremony. Wee was called on to save the day: “I had to loan her my bra, and we weren’t even the same size!” Wee recalled. Wee ended up sitting out the wedding, eating room service and watching TV in a bathrobe upstairs. “It was so female, and so odd in a hilarious, sad way,” she observed. Wee embellished the story for the short film, centring the story on the mother of the bride. While the film is light-hearted, it addresses the theme of inter-generational attitudes towards race in Singapore. “Interracial marriages still strikes an ugly chord in people and can manifest a lot of deep-seated discrimination,” Wee said.

Rotan

Hamzah Fansuri’s short film Rotan is a drama in which a school’s Discipline Master faces his reckoning when his own son, a student at the school, goes astray. Fansuri wanted to depict the “unbridled lack of power and control that a parent has towards a child during the stages of youth,” illustrating how even despite a parent’s best efforts, their children might wander down the wrong path. The title refers to the long piece rattan stem used for caning, which is still enacted as corporal punishment in some Singaporean schools.

These films and many more await audiences at SGIFF. The festival runs from 23 November to 2 December 2017. Please visit www.sgiff.com for more information on the films, including screening schedules and ticket bookings.

 

Brad’s Status movie review

For inSing

BRAD’S STATUS 

Director : Mike White
Cast : Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Shazi Raja, Luisa Lee, Mike White
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

           It’s a familiar, painful feeling: the sense that everyone else has overtaken you, that your peers have gone on to bigger and better things, and you’re left wondering what you’ve done with your life. This might sound depressing, but it’s the basis for a comedy. Well, a comedy-drama.

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is 47, married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and runs a non-profit organisation. Every day, he seems reminded of how successful his college classmates are: Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) went from a job at the White House to being a bestselling author and sought-after speaker, Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) is a wealthy hedge fund manager, Billy Wearsiter (Jemaine Clement) sold off his tech company and has retired to Hawaii, and Nick Pasquale (Mike White) is a Hollywood filmmaker who lives in a mansion in Malibu.

Brad takes his 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of potential colleges. Troy, an aspiring musician and composer, hopes to get into Harvard. As Brad attempts to reconnect with his old friends to call in a favour for Troy, he is forced to re-evaluate his disillusionment, discovering that perhaps the grass really isn’t greener on the other side.

Writer-director Mike White makes many pithy observations about the anxiety of feeling one doesn’t measure up. This is not the first movie about a man navigating a midlife crisis, but it’s done in a largely down-to-earth, relatable manner. The debilitating practice of comparing oneself to one’s peers isn’t particularly healthy, but it’s something everyone catches themselves doing. Brad’s Status punctuates the mundanity with dream sequences and flights of fancy, in which Brad imagines how glamorous and exciting his friends’ lives must be, as well as imagining how his own son might end up.

The film makes heavy use of voiceovers, but these sequences feel organic. Hearing Brad’s internal monologue makes audiences feel like they’re in the protagonist’s headspace, understanding how he ticks and becoming intimately familiar with his crippling insecurities. This is a role that fits Stiller to a tee – he isn’t do any forced, over-the-top mugging here, but is tapping on his appeal as a beleaguered everyman. Brad openly wallows in self-pity, and yet, he’s sympathetic because we’ve all been there. There’s a point in the film when Brad is told point blank that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and that his obsessing over his perceived shortcomings is a sign of self-centredness. There are no drastic leaps in his belated journey of self-discovery, and it’s easy for viewers to go along with him on this ride.

Abrams comes off as an ordinary kid, delivering an understated, amusing performance that parents of teenagers are sure to find thoroughly authentic. The relationship between father and son is convincingly developed, and the tensions that arise between the two during the college tour seem natural. Brad is at once anxious that his son achieve greatness, and simultaneously afraid that his Troy will eventually end up more successful than he is. There’s enough awkwardness and sincerity in the relationship for it to work as the film’s emotional core, without things coming off as overly saccharine.

