Lurking Underneath

By Clara Che Wei Peh

Against a backdrop of 15-second viral videos, a digital media landscape of endless spectacles, and an audience acclimatised for the action-packed rhythm of blockbuster films, it can feel difficult to hold space for the more considered. As a result, the subtler movements and shifts are often overlooked, until trusted sources direct our attention to them. Singapore Shorts ’21 does exactly this, as it points us towards three filmmakers whose work invites the audience to embrace a different rhythm of looking and listening, to uncover what lurks beneath the seemingly ordinary.

A stinging feeling on my neck

Still from A stinging feeling on my neck (2019, dir. Lai Yu Tong)

It begins with the footage of a car driving past the city in the night, as a voice (presumedly the artist/filmmaker’s), narrates a dream of travelling to Hong Kong. He recounts snippets with no clear order of importance, from the various modes of transportations he took to reach the city, the sense of loss that he feels in “constantly shoving [himself] into different kinds of boxes”, to the McDonald’s breakfast he eats before boarding and after the flight lands. The calm and monotonous stream of consciousness is interwoven with short clips of self-shot videos of things he sees around him, though we never see Lai Yu Tong himself. He does not explicitly address the moment in time when these footages were shot, but as he lays out travel-sized toiletry on top of a slightly wrinkled tissue paper, he cites the Yuen Long attack, an incident of violence surrounding the pro-democracy protests, pinpointing the historic events that were happening around him. Through this almost indifferent tone, we are brought to the summer of 2019, a crucial moment in Hong Kong’s history.

We shift between the consistently predictable layout of the Uniqlo storefront, to voyeuristic records of pedestrians moving and walking down the street, to chaotic and anxious sights of the protest. Shirts, and the colour of shirts, are mentioned repeatedly throughout these scenes, acting as the connection between the mundanity of daily life and the unexpectedness of the protest taking place in Hong Kong. As the camera takes us through Uniqlo, Lai tells us that he went to the store every morning for the six days that he was in Hong Kong. He spends a long time in the store, carefully selecting a colour and a shirt to buy and wear for each day.

Still from A stinging feeling on my neck (2019, dir. Lai Yu Tong)

The pro-democracy protestors wore black, following a history of black clothing worn as the colour of refusal and resistance globally and locally, as protestors have adopted black as their unifying colour in the past decade. The black uniform has become so powerful and recognizable that the Chinese government had allegedly banned the import of black clothing items into Hong Kong in late 2019. The seemingly minute and insignificant decision of what colour to wear has been activated as an explicit display of one’s political stance in this moment of the protest. In a similar vein, Lai’s film holds space for us to learn about and process the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong which ignited in 2019, through conversations and scenes of the quotidian.

 Wallflowers in the Parade

Against the dreamy blue and pink skies at sunset, a low voice prays to Jehovah solemnly, as the voice reveals that his dear son, Shao Qi, is headed to prison the next day. In Wallflowers in the Parade, Tan Jit Jenn sheds light on male Jehovah’s Witnesses in Singapore who are imprisoned for two and a half years for their conscientious objection to military service. We are brought into the lives of Shao Qi and his family, Jordan, and Freddie, to consider what this reality means for these young men.

Still from Wallflowers in the Parade (2021, dir. Tan Jit Jenn)

On 14 January 1972, Singapore deregistered the Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the grounds that its members refused to perform military services out of conscientious objection. Freddie was one of the first young Witnesses to be charged in the Supreme Court for his refusal to serve, alongside fellow Witness, Khiang. Fast forward to 1 October 2020, nearly 50 years after Freddie stood before the court, we see Shao Qi about to make the same decision, under the same conviction that he could not take part in activities associated with violence due to his faith and beliefs, despite full knowledge of what lies ahead of him.

Rather than bringing us into the courtroom, or even into the detention barracks and holding sites, Tan takes us, instead, into Shao Qi’s childhood bedroom, where he sits in front of the window, shoulders slightly hunched, recounting his reasons for objecting to military service. A pillow adorned with colourful cartoon-like illustrations lies behind him, a silent reminder to Shao Qi’s recent arrival to adulthood. The comfort and vulnerability of his bedroom, followed by his mother diligently cooking by the kitchen window, and the family’s cozy but mellow dinner at the table, takes us into the intimate private lives of the Kohs, perhaps a familial rhythm that many of us can find resonance with. Suddenly we see our own families, or the families we know around us, and we can empathise what this fate means for Shao Qi, but also for his parents.

Still from Wallflowers in the Parade (2021, dir. Tan Jit Jenn)

We are taken back to the dinner table, where Mr. and Mrs. Koh eat quietly, as we all reckon with the absent seat that Shao Qi has left behind him.

Escape Velocity IV

Much like the short films above, Zai Tang’s Escape Velocity IV zooms in on an aspect of living that is commonly overlooked – listening to the sounds of nature, especially in an urgent time of ecological crisis like the present.

Still from Escape Velocity IV (2019, dir. Zai Tang)

The film opens with nearly 30 seconds of a blank, dark screen, as we stare intently for something to unfold. In this time, our listening becomes increasingly activated, as the many layers of sounds become noticeable. A line gently dances across the screen, rising and falling. It is then met with a glowing line that darts across the screen, in perfect unison to an animal’s calling. Bit by bit, this soundscape expands, and we are taken into this world of deep listening and synaesthesia.

Tang began working on the Escape Velocity series during his residency at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in 2018, naming the body of work after an analogy for escaping an anthropocentric approach of looking at the world. The series is built upon field recordings of nature and wildlife of different places under threat from development, which act as the basis of sound visualisations and sonic installations. Escape Velocity I and II draw on field recordings from the Bukit Brown Cemetery, MacRitchie Reservoir, and the Rail Corridor, while Escape Velocity III, along with Escape Velocity IV, are grounded in field recordings made in the forests near to The Mandai Project, a large-scale development wherein several existing habitats of ecological value are being repurposed into an ‘eco-resort’. Accompanied by Simon Ball’s almost audio-reactive animation, that draws out the nuances and idiosyncrasies of each individual sound, Escape Velocity IV invites us to explore a space through its sounds.

Few of us might have considered or ever attempted to listen to nature’s sounds with the curiosity and keenness that Tang and Ball have presented us. In less than 8 minutes, the filmmakers have demonstrated the vivid reality that one can tune into if one only thought to listen carefully.

Still from Escape Velocity IV (2019, dir. Zai Tang)

Tang approaches the ecological emergency – an urgency that can be overwhelming and divisive – with curiosity and wonder, calling for a re-evaluation of how humans cohabit with the natural environments and wildlife around us by illuminating their wonders in full. Tan juxtaposes personal interviews against legal and historical records, to illustrate the effects that an overarching system can have on an individual and household, humanising something that appears distant. Meanwhile, Lai narrates a moment of unrest and crisis alongside the realities of mundane everyday living, reminding his audience that these uncertainties are not so far away from our own lives. While the three films take different approaches to point us towards larger phenomena which lie behind the screen, all three emphasise the necessity of listening and looking closely, beyond the immediate scope of the surface. What would we uncover if we only just paid more attention?

About the Writer

Clara Che Wei Peh is Art Lead and Curator at Appetite. She is also an Adjunct Lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts. Clara graduated from Yale-NUS College and the Courtauld Institute of Art. She is an independent arts writer and her works have been published in Hyperallergic, Yishu: Journal of Chinese Contemporary Art, Art and Market, among others. Clara is the Founder and a Moderator of NFT Asia.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive. 

About the Writer