Jafar Panahi's Circle

Apr 11-28 2001

In 1991, when the Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF) introduced the Silver Screen Award for the Best Asian Feature Film, it was the first international Asian festival with an award solely for Asian film. Since then, other Asian festivals such as Pusan have also commenced providing specialised platforms for Asian film.

Past winners in Singapore include Tsai Ming-liang (Vive l’amour), Im Kwon-taek (Sopyonje), Zhang Yuan (Beijng Bastards), Chen Kaige (Life On a String), and Park Kwang-Su (Black Republic)

SIFF was founded 14 years ago by film buffs, and since then has established a formidable reputation for showcasing Asian cinema. This year, some 350 films were shown from around the world and about 40 percent of the program was devoted to Asian films, with particular focus on the documentary genre.

Of this year’s 16 films in competition, half had already picked up awards in other major festivals around the world.

Jafar Panahi’s The Circle (Dareyeh) won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival 2000. Deceptively structured around a day in the lives of several women, The Circle exposes the social repression, restrictions and injustice Iranian women experience in their everyday lives. 19 (Takhte Siah) won the Excellent Film Award at the PIA Film Festival. A radical and stylish first film by director Kazushi Watanabe, 19 is a bittersweet road movie about a lonely youth who becomes friends with his abductors. Watanabe kept the plot moving at a tight pace dazzling the audience with gestures, colour and light in the film.

Marziyeh Meshkini (wife of acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf) won the Best Director Award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival 2000 with her self-scripted film The Day I Became A Woman (Roozi Keh Zan Shodam). The film is a powerful statement about the social oppression of women in Iran today. Marziyeh uses vivid imagery and allegorical storytelling in this tale shot on the Kish Island. Hong Sang-soo’s third and most accessible film, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, received the Special Jury Prize at the Tokyo lnternational Film Festival 2000. This cryptic movie, shot in crisp black and white, plays like a Rashomon love triangle, exploring the ideas of random chance in its depiction of the encounters between the various combinations of the three leads.

Chunhyang by acclaimed and respected Korean director Im Kwon Taek, is the first South Korean film to screen in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. It won the Best Director Award at the SIFF. Based on a classic Korean folk tale of doomed lovers in the vein of Romeo And Juliet, the film is lifted by the narrative device of a pansori (traditional Korean music) singer. Clouds Of May (Mayis Sikintisi) is a deeply felt and masterfully constructed biographical film which sees director Nun Bilge Ceylan depicting the life of his own family trying to live a rural and natural existence. The film won the FIPRESCI Grand Prize at the European Film Critics Award. It was awarded the Special Jury Award at the SIFF. Taiwan’s Lin Cheng-sheng won the Best Director award at the Berlin Film Festival 2001 for his film Betelnut Beauty – the story of a Taipei street-vendor who sells betelnuts, a local intoxicant. Her love for a Taiwanese youth is compromised by the temptations of the big city.

The big winner at the SIFF, however, was A Poet (Puisi Tak Terkuburkan) by Indonesia’s Garin Nugroho. Set during the bloody aftermath of the 1965 coup attempt in Indonesia, A Poet won the Best Film Award from the Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema (Netpac) while the film’s protagonist Ibrahim Kadir (who plays himself) won the prestigious Silver Screen Award for Best Actor.

Ibrahim was one of the thousands of people who were accused of being communists and unlawfully detained after the coup attempt. He spent 22 days in prison. The film tells how he dealt with the trauma of his detention and the witnessing of executions by putting these experiences into beautiful ballads in the tradition of didong (poetic ballad) from the central highlands of his native Aceh.

The other film to win two awards at the Festival was director Asoka Handagama’s This Is My Moon (Me Moge Sandai), which achieved a young Cinema Award as well as a special mention by Netpac. The film is about jealousy, betrayal, hatred and lust in a remote village in Sri Lanka, the emerald island that is losing much of its glitter due to the ongoing civil war.

Vietnam received the Best Actress Award for Nguyen Lan Huong in The House of Guavas (Mua Oi). Directed by Dang Nhat Minh, it is a poignant evocation of the history of Vietnam from its independence to the present day told through the memories of a simple-minded Vietnamese man.

The Silver Screen Award for Best Film went to Shinji Aoyama’s film Eureka (Japan), which begins as a thriller involving three survivors of a bus hijacking but turns gradually into a sensitive portrayal of their growing relationship with each another.

The Festival organisers’ gambit of placing two acclaimed Asian features, Taiwanese feature Yi Yi and Eureka, for the opening and closing night films respectively, paid off. The tickets for both sessions were sold out, which was not the case for last year’s raucous opening gangster flick from Japan, Monday and meditative Iranian closing film, The Wind Will Carry Us.

The Festival however took its biggest gamble in its entire history when it turned the focus this year on documentaries. Going with the theme, Stranger than Fiction – The Documentary Film, the Festival cast the spotlight on cinema’s beginnings, over 100 years ago, and the charting of two paths: the fantastic (Georges Méliès) and the real (the Lumière brothers). It would seem the gamble worked as many of the documentary features, like The Gleaners And I and We Sold Our Souls For Rock & Roll saw brisk ticket sales.