The supporting cast is smartly selected, with Michael Sheen being the standout. Sheen grins his way through the performance, coming across as glib and self-satisfied, but not necessarily a bad person. Brad does a lot of projecting onto his friends, fantasising about how much better their lives are than his, when he has plenty to be thankful for. Shazi Raja is memorable as Troy’s friend Ananya, who winds up challenging Brad’s worldview. Luisa Lee, a violinist whom you might have seen on YouTube, also appears.

Brad’s Status doesn’t make any grand statements, but it is poignant and thought-provoking. It highlights the exhausting pointlessness of feeling like one never has enough and that everyone else has it so much better, without taking time to be grateful and to assess one’s priorities and maintain the personal relationships that truly matter. As a gentle takedown of entitlement, Brad’s Status might sting those who feel indicted by it, but it’s funny and heartfelt.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin

For inSing

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN 

Director : Simon Curtis
Cast : Domhnall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald, Will Tilston, Alex Lawther
Genre : Biopic/Drama
Run Time : 107 mins
Opens : 26 October 2017
Rating : PG

The Winnie-the-Pooh stories have been beloved by children all around the world for decades, spawning numerous animated TV shows and films. This historical drama peels back the curtain on the surprisingly tragic true story behind the creation of Pooh and his friends who live in Hundred-Acre Wood.

It is just after World War I, and playwright Alan Alexander ‘A. A.’ Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), who fought at the Battle of the Somme, is haunted by memories of the war. Seeking some peace and quiet, Alan and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) move from London to a countryside home in East Sussex. Daphne gives birth to Christopher Robin (Will Tilston and Alex Lawther at different ages), who is nicknamed “Billy Moon” by his parents. The couple hires a live-in nanny named Olive (Kelly Macdonald) to look after Christopher, and the boy soon grows attached to her.

Alan is inspired by seeing Christopher play with his stuffed toys in the woods, including teddy bear which he first names ‘Edward’ and later ‘Winnie’. This serves as the basis for children’s stories that soon become immensely popular. With the whole world clamouring to know the ‘real’ Christopher Robin, the young boy becomes subject to fame that he struggles to handle. What began as a creative expression of a father’s love for his son grows into a worldwide phenomenon, changing the Milne family’s lives forever.

Goodbye Christopher Robin might well ruin Winnie-the-Pooh for many viewers, but in the process, the film has interesting things to say about childhood, fame and creative expression. Director Simon Curtis, who also helmed the fact-based My Week with Marilyn and The Woman in Gold, has made a respectable period piece. However, like many awards season period pieces, Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes comes off as too mannered and not sufficiently authentic. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, the film resorts to shameless emotional manipulation at times, but also offers fascinating, heart-rending insight into the relationship dynamics within the Milne family.

The film runs up against the challenge of striking a tonal balance. The events in the film span from just after the First World War to the midst of the Second. Alan is reeling from the trauma of fighting as a soldier in the First World War, but eventually writes delightful, whimsical stories. Goodbye Christopher Robin makes a valiant attempt at showing the range of moods any one person can experience, depicting a journey from sorrow, to joy, back to sorrow again. There’s profundity here, but Goodbye Christopher Robin sometimes feels like it’s skimming the surface.

Gleeson is an actor who’s mostly flown under the radar, but has consistently turned in solid work. In Goodbye Christopher Robin, Gleeson fleshes out the layers to the character of A. A. Milne. Gleeson sells both the frustration that creative types experience when they’re stuck in a rut, and the joy that they feel when inspiration presents itself. The emotional heart of the film is the relationship between Alan and his son, a relationship that is initially enriched but eventually complicated by the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

Young actor Tilston is plenty adorable, and lights up the screen with his natural joy and the right degree of precociousness, such that the performance never registers as cloying or obnoxious. Alex Lawther plays Christopher Robin at age 18; he’s best known for playing young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Lawther’s performance as a young man trying to regain his identity, having shared his childhood with the world, is deeply affecting.

