Friday, 28 July 2006

S11 (2006)

Are you scared of the dark?

The film industry in Singapore produces an average of 3 feature films a year – one by Jack Neo, another by Eric Khoo, and an independent title. 2006 is a bumper year for Singapore film: no less than 7 films will be released this year! We have 2 produced by Eric Khoo (Be With Me and 4:30), 1 from Kelvin Tong (Love Story), and 4 independently-produced features: Tan Pin Pin’s Singapore Gaga, Han Fook Kwang’s Unarmed Combat, and Colin Goh’s Singapore Dreaming.

Yes, I mentioned 4 independent films. The latest independent feature to hit the cinema screens this year is S11, by Gilbert Chan and Joshua Chiang. I understand their script has won the Singapore Screenplay Awards. That was in 2001, and the road from screenplay to feature film has taken a long 5 years. In that time, we have seen an explosion in local film, and drastic improvements in storytelling, production, dialogue and acting, even in independent films. Does 2001’s S11 measure up to the very large class of 2006?

In order to realise the significance and worth of S11, it is perhaps necessary for a rundown of the class of 2006, to look at their strengths and weaknesses.

Be With Me – Arthouse, poetic gem
4:30 – An interesting premise masks a lack of content, depth, and development, and showcases Royston Tan’s weakness in the feature film format.
Love Story – Very good first 30 minutes with wild and interesting ideas out of Italo Calvino, fizzling out shortly afterwards.
Singapore Gaga – Experimental masterpiece, a sonic painting
Unarmed Combat – A far cry from The Call Home, which remains the only flash of brilliance from Han.
Singapore Dreaming – basically an early Jack Neo film crossed with your average TCS 8 drama serial. Embarrassingly banal and unoriginal, trite and whiny – quite unlike Jack Neo or even your average TCS 8 drama serial.

As you can see, there isn’t a single mainstream feature film this year that would get me running to the cinemas. Part of it is the absence of Jack Neo. Part of it is the failure of imagination and creativity on the part of Singaporean filmmakers who do have the resources to make a feature film. We are stuck with the angsty HDB heartlands melodrama or the clever but only for the first half hour quirky film.

And then, we have S11. At first glance a story covering the events of one day and the lives of 3 unconnected people not so much are pulled together by fate as much as are clunked together haphazardly like ice cubes in a shaken glass. Their unconnected stories will link up, but in an unexpected manner, leading to either an explosive or wild resolution. This is a type of genre by itself, but it’s a genre with a very loose structure, allowing for all sorts of permutations.

Here, we have a salariman (Timothy Nga) working at a jewellery store who has lost a huge sum of company money when his suitcase is stolen by gangsters. There, we have a stuttering loser of a mousey cook (Kevin Murphy) daydreaming about being a hero in the Young and Dangerous series while the rest of the world laughs at his ineptitude and lack of cajones. And thither is a teenage student who puts on a pink wig and sells pornographic VCDs at makeshift stalls in order to raise support her family and boyfriend.

You know that all their problems will be solved by film’s end, but what is surprising is that I couldn’t really guess most of the time how that resolution could be effected. Unpredictable is the keyword here, and unpredictable is what the mainstream local features of this year are not. The dialogue was blisteringly funny, and the black humour had me grinning. Singlish, if used, was so lacking in artifice and self-consciousness that it ceased to be even noticeable. This is what a Singaporean film of quality should feel, look, and sound like!

As part of the MDA film project, S11 was shot in digital video (DV). This format, with its overly harsh look, sharp edges, and absolutely awful rendition of anything illuminated by fluorescent light, is usually a mainstay of indie short films and art festivals and a kiss of death everywhere else. Except here. Credit have to be given to Chan and Chiang and their DP for choosing locations that complement and show off the strengths of DV, and in one scene, actually managing to make digital video look almost like film. There are some very minor missteps that make you almost want to shield your eyes in the cinema, such as the use of slow motion and time-lapse sequences, which showcase the worst visual shortcomings of DV.

On the whole, I love S11 for being a truly original Singaporean film. While all the commercial releases of local films this year could be traced as “being influenced by the films of XX director or XX novelist”, I honestly could not imagine Gilbert Chan and Justian Chiang’s script or cinematography as derivative of any big names. These two independent directors have created a film that is all theirs, and I hope they bring more feature films to our cinemas in the future.

First published at incinemas on 3 August 2006

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