By Jamie Lee
The world is enamoured with the exploits of youthful bodies onscreen. The appeal of the cinematic coming-of-age is simple – a universal experience that speaks across cultures and generations. In a social climate where the term “millennial” is only ever accompanied with either a sneer or an awkward, self-conscious sheepishness, the current generation’s transition to adulthood is more bewildering than ever.
At the 2019 iteration of Singapore Shorts, three ambitious works sound the death knell for nostalgic indulgence in the youth-oriented ﬁlm – Kris Ong’s You Idiot, Zhiyi Cao’s Flexier Than You, and Chong Lii and Milon Goh’s Beyond a Chamber that Externalises All The Time, or Seance. These ﬁlms tap into the experience of growing up on the cusp of a new, terrifying era with brevity, urgency and a sense of humour.
Kris Ong’s You Idiot is the vague visceral discomfort you feel, when a relative, corners you and asks, “So, what are your plans for the future?”
Ong’s ﬁlm, which has enjoyed attention at the 29th Singapore International Film Festival and the 5th National Youth Film Awards, is a study of male friendship through a gentle lens. The plot is simple – two teenagers, Darren (Darren Cheng) and Matt (Adam Jared Lee), wander through the suburbs late at night, doing whatever you’d expect teenagers to do. You Idiot is a poignant snapshot of the Singaporean upper-middle class – the characters commit mild acts of public nuisance, the iconic McSpicy® makes an appearance, and local emo artists’ Long Live the Empire, Raccoonhead and Forests serve as the soundtrack to their shenanigans.
While it’s easily the least cynical ﬁlm of the three, behind Darren and Matt’s carefree attitudes nonetheless lie deep anxieties about life. The environment that they meander through shows constant, unstoppable signs of change – buildings are in the midst of demolition and noise barriers loom over them. This dissonance generates a similar anxiety in the viewer; we get the feeling that these ﬂeeting moments of happiness they share are short-lived attempts to postpone reality; a band-aid for the future.
Darren is more cautious and vulnerable; acting as a metaphor for the helplessness that characterises the Singaporean condition. He probes, “Are you happy doing what you’re doing?” Matt nods, before answering, “I’m happy eating this McSpicy®.” His absurd deﬂection of the serious (and all too common) question is a lackadaisical refusal to be held accountable for his actions, a refusal to take responsibility and ultimately, a refusal to grow up.
At the break of dawn, Darren and Matt reach a sort of emotional catharsis. What cannot be understood through plain discussion ﬁnds its way out through music, as the two compose a song together. “Everyone’s in a goddamn rush/They’ve got somewhere to be/I’ve never once stopped running/To see where I’m going, where I’ve… been” With those words, the ﬁlm ends on a hedonistic note, failing to provide concrete answers but closing with a heady, bittersweet feeling.
On the other end of the spectrum – both in terms of form and content – is Zhiyi Cao’s Flexier Than You. Cao is a multidisciplinary artist and graduate from the Ruskin School of Fine Art, whose works have been exhibited at A Weekend Affair and The Substation. She describes her research interests as “the conditions of labour in the creative regime, the myth of co-working spaces, and youngster’s love stories”, all elements which ﬁnd their place in this video essay.
The ﬁlm begins as an innocuous conversation between two statues in Haw Par Villa, ﬁgures which Cao describes as “thoroughly millennial” – perhaps due to the fact that Haw Par Villa is a site which has been immortalised on social media by millennials and co-opted by state bodies as an arts and heritage space. The conversation, which is carried out in subtitles for the entirety of the ﬁlm, then breaks abruptly into an irreverent critique of neoliberalism, state-enforced creativity and creative labour, using both original and found footage.
Flexier Than You represents a new method of grappling with the anxieties of being a millennial – by embracing its absurdity through and through. It balances precariously between being unapologetically tongue-in-cheek, and at the same time relentlessly topical and grounded ﬁrmly in this speciﬁc point in time.
Cao’s work mocks the state’s awkward attempts to be “funky” through strategically-timed cutaways during the statues’ conversation. Highlights include Moneysense’s (Singapore’s national ﬁnancial education programme) The New Zodiac Race video, in which computer-animated zodiac animals race through the glitz and glamour of Singapore’s Central Business District – only to ultimately deliver the hackneyed message that we should invest, insure, and save – as well as local pop group The Sam Willow’s Papa Money music video, which, the ﬁlm stresses, perpetuates an implicit meritocratic ideology and falls prey to neoliberal logic, despite ostensibly being part of the “creative regime”.
One of the statues reveals the solution to this paradox with stone-faced irony, “I’m gonna teach arts and crafts at a private school, starting out as the assistant ﬁrst.” The other grimly replies, “Wow, you beat me to the reveal.”
Beyond a Chamber that Externalises All The Time, or Seance (shortened to Beyond) takes this idea of millennial neurosis one step further, weaving an elusive, gossamer-thin narrative into an intricate psychoanalytical experiment. A collaborative effort by Chong Lii and Milon Goh, the ﬁlm’s visual style is in line with the former’s existing body of work – lush, utilitarian and darkly surreal.
On the most superﬁcial level, it could be said that Beyond is about three teenage friends who ﬁnd their lives fragmenting into a bizarre, primal alternate reality, but that would be doing it a grave disservice. It would be more accurate (but no less obfuscating) to say that this is a ﬁlm about duality. The title alone is a paradox, hinting at a tension between the internal and the external, and this motif resurfaces time and time again within the ﬁlm. The three friends come together, then fall apart. As the unnamed protagonist (Yanshan Seet) describes to her therapist, this commingling is akin to mere “acts of dissonance, […] it’s too operatic.” Another character, Charlotte (Elizabeth Tan), endures a fraught relationship with her prudish mother, but chooses to detach while watching a spoken word artist feverishly re-enact similar familial frustrations in a black box – the ﬁlm asserts that this black box is a space for both confession and performativity, earnestness and disingenuity.
This tension between the individual and the collective appears to split reality, and the characters end up congregating in a labyrinthine alternate dimension, a spatial id – cultish, almost post-apocalyptic. This unconventional turn is accompanied by an equally unconventional creative process. The directors explained that “[the] script went through many intuitive changes, mostly by design. We were inﬂuenced by improvisation and resisting traditional industrial methodologies of ﬁlmmaking.” They cite Claire Denis’ Beau Travail and Edward Yang’s The Terrorisers as artistic inspirations – ﬁlms that operate and revel in their own mystery. In the beginning, their concept was to explore the idea of community and group dynamics, and “the fragmented structure of narrative came at a later stage, when [they] remembered that this work was so spatially deﬁned, each space holding its own energy and idiosyncrasies – it’s an archipelago of a ﬁlm, set in a country within an archipelago.”
Beyond, like Flexier Than You, will inevitably alienate some viewers; it suffers from an almost meditative pace and occasionally pushes the limits of abstraction too far. However, the punches that it does land are extraordinary and tap keenly into the millennial condition’s immense potential as a new frontier for cinematic exploration. You Idiot, Flexier Than You and Beyond all put their own fresh spin on the local youth-oriented ﬁlm. I can only ask: What’s to come next? Will these young ﬁlmmakers help demystify this era’s perplexity? Can they save us all from this absurdist hell? Or will they fall victim to the same trappings as their predecessors, growing old, bitter and out-of-touch?
About the writer:
Jamie Lee is a film enthusiast whose (many) passions include rearing fish, film photography and Asian cinema. She has previously worked with Asian Film Archive, NUS Museum and National Archives of Singapore, and is pursuing an Honours in Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. She absolutely loathes pedantic people.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.