SGIFF Short Film Reviews: A reminder of the diversity and richness of Southeast Asian stories on screen
With every edition of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), one of the absolute highlights and most popular programmes ends up being the short films, with tickets often snapped up with fans and curious viewers interested in discovering the next big director in these works. Thanks to the Projector Plus, besides the in-cinema screening these short films received, viewers could also catch these films online, from the comfort on their home. We watched 20 of these short films from across Singapore and the rest of Asia, and review them as follows:
While we often see the plight of migrant workers depicted in film, it’s much rarer that we see it from the perspective of their family. In Judy Free, a child sees her own father as a blurred out figure when he returns home from working overseas. Understated in its approach and well-crafted, it’s the little moments of discomfort that threaten to tear the family apart that make this film so powerful, resulting in an uneasy, uncertain future, even as they poses together for a final family portrait.
Koo Chia Meng harnesses the power of queer sexual awakening as two supposedly straight boys waste an afternoon away together, before more sexual discussions ensue. While most of the film is in black and white, colour slowly begins to seep in when one of them gently, carefully caresses the other in his sleep, an overt but nice touch. We are reminded of the brief moment of joy one feels at being with one’s crush, before rejection and fear plunges one into a monochrome world once again, and hints at the potential for a longer, feature film about sexuality in youth.
A gorgeous, almost surreal film set on a golf course, where the new tee girl figures out her role and limits as to what she can do. Filipinana’s strength lies in its ability to make us feel like we’re walking through a dream, where you can almost feel the sticky sweat from the humid environment, and the magnificent, untouchability of the golf facilities. The girls are dressed in white uniforms, with thigh high boots and sleeveless blouses, seemingly objectifying them. While never explicit in how it wants viewers to read the film, there is very strong world-building and an unspoken mystery in the film that leaves us wanting to follow our protagonist on her strange journey.
Singaporean director Michael Kam imagines his two grandmothers and their different childhoods spent respectively under British and Japanese imperialist rule. Its title may sound innocent enough, but the content anything but. Of the two narratives, the Japanese one is stronger, and manages to capture a unique tension when his other grandmother begins to deliberately change the words in a Japanese nursery rhyme to insult them, and we fear for her fate as her classmates chime in, and her teacher watches on in horror, and brings to the fore the quiet terror of living in a country that no longer belongs to you.
More than a few familiar faces make appearances in this short film about death, including Richard Low and Peter Yu, as a family undergoes the traditional funeral rites for a deceased grandmother. Ting struggles to cope with the loss, but more importantly, the film showcases the range of ways with which to cope with grief. While Ting wears her heart on her sleeve, as a millennial, she does not understand and questions the raucous nature of wakes and the apparent ‘joy’ her relatives arrive with. Tiny details, like her father’s desire to hold on to a piece of the deceased’s clothing, or a passing comment on how the dead live on in the bodies of moths, add a cultural and emotional richness to this film before it ends brilliantly with a massive bonfire of paper offerings to her grandmother in the afterlife.
Similar to Holding On, Letting Go, this film also deals with the loss of a loved one, but takes on a quieter approach, as it imagines a karaoke song leading a grandmother’s spirit back to her family during the Chinese ghost month. Slightly surreal, understated and quietly moving, there is equal parts grief and nostalgia this film evokes.
It’s incredible how Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen have consistently released one film for each of the last three editions of SGIFF, and while The Cup is a short, it is by no means less inventive than their previous surreal offerings. The Cup sees a strange man go about his day, making coffee from his mechanical head, before lying still on the floor, as a form of rest. Shot in black and white, there are moments this film harkens back to the silent film era, and more than a few instances of horror as the man gets into scrapes and mishaps. Delightfully absurd, and proof of a rich imagination brought to life by ever-improving filmmaking skills of the duo.
A ten year old boy attempts to save his parents’ marriage by setting off fireworks to recreate a shared memory. Lack of realism aside (who in the world is allowed to use pyrotechnics like that?), one feels the sheer determination of the boy and his mother’s exasperation as she tries (and fails) to convince him that his father is never turning up. Plenty of wide shots of the field help set up our anticipation for the final spectacle, with the carpet eventually pulled from under us when the boy is left disappointed. Thankfully, the strong mother-son relationship provides solace.
