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Drama sheds light on darker side of Singapore
TWO years ago, K Rajagopal's A Yellow Bird was picked as one of the 15 titles in the Cinéfondation L'Atelier section at the Cannes Film Festival, where emerging filmmakers get to link up with potential backers and other professionals from the industry to get their projects made.
Fast-forward to this May and the 51-year-old and the stars of his film walked the red carpet as the completed work premiered at International Critics' Week - a parallel section to Cannes - and competed for the Camera d'Or award for best feature film debut, a prize which fellow Singaporean Anthony Chen picked up for his Ilo Ilo in 2013.
Though he didn't win, Rajagopal says the experience was "a proud moment" and he was overwhelmed that A Yellow Bird was picked for Cannes.
The film - a co-production between Singapore and France - will have its Singapore premiere at SGIFF. It has also been short-listed as one of the competition films in the Silver Screen Awards, and will open for general release in cinemas on Dec 8.
Rajagopal is no stranger to SGIFF, having won the Special Jury Prize for three consecutive years with his short films I Can't Sleep Tonight (1995), The Glare (1996) and Absence (1997).
The self-taught filmmaker was also involved in last year's SG50 omnibus drama 7 Letters.
A Yellow Bird's plot - which Rajagopal says was inspired by stories like Albert Camus's The Stranger and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Notes from the Underground - revolves around an ex-convict (veteran local actor Sivakumar Palakrishnan) who comes out of prison to find his family has left him.
On his quest to track them down, as well as to seek forgiveness from his mother (acclaimed Bollywood actress Seema Biswas who starred in Bandit Queen, 1994), he finds a kindred spirit in a mainland Chinese woman (indie Chinese actress Huang Lu, who starred in Blind Mountain, 2007) working illegally on a social-visit pass to earn money for her debt-ridden family back home.
A review in Variety notes that "deliberately abrasive characters and a downbeat narrative lend (A Yellow Bird) un-commercial authenticity".
On the reception it got at Cannes earlier this year, Rajagopal says: "The audience were intrigued by the way the film showed the other side of Singapore, which they were not used to; some of them found it dark and intense."
Suffice to say, it is an impressive first-time effort for a filmmaker who previously only made short films and is venturing into features at an usually late stage of his career.
Ten drafts of the script were written over the course of three years before cameras started rolling.
"I sometimes did not even write a detailed script when I made short films - it was all planned in my head and I executed it," Rajagopal admits. "With a feature, the process was more painstaking - I learnt that a lot more attention had to be given to the story structure and characterisation ... The (plot) has to be layered to keep the attention of the audience."
Despite the challenges he faced making his first feature, he "enjoyed the detailing process in the storytelling and the collaboration in making the feature film" and looks forward to his next one.
For now, Rajagopal hopes A Yellow Bird will be a film that Singaporeans can identify with.
"The characters and locations will be very familiar to the audience as they are part of our everyday lives (and) the film is about a man who is seen as a stranger in his own home and country - a man who is displaced and alienated," he notes, adding: "I hope Singaporeans will connect with the film, and that the emotions and themes will resonate with them."
- A Yellow Bird screens at National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre on Dec 1 at 9.30pm
'Live' noise adds to surrealism of thriller
MALAYSIAN writer and filmmaker Dain Iskandar Said explores his fascination with Asian folklore and mythologies once again in his latest work Interchange.
The noir-fantasy thriller - which will open this year's Singapore International Film Festival - follows in the vein of his last movie, Bunohan: Return to Murder (2012), an action-packed kick-boxing drama which had a talking bird and a ghost with stegosaurus-like spines as characters.
It won eight awards at the 25th Malaysian Film Festival - the second-most awarded film of all time at that festival; and was also selected as the country's official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film nomination for the 85th Academy Awards.
An Indonesian-Malaysian co-production, Interchange is based on a chain of events triggered by a true incident that took place a century ago when Norwegian explorer Carl Lumholtz was travelling through central Borneo. One of the photographs he took was of a group of tribal women bathing in a river, in an attempt to cleanse themselves of the evil effects of being caught on film.
Interchange will make its Asian premiere at the festival after receiving critical praise at the Locarno International Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival earlier.
The cast is led by Malaysian stars Shaheizy Sam and Iedil Putra, and Indonesian actors Nicholas Saputra and Prisia Nasution.
The plot revolves around a forensics photographer (Saputra) who is lured into a world of shamans and mystic creatures while helping his detective friend (Sam) investigate a series of macabre murders.
Despite some of the fantasy and supernatural elements in Interchange, Dain reveals he spent about seven years "(going) deep" into his research about the mythologies, folklore and culture of tribal folks before making Interchange to explore the connection between the physical and spiritual worlds in the plot.
It's an urban fairy tale, if you like, with Kuala Lumpur's gritty inner city not only standing in for the unnamed location the action takes place in but also its accidental ambient noise adding to the film's sense of surrealism.
