The Singapore International Film Festival (SIFF, Apr 13-29) has come a long way. From its early days in 1987, when the festival was first held at Golden Mile Complex (yes, that’s where erotic films are screened today), to its many screenings in defunct theaters such as The Majestic, Capitol Theatre and The Alhambra in the ’80s and ’90s, the festival has been known among avid movie fans as the place to catch arthouse and little-known Asian and international films.
Fast forward to 2006, and the festival is almost two decades old, and holds fort as one of the premier film festivals in the region. Apart from showing an average of over 150 films in its two-week run, it also presents The Silver Screen Awards, where Asian actors and directors are acknowledged for their achievement in film. Some of the names that have been recognized by the awards in the past include Japanese director Aoyama Shinji (Eureka) and Indonesian actress Dian Sastrowardoyo (Whispering Sands).
But beyond obscure Asian talents, the festival has also presented a slew of more well-known Asian and international films over the past 19 years—including many from The Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona), Tsai Ming Liang (What Time Is It There?), Lars Von Trier (The Idiots), Edward Wang (Yi Yi) and Jafa Panahi (The Circle). Indeed, the SIFF is well regarded for its quality programming that balances art and commercial viability. While most of the films that are showcased in-competition for the Silver Screen Awards are more obscure, films from the other categories, such as French Panorama, British Cinema and US Independents, are more recognizable, with brisk ticket sales.
Judging from the line-up this year, however, it seems that there are more little-known arthouse flicks than there are international critics’ picks. It is not entirely surprising, of course, considering that local film distributors such as Lighthouse Pictures, Festive Films, Shaw Brothers and Cathay have been bringing more and more popular arthouse films into local cinemas over the past two years. And what with the advent of Cathay’s The Picturehouse recently, which exclusively screens arthouse fares, the SIFF must stay ahead of the curve by bringing in a more novel and surprising selection. “What the SIFF has always been good at is spotting different film trends … and this year is no exception,” says its Director Philip Cheah. “I went to Manila twice in 2005, and what I’ve noticed is the rise of the digital format there among the new wave of Filipino filmmakers. The burgeoning Scandinavian cinema is also one to look out for,” he adds.
Despite a relatively tighter budget of $800,000 this year, compared to 2000-2004’s $1 million, the festival has still managed to come up with a strong, albeit more esoteric, selection. “Content wise, we’ve always been surprising. Audiences should select films based on their instinct, and not what foreign reviewers tell them to watch. The local eye is an interesting one, but the locals don’t trust their own eyes. So they often wait for the foreign eye to tell them what to see. What the festival has been doing is emphasizing the local eye,” asserts Cheah.
With that in mind, here are some of the highlights from this year’s festival according to Cheah, as well as interesting picks that I-S will make a beeline for.
Three strong digital films from the Philippines are showing in-competition for this year’s Silver Screen Awards, with two of them international premiers. Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.’s Pepot Superstar (Apr 25, 9:15am) is set in the ’70s and should be an enjoyable romp. It’s about a 10-year-old boy called Pepot who dreams of becoming a star. Whenever he is not in the streets begging for money, Pepot sneaks his way into the local cinemas, losing himself in celluloid where his fantasy is much sweeter than his reality.
John Torres’ Todo Todo Teros (Apr 26, 9:15pm) is a surreal film about an artist turned terrorist—a must-watch for its sardonic content. Cued mostly from found images made by the director’s close friends, including many musicians and performance artists, Teros is not only a comical farce, it’s also an innovative work of art that challenges the stereotypes of filmmaking.
Meanwhile, Raya Martin’s black-and-white silent movie, A Short Film About Indio Nacional (Apr 24, 9:15pm), should be compelling for its political content, which tells of the bloody emergence of the Philippines from Spanish rule in the 1890s.
More digital films from the Philippines: Magdalena The Unholy Saint (Apr 23, 9:15pm), which explores the difference between sin and salvation through the life of a prostitute, and Lav Diaz’s 10-hour Heremias (Apr 14, 11am), the concluding chapter in the famed director’s uncompromising trilogy of epics after Batang West Side and Evolution of a Filipino Family.
A for Arabia
There is also a slew of quality Arabic films in this year’s selection, co-presented by the National Museum of Singapore. “There’s certainly more happening this year in the Arabic movie industry, following Paradise Now, which was nominated at this year’s Oscars for Best Foreign Film,” says Cheah. Not only will newer Arabian films such as Bader Ben Hirsi’s A New Day in Old Sana’a (Apr 26, 7pm) and Josef Fares’ Zozo (Apr 14, 2pm) be showcased, one of the forefathers of Palestinian cinema, Michel Khleifi, will also have three of his films screened at the festival.