By far the strangest film of the ones we watched, a transgender woman disguises herself as a gay masculine man as an act of espionage. Unfortunately, she falls in love with her student activist target. With an outrageous premise, absurd conversation, and a dream-like sequence of events, Aninsiri Daeng rightfully receives recognition for its commitment to its deliberately obtuse narrative. It’s the kind of film you want to watch again to examine the symbolism in its set pieces and metaphors, if not for its sheer audacity, maintaining its own logic even amidst the weird narrative and commentary on language and intimacy.
Foreign workers take the spotlight as two of them find love in each other while on the graveyard shift. While the script borders on pretentious, the cinematography reveals a quiet beauty in the wee hours of Singapore, and captures the transitory nature not just of their jobs, but life itself, as they wrestle to stay with one another amidst everything society seems to throw at them.
A teenage boy roams Manila looking for an anonymous hookup, while men lie dead and bloody along the path he treads. Elijah Canlas, known for BL roles such as the one in Gameboys, is an apt enough casting choice as an object of desire, but the film itself struggles to find a purpose by its end, in spite of of its stylishly noir version of Manila and overt reference to queer icon Saint Sebastian.
A tale of a boy and his grandmother as they grieve and live with the loss of his grandfather. The Smell of Coffee provides a succinct portrait of HDB-living in Singapore, and the quiet pain of loss, as seen from the eyes of a child, filled with nostalgia for the past and the mundane nature of the present.
Theatremaker Liu Xiaoyi stars in this short film about death, as his character and his family go into mourning following his mother’s death. While they belief that her spirit has returned, nothing supernatural ever actually happens; instead, 21 Days becomes a reflection of how we look for those we’ve lost in every little thing, and how it affects us in both mind and body.
This Malaysian-Taiwanese film sees a man returning home to Malaysia with his Taiwanese girlfriend to see his parents. A truncated version of a road trip movie, drama ensues thanks to the parents’ barely veiled contempt for his girlfriend, as old wounds and anger bubbles to the surface in the midst of a monsoon. The parents in particular do a spectacular job at their role, and evoke our own fears and hang-ups about respect versus taking a stand.
Ram reluctantly becomes a brother figure to a young and helpless boy, both undocumented workers. For a student work, My Brother is remarkably cinematic, and Shreela Agarwal is boldly original to put these rarely seen figures onscreen without veering into tokenism for representation’s sake. There are enough thrills and genuine emotions captured in this short to keep us hooked, and certainly, keeps us interested to see what other stories Shreela is set to tell in future projects.
This Cambodian film follows a young beautician looking for love in the form of a delivery driver. Paying homage to classic Cambodian films, there is an element of fantasy involved and more that is left unsaid than explicitly showcased, as it charts the hidden rivulets of desire running through the streets of Phnom Penh, capturing the city’s spirit and night scenery beautifully.
Set at Singapore’s East Coast Park, Li Lin Wee’s short film feels overambitious as it attempts to intersect the lives of three unique couples each going through their own problems. A queer couple face the scars from their previous relationships, a Filipino and China-born migrant worker struggle with their respective likes and dislikes, and an expat couple from America argue over religion. While each story is interesting, the ways they intersect feel a little forced, with the drama feeling scripted as opposed to natural. Nonetheless, an interesting idea that could be further explored still.
A stand out amongst the short films, Silk grips you like you’re watching a pot about to boil over, as a family struggles to accept a dark secret while dealing with an ailing father. Director Don Aravind pulls no punches here, and delivers a deeply unnerving, unflinching family drama that keeps unravelling the more you watch it, with strong performances from all cast members.
Abandoned schools always make for wonderful filming sites, and there has been plenty of effort that went into the set design for And They Roamed. Unfortunately, a weak script and flat performance from the cast prevent us from feeling much for this angsty show about teenage bullying when two suicidal girls meet a literal ghost from the past.
Sausage Party gets a Japanese twist, in this music video-like short film anthropomorphising sushi and sashimi. As its title suggests, these characters literally pimp themselves out to customers, and can only watch on in horror as they are consumed. Manic in its energy and absurd in its vision, Sexy Sushi is a fun romp whose seemingly shallow presentation belies a greater message about mindless consumption and consumerism. Then again, maybe it really is just a film that’s trying to be as weird as it possibly can be.
SGIFF 2020 ran from 26th November to 6th December 2020 both online and across multiple venues. For more information, visit their website here