The Best Of Times

(17 April – 3 May 2003)

16. The Ending Is The Beginning Is The End

In Strain Andromeda The (1992), video artist Anne McGuire re-edits Robert Wise’s The Andromeda Strain (1971) by reversing his sequences shot-for-shot. In visualising reverse chronology, McGuire performs a literal subversion of the popular ‘race-against-time’ genre. The effect is so neat that arriving a minute late would mean missing the ending, as I did. “Stealing Movies”, a segment of the Festival dedicated to exploring the ethics surrounding the phenomenon of Found Footage, hosted McGuire’s intervention, alongside Craig Baldwin’s Sonic Outlaws (1997), Peter Tscherkassky’s The Cinemascope Trilogy (1998) and Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002). Unlike the Readymade, where objects are predisposed by the ideological discourse of institutions to determine them as art, the assimilation of Found Footage for mass consumption is symptomatic of contemporary culture’s pluralist condition. It is through the desire to appropriate that re-presentation is inevitable.

15: The Trouble With It


There’s a line from Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990) that goes: “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” This is the same line the nannies that run Singapore want to guard their sheltered children from uttering at all costs. In a country where controversy is destabilising to the status quo, 15 (Royston Tan, 2003), Singapore’s latest feature film, has found itself at the centre of a storm that may blow up or over. The story of disenfranchised teenagers, 15 is an extension of Tan’s short film similarly titled, and which has travelled far and wide to critical acclaim. On the surface, we see a downtrodden cast of characters struggling to live by mainstream society’s ideals of status and materialism, yet these binaries are being constantly undermined by the ideological values that construct them. The subject-matter is not new – 15‘s affinity with Larry Clark’s Kids (1995) is obvious, and Tan reinforces the genre by opting for the flash and dazzle treatment of what is liberally termed the ‘MTV style’, something I would argue doesn’t always justify his material.

15‘s Festival debut played to a full house, and the word from critics has been encouraging. Whether it gets an eventual release – uncut – at home depends on the Singapore censors, who are likely to invoke the State’s dominant ideologies of nation building and rectitude when passing judgement. One genuine controversy to have emerged from this constructed one is the police’s involvement in the decision-making process. Singapore has always been a police state, and given the clout of the police as guardians of morality, it isn’t surprising that these bluenoses have bottled and labelled the film as society’s ultimate poison when in fact they have no business being self-appointed watchdogs of culture. 15‘s producer, filmmaker Eric Khoo, has reasoned: “I told Royston to be creative and not to censor himself. 15 touches on a certain pulse which needs to be expressed. It seems really wrong that local audiences have to fight to see it while international audiences are raining praises on it.” What’s at stake now is not whose court the ball is in, but in fact who has bigger balls.

14. In The Mood To Retrospect

At the Festival’s press conference late February, founder Geoff Malone described in his overview that in light of tense world affairs, the Festival was in a “contemplative mood” and was hence serving a dose of retrospectives this year; six in all – on Singapore’s Cathay Studios’ actresses Grace Chang and Maria Menado, and auteurs Sergei Paradjanov, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Dharmasena Pathiraja and Bertrand Tavernier. None unfortunately were complete. Barring the glamour and nostalgia that Chang and Menado have come to symbolise, it’s ironic of course that the respective eras and circumstances in which Paradjanov, Pasolini and Pathiraja worked were cruel and oppressive. On the other hand, their works speak to us in a time arguably worse off than theirs.

13. War Sans Peace

In Anand Patwardhan’s War and Peace (2001), “peace” remains the utopian ideal while its antithesis is the dystopic reality evoked by the feuding demagogues of the Indian and Pakistani governments in their bid to exceed each others’ nuclear might. Someone like George Carlin would have laughed off such posturing as nothing more than “dick-waving” – the contest to see whose missile is bigger, but Patwardhan’s three-hour set piece flaunts the scope of epic investigative journalism admirably. It historicizes (albeit inconclusively some say) the central and tangential consequences of nuclear conflict while documenting the activist struggles that oppose militancy, both in the Indian subcontinent and the world at large.

War and Peace

Patwardhan’s parade of footage amassed from political speeches, rallies and interviews with just about everyone in the food chain is not only nauseatingly factual, but serves to question the competence of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. What the montage construes is that the government’s relentless jingoist mongering is being advocated at the expense and lives of the country’s most oppressed classes. Then, in one segment, a sting operation exposing details of state and military involvement in a corrupt arms deal are made public to embarrassing effect. Without surprise, the censors in India – a committee dominated by cronies of the ruling party as well as Hindu extremists – demanded excisions of all material that would disparage the government: ironically, the truth. Fortunately, Patwardhan is censorship-intolerant, and his 30 years as an activist-documentarist with a taste for political diatribe has effected a lasting yet undesirable relationship with the establishment.