Some of the best from this category: Old Sana’a is the winner of Best Arab Film at the Cairo International Film Festival 2005, and tells of a groom who unexpectedly falls in love with a low-class orphan gypsy. Zozo is a more riveting tale of a 10-year-old who must travel from Beirut to Sweden during times of war. Iraq: The Song of the Missing Men (Apr 22, 7pm) is a documentary that tells of the common Iraqi identity, and how intellectuals, mullahs and priests live their lives. The rare showing of Michael Khleifi’s works is also essential: The cult Wedding in Galilee (Apr 15, 9:15pm) from 1986 centers on political upheaval between an Israeli governor and head of a Palestinian village, while Tale of the Three Jewels (Apr 16, 11am) from 1995 is a scandalous mix of documentary and fantasy, and centers on the love between a gypsy girl and a 12-year-old boy.
This year’s line-up includes some strong Scandinavian features, especially those from Denmark and Norway. Watch out for Danish director Lars Von Trier’s much-anticipated Manderlay (Apr 16, 4:15pm), the follow-up to the brilliant Dogville in 2003. Fans of sexy thrillers must check out Norway’s Next Door (Apr 14, 9:15pm) by Pal Sletaune, which follows the explicit journey of a man and his relationship with two wild women. The animation film Grandpa is a Raisin (Apr 28, 9:15pm) should also be a delightful watch, as it is a charming tale of a grandfather who must prepare his granddaughter to play in the snow.
The Danish film selection also offers good choices to catch. The gritty Angels in Fast Motion (Apr 15, 7pm), by Ole Christian Madsen, tells of a young and restless trio—Maria, Allan and Steso—and how drug abuse leads them to the brink of the abyss.
The Asian premieres of Flies on the Wall (Apr 28, 7pm) and Lost and Found (Apr 20, 9:15pm) are also top-notch. The former is a thriller that centers on a documentarian who discovers the dark secrets of the city of Ravnsborg, while the latter is a bittersweet tale about an aging toy-seller and his relationship with his estranged family.
Not To Be Missed
For a good mix of arthouse flicks with commercial sensibilities, these recommendations are surefire hits: Touted as notorious local filmmaker Royston Tan’s (15) quietest film yet, 4:30 (Apr 29, 7pm), which premiered at last year’s Berlinale, stars Korean actor Kim Young Jun and newbie child star Xiao Li Yuan. 4:30 boasts hardly any dialog, and centers on the alienation and detachment of Xiao Wu, a child from a single parent family. Wu leads a barely meaningful life, and finds solace in a mysterious Korean tenant Jung (Kim), who also faces restlessness with his life. Watch this one to see how Tan has grown as a filmmaker.
The quirky but politically-charged The President’s Last Bang (Apr 14, 7pm) from Korea has been compared to Stanley Kubrick’s classic Dr. Strangelove in terms of plot and black humor. Director Im Sang-Soon’s quirky thriller centers on a secret service agent Ju, who is assigned to kill the president, but the plot soon spirals out of control over the course of a single night.
Famous Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano (Last Life in the Universe) also tries his hand at directing in his much anticipated first effort, Tori. Comprising of five shorts, Tori (Apr 27, 9:15pm) is a “visualization of dreams through live action and animation,” and consists of “Sword of Mind,” about a calm samurai on the verge of revenge; “ATO,” which depicts graffiti art and skateboarders; and “Bird,” about a lively and spiraling bird—you have to watch this one for yourself.
Fans of famed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami (A Taste of Cherry) shouldn’t miss his subtly funny Men at Work (Apr 27, 7pm). This quirky film centers on four friends who encounter a strange, enormous rock during a failed skiing trip. When they attempt to move it, their personalities clash, resulting in various issues such as betrayal, defeat and eventually, hope.
But for something more bizarre, we recommend Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee (Apr 23, 9:15pm), with its bizarre storyline and brilliant visuals. This definitive film from the always unpredictable Maddin, whose last film is the equally far-out The Saddest Music in the World, centers on an abortion gone awry, which later turns into a murder most foul—you wouldn’t want to miss this one, or any of the recommendations here for that matter.
Visit www.filmfest.org.sg for more ticketing and venue details.