Not childish, just playful
By Joshua Ng
World cinema has been infiltrated lately. Look at any film programme (even this one) and you’ll notice it too. It’s no longer just the high-brow art films of ages past.
At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, its jury broke tradition when it awarded the Palme D’or to the satirical The Square (2017). Later that year, the genre flick, The Shape of Water (2017) bridged arthouse and mainstream sensibilities by clinching both the Golden Lion and the Academy Award for Best Film.
Once the exclusive domain of ‘serious’ films, these festivals were finally acknowledging that cinematic achievement comes in more shapes than one. Sometimes it’s an intricately layered, multi-angled polygon. Sometimes it’s a fun doodle.
Is this a regression?
Playfulness isn’t an indication of immaturity. It’s a sign of growth.
Modern Life and its explosion of movies, television, webisodes, vlogs and all sorts of mass media are compelling filmmakers to find new ways of cutting through the clutter. The rise of playfulness reflects a broadening palette of cinematic approaches.
This wave of playfulness has hit the shores of Singapore with quite a force. Of the 14 titles in the Singapore Shorts ‘18 Official Selection, three stood out for their inventiveness: 5 Rehearsals of a Wedding (2018), 5 Trees (2017) and Shelf Life (2018). All three films drew their ideas and concerns from real life, but are far from realistic in their presentation.
5 Rehearsals of a Wedding (2018)
Wedding anxiety is the heart of visual artist Kray Chen’s latest and most overtly comical work to date.
The actor-director marries his disquiet with his signature brand of wry humour to produce an incisive social commentary on the pressure of Chinese wedding customs.
In Chen’s world, a wedding is a performance, driven more by tradition than emotion. He presents five rehearsals of a Chinese wedding with the groom-to-be and his groomsmen, but cleverly leaves out the bride. Without the wedding’s raison d’être, the whole process is exposed as a series of increasingly trite customs.
Chen notes that in an occasion as momentous as a wedding, the crucial moments are actually few and far between, and punctuated by long stretches of boredom. It’s an observation that anyone who’s been involved in a wedding can empathise with.
In a sense, the film plays like an inverse wedding video. Where a conventional wedding video, or narrative film, would focus on key events, 5 Rehearsals elides these big moments like the gate crash and solemnisation, while amplifying the mundane periods in between—groomsmen doing dips to pass time, the bridegroom lying on the bed exhausted, the whole party eating dinner in silence.
Chen even draws out the tedium of key events. A tea ceremony rehearsal, for instance, quickly devolves into a mindless ritual of recitations. The result is awkward and hilarious, but also a succinct demonstration of how repetition can dull the meaning behind traditions.
This is smart filmmaking. Chen is unmistakably playful with his gags, but the comedy is never an end in itself. It is just a medium for him to deliver his critique on time-honoured wedding practices. It’s a heavy subject for a short, but the comedic treatment makes his criticism more palatable and memorable. He isn’t playful for the sake of being playful.
This thoughtfulness also extends to the cinematography. Naturalistic camera angles are eschewed in favour of flat, planimetric composition that accentuate the forced formality of the events.
In the aforementioned tea ceremony, the camera gradually pivots and flattens the composition to mirror the increasingly robotic nature of the ritual—another example of intelligent scene design in a film full of bold choices.
Also note: two clocks in the background, a visual gag that reinforces the notion of meaningless repetition. These little details remind us of the heightened nature of the world we are seeing on screen but they don’t lose us completely because the big ideas are all drawn from real life.
The strength of Chen’s comedy rests in the familiarity of these moments. Everyone who has been through these customs must have questioned their purpose at one point or another. Chen’s simply asking the same questions, but he distinguishes his work with his willingness to openly mock these longstanding practices.
5 Trees (2017)
Speaking of mockery, director Nelson Yeo proves to be a master of it in his short film 5 Trees, named after a popular dating spot under five Angsana trees near Clifford Pier.
He first sets up a typical arthouse melodrama: the protagonist Mok confesses his feelings and regrets to Keow via on-screen titles. No dialogue. No colour. Haunting soundtrack. Very serious. The kind of film you might see in a standard film festival years ago.
After five minutes of feeding us this sob story, we are casually informed that Keow’s response was eaten by a cat.
