Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Royston's Shorts (DVD) (2006)

Short films:
Hock Hiap Leong
The Absentee
The Blind Trilogy: Blind, Old Parliament House, Capitol Cinema
Careless Whisperer
New York Girl

4A Florence Close
In-depth interview with Royston Tan

Distributed by Asian Film Archive

Is Royston that great a genius that barely out of the infancy of his film career, he gets a retrospective? You decide!

For its first DVD, the Asian Film Archive gave us the definitive collection of the short films that kick-started Singapore’s indie filmmaking scene in 2002. Its follow up collection appropriately focuses on Royston Tan, the brightest and newest star to emerge from the class of 2002. The young filmmaker, born in 1976, is an instant icon for the indie scene and its followers. Tan’s rapid rise, garnering strings of awards from 2002 onwards (Tan has made very few short films prior to this) and brickbats from conservative members on Singapore’s film censorship board, has made him an icon and a rallying point for the artistic community.

This collection of Royston’s Shorts is a sampler of the director’s short film oeuvre, charting his work from 2000 to his latest offering this year. There are 4 award-winning short films that show Tan at his best – Sons, Mother, Hock Hiap Leong, and Monkeylove. As a representative of his MTV-inspired style, the curators at the Asian Film Archive have chosen works like Jesses and The Absentee. And lest we think Tan is all style and no substance, we get to see some experimental films that may or may not work – but certainly show a director unwilling to rest on his laurels, grasping furtively to assemble a new grammatology, an new language, a reinvention of his easily parodied style. That’s 24hrs and the Blind Trilogy. There are the tales of individuals dislocated in society, told in 3 different narrative forms: Careless Whisperer, New York Girl, and Monkeylove.

Watching the offerings over a few days, a certain pattern emerges. Dancing around Royston Tan’s films are the twin concerns of memory (of places, times, and relationships lost), and of outsiders and their alienation. Yet Tan manages to coax from these two strands, infinite permutations of emotions, genres, modes of storytelling, and visual style.

Here is my personal list of favourites:

Hock Hiap Leong
A young visitor to a coffeeshop facing its last days muses about the memories the place must’ve grown, about the hidden lives of its proprietor and stall owners. A tender narration segues into a full-blown musical. Every other local short film I’ve seen that tries to commemorate a disappearing landmark or trade ends up as an emotional tirade or a maudlin, lachrymose piece. Hock Hiap Leong shows how it is possible to celebrate disappearing monuments.

The voice-over narrator (always male) is a fixture in many Royston Tan short films. Yet here, Monkeyboy is the first who isn’t filled with angst or filled with anger. Made last year, Monkeyboy represents new grounds for Royston Tan, from fresh protagonists to fresh themes. This is the least typical of Tan’s short films, and leaves one wanting to see this young director take on more.

The Blind Trilogy
Partly a homage to the abandoned Capitol Cinema and the old Parliament House, and partly an exercise in a sonic fugue. It’s an interesting experiment, even though it’s not a great short film, and I applaud the curators for including this film in the collection. The Blind Trilogy only appears long and not-that-great to me because I’ve heard Glenn Gould’s Solitude Trilogy, which showcased the innovation of contrapuntal audio, in which many voices and noises are blended all at once, yet retaining coherence and audibility. I would’ve included The Old Man and the River in this collection, just to show Royston’s other approach to the same topic and material.

Does a short film director with only 16 titles over 7 years deserve a best of collection? Asian Film Archive makes a very compelling argument with this collection.

First published at incinemas on 5 July 2006

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