12th Singapore International Film Festival

By Chen Chiou Beng

The 12th Singapore International Film Festival, which went from 16th April to the 1st of May 1999, has just ended. Out of over 300 films and shorts, I saw twenty features and two short films. Below I will split them into various categories, the first will be a slight introduction of highlights to the festival, the films I had wanted to watch but missed and those that I actually caught. In the end you will see my top and bottom ten lists.

The Asian Film Highlights: There are a lot of Asian film highlights this year. Included in this film festival are not only the opening film, Ordinary Heroes (Qian Yan Wan Yu) (Hong Kong, 1999) and the closing film, The Hole (Dong) (Taiwan, 1998), but also the following: Leaf On A Pillow (Daun Di Atas Bantal), an Indonesian film which won the Best Film for the Asia Pacific Film Awards at 1998; Ikinai, a beautifully done Japanese film that won best screenplay for this year's Singapore Silver Screens Film Awards; The Longest Summer, a new film from Hong Kong director Fruit Chan who is famous for the film Made In Hong Kong; After Life, a Japanese film about, er well, the afterlife; Dr Akagi, another film from director Shohei Imamura, a follow up after the award-winning film The Eel, among others.

The Others: There are other highlights, of course. Most notably there are not one, not two, three or four, but FIVE retrospectives to various directors. One offered tribute to Arifin C. Noer, an Indonesian director; P. Ramlee, a Singaporean director during the 50's and 60's, when it was once Singapore's golden age; Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian director that gave you Battleship Potemkin, French director Claude Chabrol whose famous work includes Wedding In Blood; and German director Werner Herzog. Others included four Japanese animations, films with tributes to popular music , the millennium series where a group of directors who made films corresponded to the end of the 20th century, as well as a fair share of films from the USA, UK, Canada, and other countries from around the world.

The films I've watched:  Altogether I watched a total of 19 films from the main program, one from one of the retrospectives, and two short films that preceded two of the films. Below are short reviews to each of the title of the main program, in alphabetical order (All ratings are set at 5 maximum):

01) Black Jack  (credits to come):  This is a cautionary tale about the misuse of medicine. A series of people, who displayed extraordinary talents, are now displayed a series of strange unexplainable illness, and Black Jack, an unlicensed surgeon, is about to find out the dark truth behind the secrets. Well animated and with a good story, recommended to people who want to start seriously with Japanese anime film. Japan, 1995, 093 minutes, PG: Contains violence and some graphic medical procedure. ***1/2

02) Bullet Ballet (Shinya Tsukamato, 1998?, Japan):  After the death of his girlfriend, who committed suicide with a bullet in the head, the boyfriend becomes obsessed with guns. He tries to find a real gun and in the process, he got one by accident. On the other hand, however, a group of punkers that has 'bullied' him, for some reason, got hold of the gun and tragedy struck... From Shinya Tsukamoto of Tetsuo fame comes his latest work in black and white. Though I have not seen the director's previous works but I have longed for them, and finally I have the chance with Bullet Ballet. But there are just too much imagery and hidden meanings in the film that hinders my viewing pleasures. Maybe I'm still young. I confess, I might truly enjoy the show one-day, but not now. Japan, 1998, 098 minutes, PG: Contains drug use, strong violence and adult situations. ***

03) The Checkpoint  After the accidental shooting of some villagers by a group of green soldiers, they are sent to a faraway checkpoint, where not only they have to perform the duty, but also have to fend for their lives from an unseen sniper... Possibly one of the better films I have caught this film festival, this film does not glamorize army life. In fact, in the film, we see that whenever a problem arises, the soldiers are the scapegoat. Also, both the soldiers and the sniper, in my opinion, do not see pride in their work. To them, what they do is just... what they do. What the show reflects is a harsh reality on life itself, where all things must follow a set of rules. Russia, 1998, 095 minutes, PG: Contains adult situations, violence and profanity. ***1/2

04) The Hole (Tsai Ming-Liang, 1998, Taiwan/France):  This year's closing film and the fourth film by Tsai Ming-Liang should be better than this. The plot deals with the millennium, or more precisely, seven days before it, where people are infected with a strange virus. The film has little dialogue and the atmosphere is dark and somber, except for an occasional burst into songs that look like MTV which lightens the mood. While not a terrible film, I would have preferred his earlier works. Taiwan/France, 1998, 095 minutes, PG: Unsettling themes of virus infection. *** Note: This year's closing film.

