7 beautiful stories, 1 little red dot

BACK IN THE DAY: Neo's achingly bittersweet depiction of a childhood crush, That Girl, features strong performances from child actors Li Xuan (pictured) and Josmen, and Hue's kinetic cinematography.


    Jul 23, 2015

    7 beautiful stories, 1 little red dot

    7 LETTERS (PG)

    Drama/116 minutes

    Rating: 4.5/5

    SINGAPORE film anthology 7 Letters started as a passion project by Royston Tan who, with the six other writer-directors, received government funds to make seven short films marking Singapore's 50th birthday, with each artist given free rein over his concept.

    "Funded by government" and "commemorating a national event" are not phrases usually associated with good art. Perhaps it is time to revise that opinion.

    That Girl - by Singapore's most commercially successful film-maker, Jack Neo - is the most linearly story-driven and logistically ambitious of the works, featuring a kampung setting and cast with a large number of speaking parts.

    The theme is pure Neo and very Singaporean: It is good to know where the path of virtue lies, but smart people know when to step off.

    The moral dynamic - with strong performances from child actors Yan Li Xuan and Josmen Lum, and the kinetic cinematography of Harris Hue - fuels this achingly bittersweet depiction of a childhood crush.

    Neo packs in period detail of the sort that makes people of a certain age quiver: tikam-tikam (lottery games) at the shops, the casual caning of children by parents and so on.

    Like Neo's effort, Royston Tan's sweetly charming Bunga Sayang has a child (Ray Tan) in the forefront. The use of period details is both understated and evocative.

    There is a shot lasting around 20 seconds, of a row of schoolchildren squatting and brushing their teeth over a drain. Its humanity and humour speak volumes of Tan's eye for visual storytelling.

    Kelvin Tong's dramedy Grandma Positioning System (GPS), like Tan's Bunga Sayang, has at its heart the relationship between an ignored child and a wise, warm grandparent figure, both turning to each other in the face of friction from parents.

    As short-film devices go, this dynamic might not be the most original, but Tong generates real laughs and genuinely tear-jerking moments from this work, which draws on the uncanny sense of direction that some older people possess.

    Cinema, Eric Khoo's whimsical tribute to the Shaw and Cathay film factories of the 1950s and 1960s, also features older people. As in the other films, there is a tendency to idealise the elderly, but Khoo - like Tan and Tong - thankfully stops short of infantilising them.

    Khoo's work draws on his strength as a film-maker not just in love with the content of cinema, but also its history and lore.

    The Flame by K. Rajagopal, like the works of Boo Junfeng and Tan Pin Pin, is a drama driven by inner pain. A single-location, almost single-room, dialogue-driven theatre piece that relies on just four actors (T. Sasitharan, N. Vighnesh, Nithiyia Rao and Fatin Amira, giving strong naturalistic performances), The Flame speaks to those who debated whether to stay or migrate.

    Boo's gentle, dreamlike Parting points, in symbolic way, to the 1965 expulsion of Singapore from the Federation. An older Malay man (J. A. Halim) with dementia crosses the Causeway, searching the island for a Chinese girl he left behind in the 1960s. Past and present, fantasy and reality collide in this moody road movie, the most non-linear but also the most visually creative of the films.

    Tan Pin Pin's Pineapple Town allegorises political separation as familial separation. Singaporean adoptive parents (Lydia Look and Nickson Cheng), in a move that might be a mirror image of Boo's story, search Malaysia for the biological mother - the "real" mother - of their daughter.

    The film-makers did not collaborate on scripts, so it is interesting to see this convergence of ideas. Tan Pin Pin's work has an allusive, multilayered depth that lingers in the mind after the credits roll.

    7 Letters will be screened at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore, on Aug 8, 9 and 10 at 11am. Tickets are free and available on a first-come-first-served basis at the museum's front desk on Aug 1 and 2, between 10am and 6pm.