by Elaine Thanya Marie Teo
Films provide a catharsis like no other medium. The familiar three act structure of a set-up, confrontation and resolution is a device that allows audiences to leave the cinema space with some assurance that all is well and settled. What of films that give no clear ending, but instead beckon viewers to consider the future and possibilities? The trio of films, Jù Rén (The Giant), Rite of Passage and scrnsave attempt to do just that. Selected as part of the Singapore Shorts ’21 programme, these films present a grounding for viewers to contemplate where it is we come from and where precisely we are heading. Each work departs from a distinct point in time, with Jù Rén focusing heavily on the roots of the past, Rite of Passage in the present moment, and scrnsave hinting wryly at a vastly different future.
Director duo, Henry and Harry Zhuang’s Jù Rén (2019) tackles a source material pregnant with metaphors. The film is based on a three-part poem written by Tan Swie Hian, an artist in Singapore who is lauded for his prolific output in various artistic disciplines. Written in 1967, when Tan would go on to spend 24 years as a press secretary in Singapore’s French Embassy, the poem leans heavily into themes of self-sacrifice and loyalty to one’s nation. The poem juxtaposes heavyweight historical figures such as Yue Fei (a Song dynasty general), and Tian Heng (a Qi ruler) with Greek gods. The featured Greek gods, Prometheus, Atlas, and Hercules, each come with their own stories of strength and sacrifice. Translating this into a visual medium is no small feat. The Zhuang brothers distil the text into its essential elements by crafting an allegorical tale of a little red fish that could. Veering heavily into nationalistic undertones, the stop-motion animated film follows a red fish as it burrows deep into the land.
The film meticulously uses newspapers to form the chief visual template. Each set piece is filled with crushed, and ripped fragments of local newspapers Berita Harian, The Straits Times, and Lianhe Zaobao. Perhaps taking a cue from Xu Bei Hong’s acclaimed painting, Tian Heng and His Five Hundred Followers, the film adopts a similar colour palette for the fishes that navigate through the seabed. Our lead protagonist, the red fish (Tian Heng in Xu Bei Hong’s painting), survives through a combination of grit and determination but is eventually lost to the tides. The body of the fish disintegrates but one of its scales, and a newspaper fragment with the words, 人文学科 (humanities) floats ashore and sows itself. The analogy is not lost with the film’s tonal shift into an explosion of light, and the rapid birth of a jungle canopy after the seed of humanities is sown. The sacrifice of the fish, and the traces of it has helped to create a world brighter and with uncontained terrain. The film’s use of newspaper fragments balances the line between overtly nationalistic narratives and a universality of individual self-sacrifice.
Rite of Passage (2020) is an elegant window into the idea of self amid the barrelling finality of time. Director Olivia Griselda presents a quiet vignette of reclaiming oneself through exuberance and rawness. The film, a result of a programme, Cinemovement Laboratory VI held in an art space owned by the acclaimed performance artist Melati Suryodarmo, follows Anang Setiawan, a performer, as he travels through a linear passage. Rite of Passage achieves what few performance artworks can capture, a marriage of documentation and the tension of improvised dance movements. The film cleverly places two frames for the audiences to take in. At the top, Setiawan walks in a consistent rhythm, and always straight to the end point. The fact that this frame assumes a hierarchical position suggests that time is a linear force, unavoidable and omnipresent, flowing to an end point regardless of whether an individual is ready to engage. The second frame comes into the film at a later stage, and we see Setiawan almost thrown into the set.
Nothing disrupts the flow of the top frame even as – in the frame below – we see Setiawan exploring all the limits of the linear path in front of him. It becomes clear as we watch the unfazed and remarkably effervescent Setiawan, that he has taken power away from the drudgery and imposition of time as a supreme force.
Anang Setiawan punctures the disciplined framing by reordering hierarchical structure at the midpoint. In the top frame, Setiawan is bested by nature and becomes obscured while the disorder of the bottom frame reaches its apex of joy.
The final close of the film sees the bottom half of the frame taking precedence and forming the final frame. The interplay of the two frames throughout the film and having the final endpoint merge into one also remarks on the nature of memories – that it is very rarely ever formed and experienced in neat order, and that so much of our experience in life is a turbulent roll of the dice.
The bottom frame of turbulence and chaos takes over. Setiawan’s core still pushes through gracefully, his arms and the technique of control is evident. Fittingly, he combines this controlled elegance as he stumbles out of frame. Eventually, we are left with the sounds of nature to engulf us.
Directors Yang Vicki and Winston Ko similarly explore the idea of self in the post-humanistode, scrnsave (2021). Audiences are presented with an ever-evolving sequence of screensavers used in the early era of computing from the late 1980s to the 1990s. The visual language of the digital world has been a mainstay of the late 90s and early 2000s sci-fi genre. These films often follow the narrative thread of machine consciousness and the possible sinister future that awaits us as we dive deeper into our dependence on technology.
Instead of looking at the visual currency of the general digital world, scrnsave focuses its attention on the visual imagery of screensavers. The utility of these screensavers to prevent monitor burn-in (literally saving the screen) has made it such that we rarely examine these visuals where a whole cohort of people were exposed to. The act of focusing a film strictly on these images narrows the field of vision and allows us to contemplate the visual imagery that took over the 90s. The familiarity of each of the screensavers used makes it slightly frightening how monotonous this digital visual imagery has become. The sense of unease is further heightened as we are taken on a journey into machine consciousness by the narrator, a clear text-to-speech programme. As the narrator ruminates on the difference between the physical and digital world, we are plunged into its tabula rasa of an understanding of life. As the screensavers gradually fade into each other, the narrator pulls in its viewer deeper and deeper – until it no longer laments its existence as a mere mimesis of life but realizes its own power to entrap. The end of the film quickly turns itself on its head as the viewer becomes the subject, contemplating the human existence and self in the new machine-led world.
The blunt force effect of time as a harbinger of change consumes these films as they contemplate the self. Each film looks to the future as an unknown endpoint while careful to chart the winding path taken. Audiences are left on a cliff’s edge to consider the contours of the future laid out before them. Jù Rén, Rite of Passage and scrnsave each respectively plays with optimism, realism, and the dystopic. Structurally, the films underscore how the vagaries of the past can propel an individual into vastly different trajectories.
About the writer
Elaine Thanya Marie Teo is a writer and curator. She holds a MA in Asian Art Histories from LaSalle College of the Arts, and a BA in Psychology from Nanyang Technological University. Her research focuses on visual arts, and deconstruction. In 2017, She was a panellist in Singapore’s Third Graduate Conference in Visual Culture. She was a speaker at the State University of New York’s Art Conference in 2018. Elaine is the 2021 recipient of the Objectifs’ Curator Open Call.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.