War and Peace will have its second screening in Singapore at Indigo, a festival of contemporary Indian films in July. Despite the problems that come with presenting biased opinions, such films deserve more airtime and publicity. But as things go, Singaporean attention spans are unreliably short, and film distributors here are going all out to pamper this diseased psyche.

12. Sri Lanka’s “Rebel With A Cause”

Like two other directors subject to a retrospective at SIFF this year, Dharmasena Pathiraja (see interview) has been regarded as a rebel artist on his home soil. Of his five films screened, Ponmani (1977) and The Wasps Are Here (1978) are standouts while Old Soldier (1981) represents his most humanist work. It is about four characters estranged from the spectacle of ‘nationhood’ revelry on Sri Lanka’s Independence Day. It even has a prescient line of dialogue where a military superior barks sarcastically to his subordinates: “If we send you to Singapore, you can go to better latrines.” Reportedly, the programme was poorly attended, and I am compelled to entreat: how can coddled Singapore audiences be convinced that, i) black-and-white is not boring, and ii) white people are not the only humans who make engaging cinema?

11.09.01 – Theatre For The Masses

When America was castrated during the fall of 2001, most of the world marched in compassionate accord. Two years on, her grief has attained no closure but has instead reinstated her belligerence. Watching 11’09”01 – September 11 (2002) again, this time after the badly reviewed theatrics in Iraq, I felt uncomfortable contributing to the extended gaze on America as a victim. The French-financed short film anthology invited 11 international filmmakers – Samira Makhmalbaf (Iran), Claude Lelouch (France), Youssef Chahine (Egypt), Danis Tanovic (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Idrissa Ouedraogo (Burkina Faso), Ken Loach (UK), Alejandro González Iñárritu (Mexico), Amos Gitai (Israel), Mira Nair (India), Sean Penn (USA) and Shohei Imamura (Japan) – to respond cinematically to America’s “day of infamy”. “Complete freedom of expression”, the audience is told in the opening titles, although the condition that each film last 11 minutes, nine seconds and one frame is a questionable contrivance. True to form, the artists have expressed what the world has known for a long time now – that America simply collapsed after tasting her own medicine. Of course, that’s not to accuse them of gloating. But given the world’s familiarity with America’s tyrannical streak, self-reflexivity from the inside would have been more revealing, and an omnibus featuring the views of American filmmakers would have proved equally challenging an experiment. Then again, one wonders why the sole American entry from Penn (the only recognisable actor of the lot) doesn’t come close to the critical rigour espoused by Chahine, Nair, Imamura and particularly, Loach.

10. Forgotten Ancestor

Of his aesthetic, the Armenian director Sergei Iosifovich Paradjanov (1924-1990) asserted: “Man is not the creator of his own language. Rather, he is its creature.” Of his life, he declared: “I did not follow the norms, which in a totalitarian state is tantamount to a crime.” This, from a man whom the Soviet government harassed throughout his career, and whose curriculum vitae would also include being arrested, indicted, imprisoned in labour camp and banned from working. And yet, the man would make it known that “(those) years of squalor were the best years of (his) life.”

Indebted to Andrei Tarkovsky and Aleksandr Dovzhenko, but esteemed by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Moravia, Paradjanov, whose celluloid expressions were literally visual art, believed directing was congenital – and not without good reason. The Festival’s tribute to Paradjanov showcased a slew of his finest works regularly hailed as “masterpieces”: Shadows Of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1964), Colour of Pomegranates (1969), The Legend of Suram Fortress (1984), Ashik Kerib (1988), as well as two adjunct documentaries on him: Rouben Kevorkiantz’s Paradjanov: Last Collage (2000) and Ron Holloway’s Paradjanov: A Requiem (1994). In Colour of Pomegranates, a muralist chart of the life of the 18th century Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, composition, colour and cultural iconography dovetail to convey the despair and agonised life of the creator. This is neither irony nor paradox at work. Like others who have rejected the values that inhabit paradigmatic structures, Paradjanov has commented: “We impoverish ourselves by thinking only in film categories. Therefore I constantly take up my paintbrush… Another system of thinking, different methods of perception and reflection of life are opened to me.”