05) Ikinai  When a young woman goes on a bus trip in place of a sick uncle, she does not know what she is getting into. For it is no ordinary trip, but rather it is a one-way trip to death, for all the other members are about to commit mass suicide to get them hands on the insurance money. Will she be able to stop them as soon as she knows about it? This film deals with the problem of life and death, and what one would do in time of crisis. Will death solve their problems, or is it better if you live and head on towards the problem instead. Light humor uplifts the serious tone. My #1 on the list. Japan, 1998, 101 minutes, PG: Contains brief nudity. ****

06) Last Night  If you know that there are only six hours to the end of the world, what would you do? This is precisely what the characters in Last Night must choose, for the end of the world comes in six hours time. One of the better feature, this film does not let the audience know what is causing the doomed fate, but rather the film revolves around the characters, what they really wanted to do in the last hours. Indeed, panic is fruitless, for there is nowhere to hide, so they instead celebrate (!) the end of the world in style. Supported by a stellar cast, Last Night is definitely worth a look. Canada, 1998, 093 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity, sex, and adult situations. ***1/2

07) The Longest Summer  (Qu Nian Yan Hua Te Bie Duo) When the Hong Kong Military Service Corps, which made up of local Hong Kong Chinese, was disbanded due to the 1997 Hong Kong hand-over, it created a series of problems for those in it. Joblessness was the major problem among these people, and this film traces these people as they try to solve their dilemmas. A rare misfire from Fruit Chan, whose previous Made In Hong Kong (Xiang Gang Zhi Zhao) won awards worldwide. It suffers from a lack of plot towards the second half of the film. Hong Kong, 1998, 128 minutes, R(A): Contains profanity and some strong violence. **1/2

08) My Name Is Joe  (Ken Loach, 1998, UK):  Joe, a recovering alcoholic, is living a normal life as a football manager after a wild previous life. He meets a woman, Sarah, and falls for her. But one of Joe's members, Liam, is in trouble and is about to give both Joe and Sarah trouble....  Ken Loach's direction is terrific, and the film is watchable and easily understandable. But My Name Is Joe is not on my favorite list, for one simple reason: the accent is practically inaudible and subtitles are needed for this film. [The US release had subtitles. - Editor]  105 minutes, PG: Contains brief nudity, strong profanity, drug use and violence. ***

09) Ordinary Heroes (Qian Yan Wan Yu) Truth is, I enjoyed Ann Hui's work, particularly her Summer Snow, but her latest work, Ordinary Heroes, which is also incidentally the opening film for this year's film festival, is too political to be enjoyable, at least in my opinion. There are just too many issues here to be discussed, and this is the director's most personal work by far. There are too many things to be understood, but I still like, if not anything, the film. Hong Kong, 1999, 128 minutes, PG: Contains adult situations. ***1/2 Note: This year's opening film.

10) Perfect Blue  When Mima, a popular pop-idol singer leaves her singing career for acting one, she realizes that she only has a small role. So further her careers, she agreed to do all sorts of things, like posing nude. Then, threats are being sent to her and worse, the murder begins... A mystery murder if you've ever seen one, but it is well crafted and the tension is held to the point where the real murderer is revealed. An exciting film, but not for the faint-hearted. By the way, this is my favorite Japanese animation among the four I have seen. Japan, 1997, 081 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity, rape sequence, violence and gore. ****

11) The Poet (Gu Cheng Bie Nian) Tracing the life of the real life poet Gu Cheng, also well known as the Chinese John Lennon, to his tragedy of murdering his wife and then taking his own life. It would have been great if not for the fact we are treated to his personal sexual life a little too much. An arty misfire, only slightly uplifted with the beautiful choreographed scenes of the surroundings. Hong Kong, 1998, 112 minutes, R(A): Contains violence, nudity and sex. **1/2

12) The Red Violin  Possibly one of the best films this year's festival has to offer, The Red Violin is essentially a story about, well, a red violin. Chronicling on its creation and history, the film spans centuries over five countries, finally ending in the modern day. The characters, though playing second fiddle to the main title, are made up of a choice of excellent cast. One of my recommendations. Canada/Italy, 1998, 130 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity and sex. ****

13) Rushmore (Wes Anderson, 1998, US)  One of the more original productions to come out of USA, at least better than Velvet Goldmine, another film I've seen at this festival. This film has an interesting premise as well as an award-worthy performance from veteran actor, Bill Murray. Benefited from a good writing and cast, this is a good film to catch, but the writing goes slightly astray towards the midpoint. USA, 1998, 093 minutes, R(A): Contains profanity and brief nudity. ***1/2

14) Spriggan  This is possibly the weakest of the four Japanese animations shown this year, but if you are in for a roller-coaster fun-like movie, you should go for it. A highly entertaining film that follows in the likes of Indiana Jones with combination of new gadgetry similar to the James Bond films, Spriggan is about the secrets of the Noah's Ark. If you are bored, catch it, you'll be entertained. Japan, 1998, 090 minutes, R(A): Contains strong violence. ***