It’s a jarring tonal shift that instantly trivialises his tragedy. I chuckled a little. This was Yeo meticulously crafting a sob story, then telling us it didn’t matter. The cat doesn’t just mock Mok, it mocks the viewer for taking him so seriously.
Yeo then proceeds to espouse his cynical worldview via the cat - that no heartache is really special in the grand scheme of things. “More fools are just gonna walk the same paths and alleys”, it observes.
Tonal shifts are tricky. They can leave a strong emotional “whiplash” that stays with the viewer long after the film. But only if the viewer is emotionally invested. They also tend to alienate the viewer, who might remain more emotionally guarded post-shift, especially if they feel cheated of their emotional investment.
For Yeo to pull this off mid-film, that’s bold filmmaking.
He sets himself up for success by invoking familiar experiences from the get-go. From the title to the setting to the language (Mandarin and Malay), the film is undeniably tied to the Singapore experience. Yeo leverages this affinity, coupled with the simple and universally understood narrative of star-crossed lovers, to quickly solicit emotional investment from the viewer.
That’s not where the ingenuity of the film lies. Getting a viewer invested in a film is expected. But Yeo playfully throws in the cat moment knowing full well that it would raise an emotional wall in the viewer for the remainder of the film, because this is exactly the effect he wants. The subtle suspicion that such a perspective shift induces in the viewer matches the cynicism of the cat and of the second half of the film.
Again, this is intelligent playfulness. This is a filmmaker expanding his toolkit and experimenting with narrative tricks to elicit specific effects.
I have been thinking about this moment since I first saw the film at the 2017 Singapore International Film Festival. Perhaps such an abrupt shift was only possible in a short film. The vast majority of feature films are typically bound by narrative considerations. It’s only in a short film that one could get away with flipping the script mid-film (fun fact: the cat moment cleaves the film exactly in half, right down to the second).
Perhaps the short film format inherently allows for more playfulness and experimentation than a feature, and Shelf Life is the exemplar of this.
Shelf Life (2018)
Visual artist Ryan Benjamin Lee’s latest work is completely anti-narrative and experimental.
Porcelain statuettes and antique Coca-Cola cans spin across a backdrop of old K-drama DVDs and novelty ornaments, all while a pulsing beat gradually collapses into a cacophony of noises. These are items we might see at an antique store or on a forgotten shelf at home.
Of the three films, this is undoubtedly the most playful. By eschewing all narrative convention in favour of pure visceral impact, it compels us to look at these oft-ignored objects for a protracted duration by recontextualising them.
Like the other two films, Shelf Life draws from the real world. It breathes new life into forgotten items by re-presenting them in a dynamic manner. Immobile antiques are animated with a restless energy that forces us to reconsider these familiar items. The unusual portrait aspect ratio also aids in this recontextualization, helping to create something foreign out of the familiar.
And It works. I was hooked by the intricacy of the images and the hypnotic rhythm of the sound design, and the general overload of my senses. It was Lee being playful with cinematic techniques in an effort to re-introduce overlooked objects, just as Chen and Yeo had done so with their more abstract concepts.
But what does it all mean?
I have no idea.
But I do know that what I am seeing is bold and experiential. It prompted me to glance at my shelf. There were definitely some items I had long forgotten about. What else was I forgetting? Who else was I forgetting? And what shelf lives did they have? These questions may be completely unintended by Lee. But I find value in considering them anyway.
Cinema has the capacity to catalyse change in this world, but we have to keep up. Cinema must change, it must adapt and it must grow. The short film format is a rich arena for experimentation, and it is encouraging to see local filmmakers display such playfulness in our homegrown experimental scene.
If these three shorts are anything to go by, Singapore cinema is alive and well. It may be a young film scene but that doesn’t mean we’re childish. We’re just playful.
About the writer
Joshua read Communication Studies with a concentration in Broadcast & Cinema Studies at Nanyang Technological University. In his time there, he was part of the organising committee for two editions of Perspectives Film Festival, as Festival Director in 2016 and a Film Programmer in 2017. He participated in the Youth Jury and Critics Programme of the 28th Singapore International Film Festival, where he received the Young Critic Award.
The views set out in this article are those of the author and is not representative of AFA's official opinion.