Unearthing tales of home

If you fear that all festival films are arthouse works, with every negative connotation attached to that term - foreign, navel-gazing, slow - this year's Singapore International Film Festival might change your mind.

The range of works at this year's event, which opens tonight, runs the gamut from thrillers to epic romances to insightful documentaries, says festival executive director Yuni Hadi, 38.

Nowhere is the range better illustrated than in the Singapore Panorama section, she says. Five screenings are already sold out. There are a total of 10 features, comprising both documentaries and fiction works, an increase from the eight that were screened at the last edition of the festival in 2011.

This focus on home-grown films could be seen as a reflection of the mood in the larger film-making community.

Lei Yuan Bin, director of the sold-out documentary 03-Flats, has observed that among the community, there is a new surge of optimism, leading to more projects getting under way. The reasons for the optimism include the inspirational example of Anthony Chen's wins for Ilo Ilo (2013) at last year's Cannes Film Festival and Golden Horse Awards, and more flexible funding options by the Media Development Authority.

Launched at the 2008 edition of the festival, the Singapore Panorama continues to showcase local film-makers. Like the rest of the festival, it has a mix of works that might see the light of day in the mainstream cinema, as well as those likely to have more niche appeal.

This year's wide mix of styles and genres "reflects where we are and how our voices are all different", Ms Yuni says. The more accessible films include Han Yew Kwang's raunchy comedy Rubbers and the erotic thriller Lang Tong by Sam Loh, she says.

She notes that a good number of the film-makers, such as Han and Loh, are alumni of previous festival editions, but there are also a number of directors making their debut features and shorts. "Our job as organisers is to support them, whether they are first-time film- makers or returning to the festival for their second or third time," she says.

And yes, the list will include the highly personal, stripped-down works that people associate with arthouse, she adds. "Singapore film-makers are unearthing all these stories that need to be told. The Panorama section is a place for personal expression."

Life! profiles five home-grown films worth catching at the festival.

Ms J contemplates her choice

Singer-actress Kit Chan pays a great deal of attention to her hair, her make-up and her clothes when she plays a role. But it is not for reasons of vanity.

Rather, it is how she approaches acting.

"I start with the clothes, deciding on the haircut, the make-up. Once I've decided on the look of the character, it's almost like you slip into her skin," she tells Life!.

In the drama Ms J Contemplates Her Choice (88 minutes, NC16), Chan, 42, plays the title radio personality who dispenses advice and is later forced by a mysterious caller to make a series of wrenching decisions.

The film will be screened as part of the Singapore International Film Festival on Saturday at the National Museum of Singapore. The session is sold out.

Director Jason Lai, 41, recalls that Chan had strong ideas of what her fringe should be like and even the exact colour of her lipstick. He says: "I remember we had this discussion for a while, on the lipstick. Sometimes on set, she would tell me, 'I know you're not going to shoot my feet, but look at them. I feel that this is the perfect colour for my toenails.'"

And he appreciated the details that she put into the character. He adds: "Everyone felt that as well and everyone worked along at that level. She really lifted the project for me."

Chan is no stranger to acting. She has tread the boards in productions such as the musical December Rains and been on television in the Hong Kong medical drama Healing Hands II (2000).

But Ms J is only her second movie after Lover's Discourse (2011), in which she played the object of infatuation of her son's friend.

The way she chooses her film projects is by instinct.

She says: "When the scripts come and there's no feeling, then you can just forget it. That's not my forte nor my regular thing so it has to be very personal and interesting for me."

Do not mistake her laid-back attitude for laziness, though. She adds: "When something does happen, I'll be very committed and work very hard. But I don't really work hard at trying to make things happen."

Her fans will be happy to know that she is working towards a pop concert next year.

Chan tied the knot with her long-time banker beau in December 2012. Asked how married life has been, she says: "No difference at all because I've no children and we've been together for so long. I'm not in my 20s, I'm very mature already, so it's different."

Rubbers

Sex comedies are a common enough offering in places such as Hong Kong and South Korea. But in Singapore, filmmakers seem to shy away from the genre.

Director Han Yew Kwang, 38, believes there is demand for it though and he is making good on that belief with Rubbers (83 minutes, R21), which comprises three stories about condoms taking place on Valentine's Day.

He says: "In other countries, films about sex are just another genre, it's like just another ordinary choice. But for us, it's taboo and most local film-makers don't tend to make sex films that are accessible to the audience.

"That limits the choice of audiences and who knows, maybe that's what they're looking for."

Encouragingly, the film's screening on Dec 12 has sold out.

A fund-raising campaign for the film on crowdfunding website Indiegogo probably helped to create some buzz for the $500,000 project. While he raised only about a third of the target of US$25,000 (S$32,700) on the site, the process attracted some private investors.

Apart from funding, another challenge he faced was in casting. He points out: "For the established actors, we know it's quite difficult for them to strip down and do some explicit scenes. When we auditioned new faces, there were quite a number of them who were okay with exposing themselves. But they couldn't act as well as the established actors."

Han found himself in something of a dilemma. His solution? "I thought we would go for performance more than anything else."

Alaric Tay (from television skit show The Noose) is a playboy who wakes up one day with a condom trapped on his penis until a character from a porn flick he is watching comes to life to offer assistance.

And in another story, Yeo Yann Yann (Ilo Ilo, 2013) is a condom reviewer out to seduce a plumber.

The third story is about an old couple rekindling their passion after the wife stumbles across a packet of condom.

Both Tay and Yeo have worked with Han on his critically acclaimed feature, 18 Grams Of Love (2007).

As scripted, "we don't get to see any body parts", says Han. "We filmed it in such a way that something will block the important areas. We purposely made it that way to add to the comedy element."

The film has been rated R21 for sexual content with no edits for its festival screening but has yet to be rated for its general release. Han says: "If we need to cut it to get it shown, I'm okay with that."

Little people, big dreams

For documentary-makers, Google is often their friend when the topic bank runs dry.

Film-maker Mak C.K., 36, plugged the words "weird Asia" in the search engine and one of the results was a dwarf theme park in Yunnan, China.

"I thought, 'This can't be real'," he says. But the park, officially named The World Eco Garden of Butterflies and The Dwarf Empire, did exist. Mak was both horrified and fascinated - a sign that he had found his topic.

Parts of Little People, Big Dreams (89 minutes, PG) will make viewers squirm. Tourists gawk at a song-and-dance number put on by little people, who also walk around the park in mascot costumes. The performers are hugged and mauled by visitors, who treat them like toys or zoo animals.

But this is not a record of inhumanity of the sort that seeps out from China with disappointing frequency.

The picture is not black and white and it emerges that the park is not a hellhole, nor are the dwarves naive victims or hapless prisoners. When the key characters speak of their lives as outcasts, the moments are heartrending.

Mak, whose first documentary The World's Most Fashionable Prison (2012), about a fashion rehabilitation programme in the Philippines was an official selection at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival, has worked for National Geographic Channel Asia and Discovery Networks Asia.

He is aware that in making a film about little people, he might be guilty of exploiting them in a Shocking Asia sort of way.

He invited representatives from the support organisation, Little People Of America, to view the film.

A testimonial from the organisation's president Gary Arnold reads: "The beauty of Little People, Big Dreams is that it shines a light on China, lets the dwarf performers tell their own story and allows viewers to reach their own conclusions about the theme park."


This article was first published on December 4, 2014.
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