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Tiong Bahru Social Club by Tan Bee Thiam will open the festival.

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One of the festival's crowdpleasers is Gagarine, a French film about a black teenager who dreams of going into space.

No-frills festival focuses on great films

With reduced capacities in cinemas, Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) reinvents itself.
13/11/2020 - 05:50

NO glamour, no VIP visitors, no red carpet - just great films. This year's pared-down Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) is a hybrid event of films screened in cinemas and online. And though the number of films has been reduced from 90 to about 70, the quality of the films is undiminished.

Chief among the highlights is Chloe Zhao's acclaimed drama Nomadland. A top prizewinner at both the Toronto and Venice Film Festival, it stars Frances McDormand as a woman in her sixties trying to make the best of things, after losing her house in a recession. She befriends others in similar predicaments and finds small mercies within the ostensible tragedy.

The film is tipped to be a top contender at the 2021 Oscars, especially with the pandemic delaying the release of many prestige projects.

Also highly anticipated is Kelly Reichardt's drama First Cow, about two frontier men trying to strike it rich in 1820s America. The film holds a 96 per cent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes website, with critics heaping lavish praise on it. Joe Morgenstern of Wall Street Journal wrote: "Some movies feel dead from the first shot, with or without star power, spectacular vistas or the false energy of hurtling pace. First Cow is vividly alive on arrival and grows into pure enchantment."

Running from Nov 26 to Dec 6 , the festival will open with Singapore film Tiong Bahru Social Club, co-written and directed by Tan Bee Thiam. The only Singapore film selected for the recent Busan International Film Festival, this offbeat candy-coloured comedy stars Thomas Pang as a young man searching for Singapore-style happiness - and comes close to finding it in the gentrified neighbourhood of Tiong Bahru.

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Director Tan says the film "comes at a time where we (Singaporeans) are questioning the construct and mechanics of happiness" in the city.

Other highlights of the festival include Dea Kulumbegashvili's award-winning debut feature Beginning, about the unhappy wife of a Jehovah's Witness leader; and Alyx Ayn Arumpac's moving documentary Aswang, which examines the horrific impact President Rodrigo Duterte's "war of drugs" has on the poor in the Philippines. Festival darlings Tsai Ming Liang, Lav Diaz, Naomi Kawase, Kiyoshi Kurasawa and Hong Sang-soo also have new films showing at the festival.

Festival chairman Boo Junfeng, an acclaimed filmmaker himself, says the event - now in its 31st year - has always provided "a space for us to examine the human condition and have conversations on important issues in the world that affect us. During these challenging times, many have relied on films as a form of escape and a space for reflection, and we have come to appreciate the power of cinema even more. That's why we've pressed on with the 31st edition of SGIFF - to continue to be the place of inspiration for anyone who loves cinema."

Festival artistic director Kuo Ming-Jung says: "When we envisioned this year's festival, we wanted to embody the spirit of resilience. We wanted to celebrate hope that has been reflecting in our society's enduring journey this year . . . Whatever the future holds for festivals, their traditions or new hybrid forms, we strongly believe that the ritual of coming together for a shared experience, and the beauty of hearing diverse viewpoints and stories, contribute positively to our sense of community."

Because of the reduced seating capacity in cinemas, tickets are more limited than usual. Many of the titles, however, are available online to ticket holders, so they can watch the films in the safety of their homes. The talks and discussions, including one with legendary Hong Kong director Ann Hui examining her oeuvre, will also be conducted online. Tickets are on sale via sgiff.com, theprojector.sg and Sistic.

We pick out five of the festival's must-see titles.

Five Festival Picks

Nomadland (USA)

Director: Chloe Zhao

Chloe Zhao is one of the hottest names in indie cinema right now. Born in Beijing but now based in the US, she gained global attention for the extraordinary 2017 drama The Rider, about a rodeo rider who suffers brain injury after an accident. The film prompted two-time Oscar winner Frances McDormand to approach Zhao to work together - and the result is Nomadland, a heartbreaking story of a retired teacher (McDormand) who loses her house and goes travelling through the US in her van.

The Wasteland (Iran)

Director: Ahmad Bahrami

Winner of the Venice Film Festival's Orizzonti section (dedicated to films with new aesthetics), The Wasteland is a stark, evocative and structurally daring black-and-white film about life in a traditional Iranian mudbrick factory. When the factory owner is forced to close shop because of falling revenue, he delivers the bad news to his workers - at which point the narrative elegantly splinters to focus on the factory's different characters and the varying impact the news has on them.

Tiong Bahru Social Club (Singapore)

Director: Tan Bee Thiam

One of very few local titles to be released in 2020, the satirical comedy Tiong Bahru Social Club centres on a young man (Thomas Pang) searching for his purpose in life. He ends up joining the Tiong Bahru Social Club, an organisation that uses tech and data to transform the gentrified neighbourhood Tiong Bahru into the happiest district in the world. Along the way, the young man discovers what happiness truly means. The film features many actors from Singapore's thriving theatre scene.

True Mothers (Japan)

Director: Naomi Kawase

Naomi Kawase became a fixture in film festivals after winning the Cannes' Camera D'Or (for first time filmmakers) for her film Suzaku in 1997. Applying a documentarian's eye on women's issues, she explores the minutiae of the female experience in ways no other Japanese filmmaker has. Her new film, True Mothers, tells the story of a childless couple who happily adopt a little boy - only to receive a call some years later from his birth mother who wants him back.

Gagarine (France)

Directors: Fanny Liatard and Jeremy Trouilh

If you're looking for something accessible and uplifting, pick Gagarine. An official selection for Cannes 2020, it tells an enchanting story of a 16-year-old boy Youri (played by excellent newcomer Alseni Bathily) who lives in an urban poor housing project that's about to be demolished. As more families abandon their apartments, Youri - who's always dreamt of becoming an astronaut - transforms his increasingly desolate surroundings into a wondrous "spaceship".