9. Thought Provoking Agent

“Indeed his work in the cinema must be ranked immediately after his work as a poet – and ahead of his novels – for its ambitious scope and the quality of the results he was to achieve,” wrote Alberto Moravia on Pier Paolo Pasolini, who in 1975 was murdered under mysterious circumstances. Without a doubt, his penchant for adapting and reinterpreting literary texts – habitually infused with personal politics, has sponsored some of his most remarkable works. And if sex, violence and scatology have become overriding fetishes in today’s consumerist cinema, one only has to turn to Pasolini to witness their antecedents.

The Scrounger (1961) and Mama Roma (1962), Pasolini’s earliest films which insight contemporary Italian life, work solidly as melodramatic conventions. Then there are his classicist adaptations, though not without his signature embellishments, such as the neo-realist austerity of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), with Christ as a Marxist nomad, and the brilliant Oedipus Rex (1967), cited by Paradjanov as his favourite Pasolini film. His more abstract films are never sympathetic to the literal, such as Hawks and Sparrows (1966), Pigsty (1969) and a handful of short films, all of which are constructed around the tropes of allegory and parody. His final film, Saló (1975), is one that is both literal and figurative, but never sympathetic at all. That Pasolini’s films collectively defy categorisation is hardly the issue; that they are heavy on text, subtext and political critique is probably the reason why they have retained their relevance till today.

8. Cinema Of Smiles

One Night Husband

While Thailand’s Iron Ladies returned to pound the Pink Dollar into submission, the scales were balanced with the presence of a handful of non-mainstream expressions, chiefly Blissfully Yours (2001) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, One Night Husband (2002) by Pimpaka Towira and Mon-Rak Transistor (2002) by Pen-Ek Ratanaruang. All three, it must be said, were highly enjoyable experiences, particularly Apichatpong’s Cannes 2002 Un Certain Regard winner. Thai cinema has never had it so good: a confident home audience has endorsed its popularity for it to emerge as one of Asia’s most industrious filmmaking centres. But for filmmakers like Pimpaka, a ’90s pioneer of Thailand’s independent film scene, it’s never just about the hype. In an unpublished article this year, she noted:

The ever increasing number of Thai films is not the issue. What should be of greater concern for the industry is the lack of variety. Little investment is being made in developing new markets… in exploring new approaches and breaking new ground. There is quantity, but little variety… Today, most of the Thai films being made are ‘re-makes’ of old movies. In comparison to the number of films that have been made from original scripts or screenplays, featuring stories that have never been covered before, these are relatively few.

7. Withdrawal: Symptoms

Pasolini’s Saló was thought to be the goner but it was his The Arabian Nights (1974) that made a solitary public exit from the line-up. Festooned on its catalogue entry was a horizontal sash of text: “Passed With Cuts; Withdrawn From Festival”. The message was clear: censorship would not be condoned. In Singapore, censorship is epidemic but few will admit it. Fewer have realised it. It is an act of terror that runs deep, infiltrating every strata of society. Here, everything is about control. There is no free press or media, and pragmatism is defended as the only credible style of democracy although in truth, Singapore possesses none. Where the arts and culture are concerned, the struggles with censorial tyranny that the theatre and visual arts have had to wrestle with have been well documented, but it is in the arena of film that activism and critical discourse have been the least pronounced. A recent press headline that read: “Censorship rules may be eased, but not moral tone” not only corroborates the State’s intransigent conservatism, but also implicates its dependence on the unsound premise of morality.

6. Intrigues

Flying With One Wing

Some of the most engaging cinema is the kind where you sit down with expectations, only to have the carpet fiercely yanked from your feet. Or else it might be an experience so illuminating it functions to deliver the mind from the recesses of ignorance. A handful of favourites this year: John Junkerman’s Power & Terror: Noam Chomsky in Our Times (2002), a pedestrian experience saved only by Chomsky’s wisdom; Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer’s Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002), for the disclosure of a personal story I had believed was buried with time; Lloyd Kaufman’s All The Love You Cannes (2002), because every underdog has its day, and this film is it; Solveig Nordlund’s Low Flying Aircraft (2001), a seductive adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s short story rendered with nightmarish beauty; Teng Yung-shing’s Love At 7-11 (2002), for a presentation of mesmerizing character studies; Chang Tso-chi’s The Best Of Times (2002), an accomplished follow-up to Darkness and Light (1999), although the warmth and pathos that made the latter so heartrending is now gone; Alexandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002), for a long shot beautifully realised; Flying With One Wing (2002), in which Asoka Handagama directs his wife, Anoma Janadari in standout performance as a transgendered mechanic dealing with the trials of communal prejudice and personal conviction.

