Asian Indies Make Impact Amidst Censorship At Singapore's 17th Film Fest
by Ben Slater
Hitting the ripe age of 17, the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) is one of the longest-running film festivals in Southeast Asia and the first to introduce a competition for new Asian cinema. However, far from being a secure fixture, it continually strives to lure audiences and snare sponsorship, while maintaining the integrity of its programming.
The intensely hot, tropical island city-state, hanging off the Southern tip of Malaysia, is a highly westernized but notoriously conformist society where arts and culture have been a low priority. Today, it's a multiplex-dominated country and with no feature films made between the late '70s to the mid '90s, the local film scene is only just sputtering back to life.
Against that context the festival has worked hard to critically encourage young filmmakers and to nurture audiences for non-mainstream cinema. Unusually and fiercely autonomous, SIFF's maverick status in Singapore's cultural calendar has been confirmed by drastic government funding cuts over the last two years.
With his festival running a few weeks before Cannes, long-time festival programmer Philip Cheah has to search that much deeper and wider to ensure that it isn't just an end-of-the-circuit mop up. Eschewing flashier and starrier titles, this year he rolled out an impressively serious and risk-taking selection of 300 titles, which presented an overview of independent film-making throughout the world.
Despite government pressure Cheah and his team have consistently avoided going down the "glamour" route of stars and red carpets, as he told me, "Every time we talk about bringing in stars, (the government) cannot offer us the budget, so my jaw just drops. You just can't do it on so little money."
That's not to say that there weren't plenty of filmmakers in town. After last year's SARS-related no-show, there were a multitude of directors present, including the heavy-weight auteurs behind the opening and closing titles, Kim Ki-Duk's magnificent "Spring, Summer, Autumm, Winter...and Spring" and Tsai Ming Liang's haunting elegy to celluloid, "Goodbye Dragon Inn." Visiting from the other side of the world, Sam Green ("The Weather Underground") and Nicolas Winding Refn ("Fear X"), met with enthusiastic audiences. "This is the kind of festival I love to go to," Refn admitted to me after his screening, going on to observe how different it was from so many identi-kit European festivals.
With a focus fixed firmly on all the countries of Asia (encompassing the Middle East and Central Asia) there was also room for many documentaries and retrospectives from Italy (the little-known, urbane comedies of Paolo Virzi), Germany (Werner Herzog, embodied by his talkative set photographer Beat Presser) and Africa by way of the French Amiens Film Festival.
The nominees for the Silver Screen Awards were a slightly skewed mix of tried and tested festival favorites and lesser-known premieres. Somewhat predictably Cannes Grand Jury winner "Uzak" strutted off with the lion's share of awards. Among the unfairly overlooked were Mani Haghghi's "Abadan" and Zhu Wen visually and metaphorically rich "South Of The Clouds" (which collected its gongs in Hong Kong).
Terashima Shinobu won best actress for her role in Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator," a bitter but mostly sweet evocation of casual road romance. Vietnamese actress My Duyen's incendiary performance as a nihilistic rich-girl prostitute in "Bar Girls" deserved a nod, mainly because she so utterly transcended a clunky and didactic film.
The FIPRESCI prize went to "August Sun," a very skillfully made, rather predictable, multi-stranded narrative featuring various characters searching for loved ones amidst the extreme civil unrest of Sri Lanka's recent past.
Away from the competition, two strong Asian debuts included Edward Yang collaborator (but no relation) Alex Yang's "Taipei 21," a warmly unsentimental account of the dissolution of a long-term relationship between two young city-dwellers. Kim Hak-Soon's "Rewind" began in South Korean smart-cute romantic drama mode but when its sad-eyed video-store-owning hero accidentally receives an amateur sex-tape, the film took a much more interesting and darker path.
Filmmakers making the most of DV and low-to-zero budgets included James Lee with "The Beautiful Washing Machine," which explored sexual repression and the death of communication among Chinese Malaysians with pitch-black humor and some striking visuals. With this fourth feature, it's clear that Lee, part of a loose wave of indie Malaysian directors, is improving his skills each time, making him someone to watch. Part of the equivalent wave in Philippines is Khavn Dela Cruz, whose bizarrely compelling "Headless" consisted of flashbacks to a dialogue between lovers, which may or may not explain why the man (played by acclaimed director Lav Diaz) has castrated himself and is bleeding to death on the streets of Manila.
In Singapore the issue of censorship is never far away. Despite recent moves to liberalize film ratings, the festival had to lose six titles. Documentaries "Destiny's Children," "Final Solution," and "Desperately Seeking Seka" were banned outright for dealing with Tibet, fundamentalists in India and hardcore porn respectively. Other films required cuts and so the festival upheld its principle not to show anything censored. "Prior to 1991 (when the first adult rating was introduced), every and any film would be cut for any and every reason," an exasperated Cheah informed me. "Post-1991 directors felt a lot safer about sending us films and not getting them butchered. Now we are in 2004 and this year has been the highest number of films lost to the censors."
Appropriate, then, that the film that drew most media buzz was "Cut," a short by Singapore cinema's enfant terrible, Royston Tan. His riposte to censors who mutilated his first feature, the multiple award-winning "15" (which screened once intact during SIFF 2003), "Cut" sarcastically praised censorship in a camped-up musical medley. Irreverent and groundbreaking on home soil (although it had many detractors, including the Minister For Information And The Arts), it will probably look rather parochial overseas.
The other stand-out Singaporean film that might have that problem was "Zombie Dogs," an hour-long "documentary" about eccentric, motor-mouthed film buff Toh Hai Leong. Following his shambolic but endearing attempts to make a snuff movie, whilst railing against the zombified nature of Singaporeans, and gradually revealing his hand-to-mouth existence. Produced by Eric Khoo, once Singapore's great cinematic hope (his "12 Storeys" competed in Cannes in 1997), it's a vicious, hilarious and heart-breaking portrait of an excessively passionate man who doesn't fit easily into a harshly conservative society.
After sitting through an appalling number of spelling and grammatical errors, my own personal prize for best subtitling went to "Vitamin F," the festival premiere of two episodes from Takahashi Yoichiro's perfectly formed (and syntactically immaculate) gem of a TV series. Beautifully scripted and acted, the first episode featured a superb performance from the peerless Koji Yakosho, as a father whose world is shattered by his daughter's lies.
Of the retrospectives, the guiltiest pleasure was a selection of Shaw Brothers-produced 1970s soft-core flicks. Now too tame to even arouse the Singapore censor's wrath, local Chinese audiences got a kick out of seeing famous Hong Kong stars engaging in some surprisingly inventive sexual shenanigans. Lush period erotic dramas "The Golden Lotus" (1974) and "Intimate Confessions Of A Chinese Courtesan" (1972) were immensely stylish. With strongly defined female characters and an utterly precise, ice-cold perception of sex as power, they made a lot of the contemporary films at the festival that dealt with sex and gender issues, look confused and juvenile.
Better still, seeing the legendary Cinemascope Shaw Brothers' pre-titles logo projected onto the vast screen in the slightly decaying Shaw Brothers cinema where most of the festival took place, was a geek-thrill with its own special kind of eroticism.