by Caroline Gordon
It was with much anticipation that I made my way down to The Substation on Friday 5th August evening to catch the first screening of EtiquetteII’s double showcase of films by Singaporean women.
Being the second installment of an annual event celebrating women artists, this year’s film component was an inaugural offering displaying the visions of 10 Singaporean and Singapore-based female filmmakers. I was really curious to see the kinds of messages and visuals that I would hear and see from Singaporean women film makers.
Opening the first night was “Dirty Bitch” by Sun Koh which was inspired by a “violently censored VHS copy of Claire Denis’ Nénette et Boni”. This film immediately set the tone for the rest of the night to be controversial, thought-provoking and provocative. “Dirty Bitch” picked up the awards for Best Director and Best Fiction in the recent Singapore Short Films Award – and rightly so. Depicting sexuality, fantasy and gore, “Dirty Bitch” is a controlled unleashing of chaos that veers from a cop masturbating to S&M erotica, to a scary pregnant pigtailed girl, to a lip-syncing abortion doctor and finally to a panel of tight lipped bureaucrats grooving around in blood stained bunny slippers. At the end of the screening, I was left with a bizarre yet lingering taste of discomfort towards sex and violence in a way that I have yet to experience from more established works of the same nature. Perhaps, I was reeling too much from the visual after-effects of this Lynch-esque production, but deeper, less predictable connotations of feminism, had there been any to begin with, completely flew by me without even a peek-a-boo.
Nevertheless, I was hopeful for the next screening – “Substitute” by A.D Chan which explored voyeurism intermingled with obsession, lust and perhaps a little love. Using a distinctive colour palette of reds and blues to form the backdrop of her narrative, Chan’s film delivered one of the more unforgettable visual experiences of the night. I was hooked by the lure of the ‘forbidden fruit’ – the woman and her body as simultaneously an object of temptation as well as protected territory – and was edging out of my seat towards the end only to be sadly disappointed by the rather unexpected ending that came across more as an unfortunate twist rather than enhancing the overall narrative. This film definitely had more potential to engage the audience with the issue of women as they are viewed by men and by extension, the audience, as representative of society at large. Instead, whilst it did tantalise the audience and catch our attention, it did not quite deliver on feminist substance.
“Come” by Kristen Tan was the third line-up and was by far the most provocative in subject matter. Touching on religion, sex and the family, Tan’s film pushes the boundaries of taboo in exploring how the three issues are often symbiotically linked in the home. The actors in this film were notably more experienced and the dark comedy that was present in the narrative was sinfully decadent. It was also more grounded in narrative quality, particularly in exploring the idea of morality, sex and the interplay of these inescapable social functions in each of the family – The Father, The Mother, The Daughter and The Son. The sexual vixen of a daughter, who is the perfect embodiment of Eve, tainting her younger brother with the poisonous fruit of knowledge, is in direct opposition to the virtuous Mother who fornicates with the Father while still in her long nightgown. This film said a lot more about feminine roles and stereotypes than the previous two screenings.
The rest of the showcase included “Overhead Clouds” by Yeo Lee Nah, “Shout” and “Still Life” by Lilian Wang and “Smell of Rain” by Gloria Chee. Whilst they were all entertaining and worth mentioning in their own way, they really bore scant significance towards feminism per se.
As such, when I left the first night, I did feel a little disappointed – for although the blurb about the screen event did not commit to feminist films, I had been hoping for films by women for women. Instead, it was quite clear that most of these were films by women, period. And so, it was with less anticipation and more apprehension that I came for the second showcase the following Saturday evening.
The second night however, opened with a bang. Dana Lam’s “She Shapes a Nation” was the first film on show. The audience hall was definitely fuller and buzzing with more excitement – and it was no wonder, for Lam undoubtedly delivered a hearfelt, inspiring and well-researched testimony of five decades of womens’ contributions in shaping Singapore’s identity as a nation. The footage was meticulously edited to highlight the impact offered by the wealth of women interviewed for this documentary ranging from a Chinese-educated Qualtity Check Technician to iconic big players such as Patricia Chan – Singapore’s Golden Girl for swimming in the 60s and Mrs Hedwig Anuar – Director of the National Library Board for over two decades and founder-member of AWARE itself.
I was enraptured for the entire 21 minutes and at the end all I wanted to do was stand up, whistle and applaud. It was better than any nationalistic propaganda I’ve ever encountered in making me truly feel proud to be a Singaporean woman. Personally I feel that Dana Lam deserved more than a mere nomination at the Singapore Short Film Awards for Best Documentary, but more importantly, I felt as if finally, I had watched a really good piece of film by women for women. Prior to this, I had not known much about our female leaders who had fought so many struggles on both the public and personal front to carve out rights that we as women take for granted today.
Another interesting viewing was “Durai and Saro” by Prema Menon. A fictional rendition, “Durai and Saro” delivers a tale of the migrant worker’s loneliness – as told from from the voices of the commonly unvoiced. There were many poignant scenes – like when Durai calls home and cries for being unable to speak to his children or when Saro sneaks a peak at her family photo only to slam her head down on her suitcase doubling as a pillow when she hears her employer awaken. However, it did not quite fit into the rest of the screenings of the night which were documentaries. The film pretty much stuck out like a sore thumb being neither a documentary nor possessing a direct chord to link it to feminism.
One name that struck a chord was May Lin Au Yong. Two films by Au Yong were featured – namely, “Bullet Proof Vest” and Under The Story Book Sky. Both documentaries showcased an incredibly talented filmmaker with an eye for detail and ability to put forth images and words in a captivating and aesthetic form. Between the two, “Under The Story Book Sky” definitely was more significant because of its main character Melyssa – a young lady suffering from dwarfism. She dazzles the audience with her unflinching sharing of how she faces the reality of discrimination. In Melyssa, we can see core values of strong femininity – day to day struggling for autonomy and acceptance and a safe working environment – that are often overlooked for more impressive accomplishments.
The second night ended with “Pink Paddlers” by Jasmine Ng and Suzette Cody. This film was the perfect choice for leaving the audience with a resounding impact of Singaporean womens’ determination, spirit and courage. A one hour documentary account bringing together the voices of local breast cancer survivors who came together to participate in the first-ever Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat World Championship, “Pink Paddlers” is a must see for all Singaporean women. We need to know that we can achieve anything we want to – regardless of insurmountable obstacles.
Despite a slow start on the night of the first showcase and a technical delay in between the screenings, this inaugural film component of EtiquetteII curated by Mardhiah Osman and Mabelyn Ow definitely picked up the pace on the second night. I agree wholeheartedly with Mardhiah’s opinion that – Before EtiquetteII, if one were to search for Singaporean women filmmakers online, there would be minimal or no results. After EtiquetteII, if one were to now do the same search, there would be over two pages of results. Indeed, whilst EtiquetteII’s film showcase might have had some rough spots of divergent subject matter that seemed irrelevant to feminism; it nevertheless must be acknowledged for being an excellent platform to raise awareness about the existence of Singaporen women film makers and their spectrum of talents and visions.
Caroline Gordon is a Literature Teacher who reads too much and sleeps too little.