Updated: Aug 22, 2022
From the the 1970s through the 1990s Singapore was focussed on the business of nation building, developing a national narrative around stability, security and opportunity. But weaved into the fabric of that narrative are the individual stories of ordinary Singaporeans. It is these personal stories that the 15 Shorts project seeks to tell.
15 Shorts is a collaboration between filmmaker and director of Blue3Asia Daniel Yun and the National Volunteer & Philanthropy Centre, which is headed by CEO Melissa Kwee. Credited as Executive Producers on all films, they introduced the latest five at a screening at members club 1880. United thematically by the spirit of giving Ms Kwee described the films as, “A new way of telling our social history from the people’s perspective.”
The Singaporean establishment likes projects like 15 Shorts, they get credit for supporting local artists who in turn are obliged to churn out feel-good stories that feel like Public Service Broadcasts. As such I was trepidatious about attending but I needn’t have been thanks to some of the unique story choices and directorial talent on display.
Each of the five films are based on a true story uncovered through various archival sources and I have reviewed them in the order they played, below. (WARNING: There may be one or two small spoilers).
Produced by Walk & Roll Studios, the production company behind the wildly successful Butterworks YouTube Channel, Shanti is the story of Kelvin Lee who voluntarily cared for the children of his condo security guard when she suddenly became sick.
Specialising in “creating an emotional attachment” they nearly manage it with this sparse film that tells the story well but forgets about the characters who lack depth and a sense of history. Everything that happens, seems to happen to them without sufficient motivation or emotional implication.
The film is not only sparse on character detail but also music, which would have increased the emotional impact and added a greater sense of place (every location is near silent), not to mention pace.
There are some lovely shot choices, particularly inside the supermarket when Kelvin, shopping for the children, becomes overwhelmed by options, and inside the children’s HDB, which feels duly sad and empty. However the denouement is revealed when Kelvin simply tells Shanti he will fix everything and, in two or three cuts, hey presto it's fixed! Not an entirely satisfying conclusion to a twenty-minute “short”.
Opening on a courtroom Guilty is told mainly in flashbacks to incidents from the defendant's life. On trial for encouraging a school friend to commit suicide the young man, Don, has a troubled background and has been written off by the system, but one officer refuses to believe he was born bad and fights for him to be offered a second chance.
This film is anchored by two strong central performances by Aden Tan and Jeffrey Ong playing the sheepish defendant and stern officer respectively. The period detail is engrossing; one forgets how much wood was used in workplaces and how smoky they could be! The script is also tight and sharp, finishing on a zinger when the officer tells the judge, “This boy is trash. Everyone here thinks he is trash…Since trash can be recycled, why can’t he be?"
Set in 1985 Plague looks at the AIDS crisis in Singapore from the perspective one family. Shot in a single take in era-appropriate (and claustrophobic) 4:3 aspect ratio this is masterful work. Naturalistic performances across the cast are complimented by restrained period details of costume and hair, instead of walls plastered with Wham posters to place us in time.
Jean Ng plays Iris, a health worker who counselled numerous AIDS patients and their families at a time when there was fear and stigma around the disease. Her grit and determination to counsel her reluctant patient, Aden Tan in another strong performance, transcends her frilly pink dress when she assures the distraught family, “I can handle this”, convincing herself as much as them by stoking the fires of her own resolve.
The fluid camera is choreographed to perfection, manoeuvring around the family’s cramped living room capturing reactions as much as actions and building tension by refusing to reveal key moments until absolutely necessary. It was no surprise when the director’s name finally appeared on screen and the auteur turned out to be Boo Junfeng of ‘Apprentice' fame. He not only made a brave story choice but chose a brave and original way to tell the story too.
Another film shot in period 4:3 was Sister about Sister Gerard Fernandez, a prison missionary who counselled the notorious 1980s child killers Catherine Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Hah Kong.
Shot on a shaky handheld camera with a highly stylised blue/grey grade this adopts the aesthetic of a horror movie, which makes it feel more fictional than the other films. However, the story is terrifyingly true and the director was on hand to verify details down to the hymn Sister Gerard sang as her charges were led to the gallows.
The film is not about the murders but the relationship between Sister Gerard and the killers who are treated sympathetically by the filmmaker, appearing as victims themselves, manipulated into these heinous acts by Svengali Adrian Lim. The conversations through the bars between ‘Cath' and Sister Gerard are highly intimate and confessional; particularly the moment when she talks of her incest, which drew a gasp from the audience.
To balance the sympathetic portrait of the killers the director includes a scene with the mother of the children, distraught in the arms of the nun, whose face betrays the conflict and burden of having to counsel the perpetrators as well as the victims of this horrific crime.
A droning, reverb-drenched soundtrack punctuated by off-key hymn singing adds to the horror styling but ensures, no matter how sympathetic the killers appear, you can never forget what they’ve done. Compelling stuff.
The final film of the night was from K. Rajagopal, director of acclaimed feature 'Yellow Bird'. The most experimental of the evening it was ostensibly about Mr. Tubi bin Mohd Salleh who helped blind Madame Rosie Wong across the road to her job every year for five years come rain or shine. However, what we saw was a young actress attempting to recreate that journey, blindfolded, to see if anyone will help her. (The fact that she was blindfolded probably had an adverse impact on the public who could clearly see she wasn’t blind and was perhaps doing this for social media or some other such frivolous reason.)
Her journey is punctuated by sequences that recreate the story of her going blind at nine years old, which is harrowing and made me think about how vulnerable my own daughter is to similar catastrophe.
Though not entirely successful this was a brave experiment in storytelling that combined documentary and fiction in ways that I would be keen to see Rajagopal explore further.