"I don't like to make things up so I try to use the 'live' sound recording as much as possible (even though) it is very difficult when you have screaming helicopters, police cars, and motorbikes (but) that adds to the dynamism and life of the story," explains Dain, who graduated in film and photography from London's University of Westminster, and chalked up an impressive resume in commercials upon his return to Malaysia before moving into long form and experimental works in 2004.
His media installations have been shown at the Biennale of Sydney and he was the recipient of the Nippon Foundation's Asian Public Intellectuals Fellowship in 2006.
The experimental edge of Dain's craft extends to the sound design of his films and he largely refrains from getting his actors to overdub their parts during post-production. "(I prefer) not to lose the energy of the performance," he explains.
- Interchange screens at Marina Bay Sands on Nov 23 at 7.15pm
Japanese soft porn's big-screen comeback
TO celebrate the 45th anniversary of "Roman Porno" (short for what the Japanese label as "Romantic Pornography"), the studio which popularised it, Nikkatsu, is rebooting the genre for a new generation.
It has commissioned five of the country's top directors to make these soft-core skin flicks which actually saved the studio from bankruptcy during the 1970s and launched the careers of famed Japanese filmmakers like Yojiro Takita (Departures, 2008) and Shusuke Kaneko (Death Note 2: The Last Name, 2006). Over the span of 17 years, Nikkatsu churned out about 1,100 "Roman Porno" movies before straight-to-video adult films killed it in 1988.
The genre is not to be confused with Pinku Eiga (Pink Films), another popular form of erotic Japanese cinema wildly popular during the mid-1960s where films are typically shot in black-and-white to cut cost but feature sex scenes in full colour.
The new "Roman Porno" works are made in the spirit of the originals where the filmmakers have full creative freedom as long as they complete shooting within a week on a shoestring budget and insert a sex scene into the plot every 10 minutes or so.
One of the newly-commissioned films, Akihiko Shiota's Wet Woman in the Wind, which premiered at Locarno Film Festival's Golden Leopard competition earlier this year, will be screened at the Singapore International Film Festival.
The Kyoto-born director says he discovered directors like Tatsumi Kumashiro, Noboru Tanaka and Chusei Sone through "Roman Porno" and jumped at the opportunity to make one of his own when the offer came along. "These days, it is very difficult to make original films in Japan that are not adapted from popular mangas or novels so there was no reason to reject Nikkatsu," explains the 55-year-old.
He adds that the "Roman Porno" genre enjoyed a resurgence in 2012 after the studio held a retrospective which turned out to be so successful that it prompted this reboot. Even more surprisingly, about 60 per cent of the new audience were young women. Shiota says both the title of his film and the plot are partly inspired by Kumashiro's own "Roman Porno" classic Lovers are Wet (1973).
An off-the-wall comedy, Wet Woman in the Wind's wacky storyline revolves around a woman (Yuki Mamiya) with an insatiable sex drive who harasses a washed-up playwright (Tasuku Nagaoka) who is determined to keep his celibacy in check.
Shiota says one of the challenges directors who shoot sex scenes face is that the audience tends to get distracted from the plot once things start getting hot and heavy on the big screen.
To overcome that, Shiota stresses Wet Woman in the Wind's main theme is "the battle between men and women" - hence the steamy bits are integral to the plot as they represent the mental and physical struggle between both sexes.
Shooting the naughty parts also posed another challenge even though actors Mamiya and Nagaoka are both no strangers to on-screen nudity.
But the time constraint of shooting within a week meant the stars had to warm up to each other fast. Shiota and an assistant director took the initiative to break the ice between cast and crew in double-quick time by acting out the sex scenes themselves during rehearsals. "Can you imagine two middle-aged men entwined with each other, embracing and switching (sexual) positions? Of course, everybody burst out laughing and we got to know each other better as a team straightaway," he shares.
Ultimately, Shiota hopes this reboot of the "Roman Porno" genre will be more than a one-off for the sake of stopping the glut of comic-book adaptations dominating Japanese cinema now: "If this project is successful, other production companies might try to make films with this method, which means Japanese directors will get more opportunities to work on their original ideas."
- Wet Woman in the Wind screens at Shaw Lido 4 on Nov 27 at 11am; and at The Arts House on Dec 3 at 9.30pm
The 27th Singapore International Film Festival, which is part of the Singapore Media Festival hosted by Info-communications Media Development Authority of Singapore, runs from Nov 23 to Dec 4, 2016 and will take place across various venues, including Marina Bay Sands, National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre, Shaw Theatres Lido, National Gallery Singapore Auditorium, The Arts House Screening Room, Filmgarde Bugis+ and Objectifs Chapel Gallery. Ticket are on sale now. For full line-up and booking details, check sgiff.com