5. Nota Bene: Money No Enough

Why is it that in a country as rich as Singapore, money is so hard to come by? I’m referring of course to the state of arts funding, although in this town, getting laid off en masse has been the latest craze. The crisis of arts funding doesn’t exist in a vacuum but is an issue acutely felt by all sectors of the arts. The Festival’s pre-publicity coverage, which focused exclusively on the problem, drove home the point: the arts are starving for funds, but begging for money is not what artists or organisers should be doing. Aid should be forthcoming. The State – via the Singapore Film Commission (SFC) – who should be overturning their coffers inside out to finance all film initiatives unconditionally, especially ones that constantly perform on the upswing, aren’t doing this at all. In fact they had made it known that this year’s sponsorship for the Festival would be much smaller compared to previous years. Which is a travesty, because if private sector funding is so hard to come by during a recession, then who will provide relief? The unemployed?

4. The Germ That Tried

Mother Nature is a bitch, and anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Edward Murphy’s two observations are apropos to how an aetiologically unknown coronavirus managed to chalk up soaring mortality rates, devastate the economy and aggravate the one emotion peculiar to the populace – fear. In the weeks leading to the Festival, speculation was rife whether the event would be an unfortunate casualty of time and circumstance. In the end, it was yes and no. A handful of foreign guests declined their invitations to attend and stayed home, although they really shouldn’t have. On the other hand, filmgoers know better than to give any smorgasbord like this a miss. To relief and surprise, the paranoia did not permeate this boundary. 61,600 was the official attendance figure reported for this year, a gentle rise from the previous year’s 60,000.

3 Is The Number Of Singapore Short Film Finalists This Year

Two years back I wrote on the 14th SIFF (2001) for this space. What interested me that year were the short films competing in the Silver Screen Awards. 78 entries were received but only six made it as candidates for competition. Revealingly, the finalist numbers have been falling over time, from 11 in 1996 to five in 2000. Last year saw eight finalists, but this year only a wretched three surfaced. You can’t help but wonder if this figure might have been inflated; ‘three’ is after all a psychologically satisfying number. However, like in 2001 history repeated itself. Out of the four prizes: Best Film, Best Director, Special Jury Prize and Special Achievement Award, only the latter was awarded. If Singaporean short films have not managed to impress successive juries over the years, it is not entirely because filmmakers do not have interesting stories to tell. They do, but I suspect the pervasiveness of apolitical attitudes among them have bolstered the complacency and relative comfort of working on safe ground.

2. Setting The Tone Right

If art and politics are inseparable, and if a function of art demands that it be utilised to say something about our times, then opening with Im Kwon-teak’s Chihwaseon (2002) and closing with Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention (2002) make for a sense of contemporary relevance. The former, because if love and peace seem so out of reach, then the importance of art, its beauty and wisdom can at least surrogate such urgencies. And the latter, because in times of hostility, suffering and misery – when the retardation of the human race is so unyielding, humour of all things, can be the most bracing antidote.

1. Against The Odds

The repertoire for the 16th Singapore International Film Festival comprised more than 350 films (195 of which were features) from over 45 countries. It ran 17 days, smack in the middle of war and disease, but emerged unscathed.

Silver Screen Awards

Asian Feature Film Category

Best Film: The Best Of Times (Taiwan; Chang Tso-chi, 2002)

Best Director: Angel On The Right (Tajikistan; Djamshed Usmonov, 2002)

Special Jury Prize: Flying With One Wing (Sri Lanka; Asoka Handagama, 2002)

Young Cinema Award: Blissfully Yours (Thailand; Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2002)

Best Actor: Wing Fan in The Best Of Times (Taiwan; Chang Tso-chi, 2002)

Best Actress: Anoma Janadari in Flying With One Wing (Sri Lanka; Asoka Handagama, 2002)


Winner: 15 (Singapore; Royston Tan, 2002)

Special Mention: Unknown Pleasures (China, Jia Zhang-ke, 2002)

Singapore Short Film Category

Special Achievement Award: Autograph Book (Singapore; Wee Li-lin, 2002)

Awards for Best Film, Best Director and Special Jury Prize were not handed out.

Asian Digital Short Film Category

Critics Prize: Kamunting (Malaysia; Amir Muhammad, 2002)