The SIFF also celebrated ‘reality’ with tributes to Harun Farocki (Germany), Chris Marker (France), Kim Longinotto (UK) and programmes of experimental and personal documentary.

Farocki is a legendary documentary essayist. The subjects of his films may be academic, among them napalm production, the Vietnam War, the construction of highways, sexuality and the societal division of labour, but his treatment is anything but. Farocki’s studies do not give any answers, but they continuously probe and challenge the viewer.

Workshops and discussions conducted by documentary masters like Marker (Statues Also Die) and Farocki (Images Of The World And Inscriptions of The War) were also well attended.

Despite the sell out and well attended sessions, the official figures reveal the final tally of 45,000 admissions this year in comparison to 60,000 of last year. This, however, is due to the smaller cinema halls at the main venue, the plush and centrally located Golden Village Grand multiplex at Great World City. The centralised venue was a hit with audiences, who in previous years, found themselves travelling hectically to various cinema venues scattered all over the city.

Despite the popularity of GV Grand, the Festival is considering alternative venues for next year’s event to allow for a larger catchment of cinemagoers. Audience enthusiasm was lukewarm, however, for the ambitious screening of Russian film pioneer Sergei Eisenstein’s 1938 silent classic, Alexander Nevsky, at the University Cultural Centre on April 6 and 7, which was screened with a live orchestral accompaniment by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra. Despite the event’s impressive magnitude, audiences stayed away from the black-and-white classic, tickets sales barely hitting 60 per cent.

Another disappointment this year was the fact that no awards were given for the Best Singapore Short Film Award. According to Festival programmer, Philip Cheah, the SIFF has always existed as a field of dreams. When the Festival began in 1987 and decided to provide a platform for Singapore cinema, there wasn’t any feature-filmmaking industry to speak of. There was only the belief that if you build it, they will come – the filmmakers, that is. Since 1991, when a competition section opened for Singapore short films, there have been annual entries of about 30 short films in various formats.

The shorts competition prize was also instrumental in funding Eric Khoo’s debut feature, Mee Pok Man (1995), which has since travelled to over 37 festivals. The Best Director winner in 1996, Lim Suat Yen, also used her prize to partially fund her first feature, The Road Less Travelled. Other prizewinners such as Cheah Chee Kong and Abdul Nizam have subsequently been involved in feature projects, such as Chicken Rice Wars and Stories About Love respectively.

This year, there were six finalists. But the jury decided not to award the Best Film and Best Director awards. Instead they handed the Special Achievement Award to eAhLong.com, directed by Colin Goh. The jury citation praised the short for its clever casting and wry humour. The jury’s decision came as a surprise to Philip Cheah, who believed the finalists were better this year. Fourteen years since the Festival’s founding, the field of dreams it would appear, still needs nurturing.


Best Film Winner: EUREKA, directed by Shinji Aoyama, Japan
Citation: For its poetic view of grief and the will to live, told in unforgettable images of cinematic precision

SFC Young Cinema Award
Winner 1: PLATFORM, directed by Jia Zhang-Ke, China Citation: For its tender and humane look at people’s lives and through it, an epic history of a country in upheaval.

Winner 2:
THIS IS MY MOON, directed by Asoka Handagama, Sri Lanka Citation: For daring to employ unique cinematic language and biting humour to respond to the insanity of war.

Special Jury Prize
Winner: CLOUDS OF MAY, directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey Citation: For giving viewers a filmmaker’s intimate and personal impression of life, yet also opens us into its universality

Best Director
Winner: IM KWON TAEK – CHUNHYANG, Korea Citation: For an unusual treatment of a classic folk tale transformed into a sweeping spectacle of music and passion.

Best Actor
Winner: IBRAHIM KADIR – A POET, Indonesia Citation: For going beyond acting and courageously reliving a painful past to tell the truth today

Best Actress
Winner: NGUYEN LAN HUONG – THE HOUSE OF GUAVAS, Vietnam Citation: For a rare, dignified simple performance which managed to reveal profound

No Best Film or Best Director winners

Special Achievement Award
Winner: eAHLONG.COM, directed by Colin Goh Citation: A short with clever casting and wry humour. The filmmakers evidently enjoyed making this film. We appreciated that and also how it delivered the last word on dot.coms and new economies.

A POET (PUISI TAK TERKUBURKAN), by Garin Nugroho 90 minutes, Indonesia, 2000
Silver Screen Awards Section
For its inventive and emotionally effective use of a musical counterpoint of solo and choral voices to relate the story of an immense social tragedy from an intimate and individual point of view.

Special mention to THIS IS MY MOON (ME MOGE SONDAI), by Asoka Handagama 104 minutes, Sri Lanka, 2000
Silver Screen Awards Section
For its symbolic treatment of the civil war in Sri Lanka and its constant search for metaphorical images describing the social and political gaps in the country.

About The Author

Nazir Keshvani is a Singaporean film critic and journalist.

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