By Jamie Lee
The Singaporean screen is no stranger to family drama. Familiar faces deliver well-worn lines in the hospital ward, the living room, the heartland cafe; milking audiences with sentimentality has become standard fare. On the 14th of July, Singapore Shorts ’18 treated a packed cinema to two short films which uncannily disrupted the conventions of the genre and put a playfully refreshing spin on portrayals of parent-child relationships.
The day’s programme opened with Blue in D-Flat Major by Mark Chua and Lam Li-Hsuen, the eccentric local duo behind film and music production firm Emoumie and art rock band Are. It closed with Melodi, by award-winning short film director Michael Kam – who is by day, a senior lecturer in the School of Film & Media Studies at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.
Upon first glance, Blue in D-Flat Major is an almost too neatly packaged tale of growing up. Under the threat of nuclear catastrophe, Julia (Karen Bee) and her two children (Shermaine Tung and Victor Yeo) flee the country, leaving behind their pet dog, Laika. The catastrophe turns out to be a false alarm, and the family return home to Laika’s corpse (a very convincing furry rug) in the living room. Confronted with the needless death of his companion, the youngest son lashes out, but eventually understands the necessity of sacrifice and comes to terms with the loss.
Similarly, Melodi is, on the surface, a sweet and simple coming-of-age story about an outcast young boy’s (Julian Kam) infatuation with his verbally abusive neighbour’s domestic helper (Abigail Asmara). He formulates a plan to save her from her dire circumstances, but discovers that she does not need or want his help.
Despite their deceptively simple premises, these are no Channel 8 dramas. What sets Blue in D-Flat Major and Melodi apart from their mainstream compatriots is their execution, a refusal to entertain melodrama and sentimentality, instead opting for a cold, distant and sometimes unsettling approach. During the post-screening Q&A session, director Mark Chua spoke of how the film was a response to a prompt (‘beyond 2020’) for the Temasek 20/20 short film contest, although he did not want the film to feel like a response to a call, nor for it to feel overly sentimental.
This desire is clear right from the get-go. The Singapore of Blue in D-Flat Major is swathed in cool, desaturated tones, the tropical light is tempered and the world constructed is familiar, yet unnatural. Correspondingly, the film’s impressionist scoring builds on this dissonance – serene, childlike humming to understated piano pieces, Debussy’s Clair de Lune – to create a solemn, but simultaneously otherworldly atmosphere. Appropriately enough, Clair de Lune translates from French to ‘moonlight’, another one of the global/planetary motifs underpinning the film. A close-up of a spinning globe, the threat of immense nuclear catastrophe, the dog’s name – Laika, who was, in reality, a Soviet space dog and the first animal to orbit the world, paving the way for human space flight and exploration. These images play with conceptions of humans as a species, drawing a contrast between childlike sentimental attachment and a deeper sense of responsibility to humanity and human life, colouring the family’s actions as necessary sacrifices born out of desperation.
The youngest son’s confrontation with the transience and loss inherent to human experience adds a dual perspective to the narrative, contributing shades of depth to an otherwise unadorned story. The film implements this contrast between the adult-child perspective in a bittersweet, yet vaguely hopeful way. After the final shot faded to white and the credits began rolling, I was left with an ambiguous sense of optimism. Blue in D-Flat Major lacks the idealism of mainstream fare, but does not claim to be ‘realistic’ – instead, its specific execution of a subjective lens creates a balance aligned with the director’s vision.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Michael Kam’s Melodi bludgeons us in the face with the disillusionment that comes with growing up. The film is a headfirst dive into the fantasies of a young boy, played by the director’s own son, offering the audience a visual and auditory immersion into the adolescent mind. While visually rich and lovely to look at, its use of imagery could be considered rather straightforward – the wheelchair-ridden neighbour’s helper is likened to the caged songbirds that he rears; foreign and domestic, she is an otherwise wordless symbol of feminine beauty, an alluring, Orientalised deity who beckons from the lush and pernicious jungle. Then again, the lens is intended to communicate an adolescent naivete and saviour complex, so its triteness may be justified.
What is truly interesting about Melodi is an indisputably ‘adult’ energy which runs through the film. This energy is present in the sound design and music arrangement (credited to Warren Santiago and Michael Asmara, respectively), both heavy lifters in their own right. The song which the boy hears at night, ‘Nina Bobo’, is based on an Indonesian lullaby, and offers a singular glimpse of the helper’s voice. The beautiful, yet haunting lullaby emphasises the loneliness arising from an absence of a mother figure, and postures the helper (whose voice we are presumably hearing) as a surrogate mother figure and love interest to the boy.
This unspoken longing builds up to a climax where the boy locks his neighbour in his house, offering the helper a chance to escape – which she declines. The birdsong and chirping give way to a low, atonal drone which, in the cinema at least, physically reverberate, driving to the audience a dawning of realisation of the boy. The final shot in the film features the boy lying in bed, listening to ‘Nina Bobo’ once again. But this time, the song takes on a different meaning. No longer a blissful lullaby, it has been transformed into a slap in the face, an unattainable fantasy, and a reminder of his childish delusion. This powerful use of sound evokes similar feelings of confusion and helplessness in a visceral fashion – contributing to intriguing, but disturbingly ‘adult’ pessimism, despite its commitment to a child’s perspective.
Both Blue in D-Flat Major and Melodi utilise sound skilfully to craft a compelling portrait of the adult-child perspectives, but they do so with wildly different approaches. The day’s programme opened optimistically, and closed with bleak heartbreak. While I personally would have preferred if the order of the two was reversed (that would have offered some much needed breathing space), these two films are truly done justice to on the big screen, an environment in which their playfulness resonates best with viewers.
This playfulness is a welcome respite from mainstream sentimentality, and while their usage of a childlike lens is hardly a reinvention of cinema, it may be a temporary answer to the oversaturation of local melodrama. A familiar story, done well and done differently – isn’t that something we all need in this day and age?
About the writer
Jamie Lee is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore who is pursuing a major in Southeast Asian Studies and a minor in Film Studies. Apart from having an interest in Asian cinema, she practices film photography, visual art and Balinese dance.
The views set out in this article are those of the author and is not representative of AFA’s official opinion.