I am in Singapore, catching just a few films at the 21st Singapore International Film Festival and getting a taste of the culture that this island city-state has to offer. Here's a look at what I watched during my exhausting first day.
Paper Cannot Wrap Up Embers
In his latest docu-drama, Rithy Panh delivers another soul-crushing blow as he trains his camera on dialogue between a group of Phnom Penh prostitutes. They smoke "ma" (amphetamines) from a makeshift plastic-bottle bong, and with nothing to eat but rotten crab, they crunch on the crab shell itself. Another is covered by a horrendous rash. They talk of beatings by johns and their tout. The talk goes on and on, and it's all a bit contrived, but I have no doubt that the experiences are real. Maybe to criticize at all is to trivialize?
Like Panh's unflinching look at the Tuol Sleng torture center in S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine, it's all a bit much to take. It is, nonetheless, an important document with some pertinent things to say about how Cambodian society has still not made much recovery since the Khmer Rouge era, and blame for their plight is laid squarely on the United States for causing the situation that gave rise to the Khmer Rouge and in the UN's temporary government, Untac. 4/5
Breathing in Mud (Bernafas Dalam Lumpur)
Here's a typical James Lee romantic drama, with the usual dryly intertwining, secretly crossed-up relationships of his Love Trilogy (alternatively the Betrayal Trilogy -- is this part of it?). But Breathing in Mud is different from his previous films in that it focuses on Malays, rather than Malaysian-Chinese people.
It's a gentle, slowly twisting drama about Azman, a driving instructor who is married to Lina, and the couple has two children. Azman is also seeing his pretty young secretary-bookkeeper Liza on the side. Then Lina's first husband (and a friend of Azman), Meor, who is thought to be dead, turns up. A mysteriously menacing but charismatic presence -- you just know he's a bad ass by looking at him -- Meor announces his intentions to reclaim Lina and their son, whom Azman has raised as his own. Meanwhile, Liza has a young man trying earnestly to be her suitor, but she keeps blowing him off because of her feelings for Azman.
The people do things and say things that don't make sense sometimes, and you wonder where it's all heading. The pressure is clearly too much for Azman, who has clumps of hair falling off the side of his head. There are also a couple snivelling thugs hanging around threatening Meor, who remains enigmatic about what he's been doing for the past seven years, only to say he's been "herding cattle" in Thailand and Indonesia.
A couple of humorous sub-subplots involve a taxi-driver friend of Azman's -- at one point Lee's fellow Malaysian indie filmmaker Amir Muhammad is riding in the cab and the driver is surprised to find Muhammad's films about "that village" have been banned in Malaysia. Another is an old Chinese-Malaysian man who books the cab for the night so he can spy on the home of his son, whom he has presumably not seen since childhood.
Breathing in Mud is in the Silver Screen competition and is one of two international premieres for Lee at this festival, along with the eagerly anticipated horror film, Histeria, which screens on Sunday night. I won't be watching it, though, because of my choice of viewing during the bulk of Sunday, which I will detail in a forthcoming post. 5/5
Be Kind Rewind
This is not part of the festival, but is playing in a regular commercial run. I caught it at the Lido complex on Orchard Road -- a sensory experience in and of itself, with one opulent shopping mall after another, after another, after another, on and on and on.
Quite simply, this was the best time I've had watching a film in a cinema in a long time. Judging from the festival screenings -- Embers was fully booked, and Mud was well attended -- Singaporeans are enthusiastic filmgoers, much moreso than people in Thailand.
The screening for Be Kind was pretty well packed and the reaction of the crowd to the humor and antics of Jack Black and Mos Def added to the enjoyment of this very entertaining and visually innovative film by illusionist director Michel Gondry. It's about a video store clerk (Mos Def) who ends up in trouble after his wacko best friend (Black) accidently erases the store's entire stock. In order to keep the shop's most loyal customer (Mia Farrow), the pair take a low-tech route to remake the films using an ancient video camera and whatever bits of junk and scrap they can use. In the process, they remake Ghost Busters, Rush Hour 2, Robo Cop and Driving Miss Daisy, and, to their great surprise, build up a phenomenal following among the townspeople. 5/5