15) Striking Back (Jue Di Fan Ji) A satire of various films, both East and West, but a high film to understand and even harder if you are not a film buff. Story goes like this: A film production company is on the verge of closing down when a sponsor offers money to make a film on conditions: To make a Hollywood film but on a small-scale budget. Thus the script is written to absurdity as it delves into films like Pulp Fiction and The Piano. Shot beautifully in black and white, this is a film of total enjoyment if you can get the inner jokes of the film. Possibly the hardest film for me to review. Taiwan, 1997, 106 minutes, R(A): Violence, profanity and Simulated sex. ****

16) Sweet Degeneration (Fang Lang) The most serious film I caught in this year's film festival, Lin Cheng-sheng's fourth feature deals with the taboo theme of incest. Another film that is hard to review, the only thing I have to say that this film deserves full attention when watching, or you might miss vital plot. Taiwan, 1997, 118 minutes, R(A): Sex and themes of incest. ***

17) Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998, UK) Rock star Brian Slade staged his own assassination in 1971. But the plan backfired, and he disappeared from the public eye since then. In 1984, a reporter tries to find out what happened to Brian Slade, and what he discovered is bigger than he thinks... The film is mediocre, despite all the shock antics, the costumes and the music in the film. Too much substance and too little plot spoils the film, and not even a good cast can save this show from falling apart. But ironically, it is the music and the splendor of the costumes that saves it from total turkeydom. USA, 1998, 123 minutes, R(A): Contains nudity, homosexual themes, drug use and profanity. **1/2

18) Via Satellite Possibly the funniest film I have caught in this year's film festival, Via Satellite deals with the dilemmas of family problems. When one of the members of the Dunn family is about to win the Olympics gold medal, a television crew comes to interview the family. At this time, all secrets are being let out, but in the end of the film is a happy ending. One of the best crowd pleasers I have caught. New Zealand, 1998, 090 minutes, R(A): Contains profanity and sexual situations. ***1/2

19) The Wolf Brigade (Jin-Roh) This Japanese animation is from the creators of the critically acclaimed Ghost In The Shell, but do not expect it to be a high tech film. Rather, this film deals with an alternate future of Japan having difficulty recovering from the Second World War, and this film is very, very political in nature. It is also a film that explores the beast in human nature, exploring it in layers. The over-complexity may drive away some animation fans, but is a well-told tale. Japan, 1998, 098 minutes, R(A): Contains some strong violence. ***

***Note 1: All ratings to the film are as in the Singapore International Film Festival. Ratings to the film might change if scheduled for commercial release. ***

***Note 2: All ratings pended to the censorship of Singapore***

The Ranking: 19th: Longest Summer, The (Qu Nian Yan Hua Te Bie Duo) 18th: Poet, The (Gu Cheng Bie Nian) 17th: Velvet Goldmine 16th: Bullet Ballet 15th: My Name Is Joe 14th: Spriggan 13th: Hole, The (Dong) 12th: Wolf Brigade, The (Jin-Roh) 11th: Sweet Degeneration (Fang Lang) 10th: Rushmore 09th: Ordinary Heroes (Qian Yan Wan Yu) 08th: Via Satellite 07th: Black Jack 06th: Last Night 05th: Checkpoint, The 04th: Striking Back (Jue Di Fan Ji) 03rd: Perfect Blue 02nd: Red Violin, The And 01st: Ikinai

Regrettably Missed: Due to study commitments and/or time clashes with other films, or even suffer from a ticket sell-out, I missed the following I wished to catch: -After Life (Japan) -Black Cat, White Cat (Serbia) -Book Of Life, The (USA/France) -Day A Pig Fell Into The Well, The (Korea) -Day Silenced Died, The (Bolivia) -Dr Akagi (Japan) -Dreamlife Of Angels, The (France) -Happiness (USA) -I Married A Strange Person (USA) -In The Winter Dark (Australia) -Jam (Guo Jiang) (Taiwan/Japan) -Lake(Georgia) -Personals, The (Zheng Hun Qi Shi) (Taiwan) -Waking Ned Devine (UK) -Welcome Back Mr. McDonald (Japan)

Anyone who watched the above following please post/e-mail me a short review! Thanks in advance!

Confirmed/Suspected Commercial Release: -Amy (Australia) -Dr Akagi (Japan) -Gangland (Philippines) -Happiness (USA) -Ordinary Heroes (Hong Kong) -Poet, The (Kong Kong) -Red Violin, The (Canada/Italy) -Rushmore(USA) Anymore I missed?

Conclusion With over 300 titles there was at least something to please everybody, but when compared to previous years, the sales of the tickets were slow this year. Maybe due to the two following reasons: 01) The titles are not as good as previous years'. 02) Economic Crisis.

And with this, I shall end this brief personal report of mine. Wait until next year's film festival and hope they provide a better selection!

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