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Double bill debuts

Two local films by first-time directors hit the big screen at Sinema Old School. -ST

Fri, Aug 14, 2009
The Straits Times

By John Lui

Two Singapore-based directors will have their debut feature films screened at local arthouse Sinema and by coincidence, both deal with loneliness, frustration and alienation.

Neither film has been released in mainstream cinemas largely because of the cost of transferring the movies from digital to print for commercial release.

Writer-director-actor Madhav Mathur's The Insomniac, which premieres tomorrow, is an experimental film about a workaholic writer, Ali, struggling to finish a book.

In one sleepless night, he is visited by people, both real and imagined, who address the issues he is trying to deal with in his work, such as oppression and freedom, order and chaos.

The 88-minute film is 'slightly autobiographical', admits its 25-year-old creator.

'I stopped sleeping for a time because I wanted to do many things and there was no time,' says the financial analyst with a major bank and part-time playwright and film-maker.

No wonder, as he has written six plays, an unpublished book of poetry and will soon have a book published by Penguin India. The book, a dark comedy titled The Diary Of An Unreasonable Man, has already been optioned as a movie by critically acclaimed Indian director Anurag Kashyap.

Mathur, a Singapore permanent resident, came here from New Delhi eight years ago as a scholar to study computer engineering at the Nanyang Technological University.

The Insomniac, which he describes as 'tragicomic', is produced by Bad Alliteration Films, a company he founded with two friends from the university - Varun Viswanath, 26, a television producer who edited and produced the film, and Siddesh Mukundan, 25, a product manager who composed and sound-engineered the rock guitar-based music.

'My name and Varun's are the reason for the name of the company,' says the self-taught film-maker, smiling.

The film was shot over 18 days, mostly on weekends, using friends as actors. They hired a professional director of photography, K.M. Low, to shoot it. Locations included the disused premises of the former Changi Hospital at Changi Point, its rundown state used to illustrate the lead character's fractured state of mind.

The production's $26,000 cost was paid out of the trio's own pockets.

'It is a passion thing,' Mathur says. 'If people ask me, 'Isn't there a better way to use your money?' I would say 'no'. I would do it again.'

The second film on Sinema's roster this month is the drama Invisible Children, by writer-director Brian Gothong Tan, 29.

'The film is about people running away from their realities, whether it is work, school or family,' says Tan, who made his name as a multimedia artist, with works displayed at the Singapore Art Museum, the Venice Architectural Biennale and the Singapore Biennale.

He cut his teeth in features as the director of photography for writer-director Ekachai Uekrongtham's drama, Pleasure Factory (2007).

The graduate of Nanyang Polytechnic and the California Institute of the Arts is now a director with Zhao Wei Films, which produced Invisible Children. Zhao Wei founder Eric Khoo's heartland drama 12 Storeys (1997) had a profound effect on Tan.

'I was blown away by it,' he says of the film he first saw as a teenager. He was touched by the story of people trapped by circumstances and the flats they lived in. So touched, in fact, that Invisible Children can be seen as a homage and a sequel to 12 Storeys, he says.

'It is about what happens to people who try to escape the cages,' says the Singaporean who gets his middle name from his Philippines-born Chinese mother.

The project, shot over 14 days, was made with the help of a $150,000 grant from the Media Development Authority of Singapore, under a scheme to encourage the creation of high-definition video content. It premiered at the Bangkok International Film Festival last year and was also selected for the Singapore International Film Festival this year. It won second prize at the Asian Hotshots Berlin this year.

The 85-minute gently satirical drama, starring veterans Karen Tan, Yeo Yann Yann and Lim Poh Huat, has three story strands, each representing a different slice of Singapore society.

One strand, featuring an air stewardess played by Isabella Chiam, was supposed to have her wearing the sarong kebaya of Singapore Airlines. Permission to use the outfit was refused. Disappointed, Tan created the fictitious Merlion Air instead, lessening the movie's symbolic impact, he feels.

'The sarong kebaya is such cultural icon. If you are a Singaporean, you feel that you own it,' he says.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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