Kelly Macdonald’s turn as Olive, the nanny whom Christopher affectionally called “Nou”, brims with genuine warmth. Olive is depicted as being more of a maternal figure to Christopher than his actual mother Daphne who, as portrayed here by Margot Robbie, seems like an awful person. There’s a tug-of-war between the three parental figures in Christopher’s life, with a young boy for whom it’s all too much to process at the centre.

Goodbye Christopher Robin does not convey the passage of time as well as it should – the makeup used to age up Gleeson and Robbie is a little too subtle – so it doesn’t feel like as much time elapses in the story as it did in real life.

Despite being uneven, coming off as a little too packaged and artificial at times and being less than subtle in going for the tear ducts, Goodbye Christopher Robin is a largely moving story. It explores worthwhile themes and its revelatory nature will shock audiences who love Winnie-the-Pooh but did not know the details behind how the stories came to be.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Mountain Between Us Movie Review

For inSing

THE MOUNTAIN BETWEEN US 

Director : Hany Abu-Assad
Cast : Idris Elba, Kate Winslet, Beau Bridges
Genre : Adventure/Romance
Run Time : 112 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

Being stranded on a snowy mountain would be a nightmare scenario for most of us. Luckily for Kate Winslet, she’s stranded with Idris Elba in this adventure drama. We should be so lucky.

Elba plays neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Bass, while Winslet plays photojournalist Alex Martin. The two strangers decide to jointly charter a private flight out of Boise Airport in Idaho, because Ben needs to perform an emergency surgery in Baltimore and Alex needs to get to her wedding, which takes place the next day.

Local pilot-for-hire Walter (Beau Bridges) flies Ben and Alex out of Idaho, but the plane crashes in the High Uintas Mountains. Walter dies in the crash, leaving Ben, Alex and Walter’s dog to fend for themselves. With no way to contact anyone, and no flight plan filed because it was a last-minute flight, Ben and Alex are left stranded. Making do with limited supplies and sustaining injuries from the crash, the pair must rely on each other, making a desperate bit for survival.

The Mountain Between Us is based on the novel of the same name by Charles Martin. Oscar-nominated Dutch-Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad directs from a screenplay adapted by J. Mills Goodloe, Chris Weitz and an uncredited Scott Frank. The film clearly aspires to be sweeping and romantic – while the Canadian filming locations are breath-taking, much of the dialogue is unintentionally funny, and the predicament that befalls our protagonists never truly feels sufficiently treacherous.

Survival films have the power to transport audiences into perilous, exciting situations. The Mountain Between Us strives to serve up its share of edge-of-your-seat thrills, but is hampered by sometimes-overwhelming romance novel-style melodrama. The slightly silly title should’ve been enough of an indication that this is how the film would end up.

The film weathered several major casting changes: Michael Fassbender and then Charlie Hunnam were attached to the Ben role, with Rosamund Pike, then Margot Robbie being cast as Alex. The final casting works, as both Elba and Winslet are skilled and charismatic performers. However, try as they might to sell the lines they’re given, the overall silliness stymies even these two respected actors.

It’s a good thing that Ben just happens to be a doctor – if a photojournalist were stranded on a snowy peak with a film critic, both would die in about 30 minutes. Elba is as gruff and sexy as he typically is, and does eventually get to be vulnerable and emotional. In part because Ben is as adept at survival skills as he is, the film strains suspension of disbelief.

While Winslet does her best to give Alex personality, the character largely comes off as annoying. The bickering between Ben and Alex stays a safe distance from being like what one would find in a romantic comedy, but the progression of their relationship is still unconvincing. Both actors have passable chemistry, but audiences can sit quite comfortably because they won’t be swept up by anything.

This reviewer did enjoy The Mountain Between Us because it features a Labrador Retriever who looks to be having just the best time playing in the snow. However, we gather that the filmmakers’ intention was not to have us bursting into fits of laughter. The Mountain Between Us benefits from its talented leads, but also demonstrates that even good actors are at the mercy of the material. If you love dogs and/or Idris Elba, you might be compelled to give this a go, though.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong