Friday, 25 April 2014

Message films reach out with a moving story

Message films are being reshaped into stories to touch hearts
By John Lui, The Straits Times, 23 Apr 2014

Cancer. Dementia. Death and dying.

These topics, shunned in daily conversation, are being brought to life on the screen by a handful of Singapore filmmakers.

Message films - once associated with dull educational works or propaganda - are being reshaped into stories to touch hearts and, perhaps, alter how you live your life.

In the suspenseful feature-length drama 3.50, now showing at The Arts House, a documentary maker played by Singapore actress Eunice Olsen dives into the world of sex slavery in Cambodia. Recipe, shown on Channel 8 last year, features Zoe Tay as a chef trying to juggle a career while caring for a mother losing her mind to dementia.

The documentary Pink Paddlers (2007) tells the uplifting story of Singapore's first breast-cancer survivor dragonboat team.

What sets these works apart from others is they have a sense of mission. They seek to start a conversation, usually about a topic which most people ignore or find uncomfortable.

In the package of films which form the art project Both Sides, Now, launched last year, visitors to a hospital watch children and animated figures discuss death and dying, in all its shadings.

Sometimes, the call to action is more explicit. In family drama Love Cuts (2010), also featuring Zoe Tay as the lead, the message is for women of a certain age to get screened regularly for breast cancer.

The moving image is a powerfully engaging storytelling medium, says acclaimed Singapore film-maker Eric Khoo, 49, which is why the Health Promotion Board (HPB) commissioned a film to raise awareness of dementia as a supplement to other methods, he says.

He felt telling a moving story in the form of a fiction feature would "reach out to a lot more people" compared with a documentary, but it was crucial to get a narrative framework which would speak to everyone.

The director worked with screenwriter Wong Kim Hoh, also a senior writer with The Straits Times, to fashion a story "that could work on a universal level". They hit upon the idea of a hawker (played by Li Yingzhu) and her daughter, a chef (Zoe Tay), two people separated by a cultural divide but joined by their love of cooking and food.

"All Singaporeans love to eat, so food would be a strong component. We care about the hawker centres," he says.

Love Cuts, also commissioned by the HPB, opened in cinemas. But because dementia and Alzheimer's hit hardest on older adults, "it was important that this film got on TV, on a platform such as Channel 8, so we could reach the aunties and uncles", says Khoo.

Since Singapore's second film-making renaissance began in the mid-1990s, there have been films which address issues, but with, perhaps, a more muted sense of mission than either Recipe or 3.50.

Tan Pin Pin, for example, has released works such as Invisible City (2007) and The Impossibility Of Knowing (2010), highly personal meditations on people and places in Singapore which ordinary citizens blank out.

Singapore's rapidly changing landscape has also spurred other film-makers to commit to record sights and sounds which might vanish.

Eng Yee Peng's documentaries, Diminishing Memories I (2005) and II (2008), take a lingering, final look at rural Lim Chu Kang, where she grew up, while raising questions about its redevelopment.

Celebrated film-maker Royston Tan, maker of commercial romance-comedies 881 (2007) and 12 Lotus (2008), has made documentaries about Singapore's vanishing locations in Old Places (2010) and Old Romances (2012), both films jointly directed by Tan, Eva Tang and Victric Thng.

Remember Chek Jawa (2007) is a documentary by Eric Lim about the conserved wetland on Pulau Ubin, whose fate was still in doubt at the time of the film's making.

But where agenda-driven cinema could really be seen was in film festivals, featuring mainly imported works.

Since the early 1990s, there have been film festivals promoting visual arts and design as well as supporting social causes. The Love & Pride Festival, celebrating "universal love and sexuality" with a bias for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender themes, returned yesterday for its sixth edition.

Film-makers who spoke to Life! are well aware that marketing a message movie is an uphill struggle, as the work is seen as preachy or didactic. But that is a hurdle faced by any film-maker not making mass-market entertainment, not just by those making message films, they say.

Love Cuts is among the first message films to have a run in mainstream cinemas.

But despite featuring a stellar cast including Zoe Tay, Kenny Ho and Allan Wu, it made a paltry $150,000 at the box office here. It was directed by Gerald Lee, and it is not known how much funding the HPB gave the film.

But it must be noted that message films do not usually measure their success by box-office takings. Also, not all film-makers want their films to run in a chain cinema; Ms Eunice Olsen, for example, says she prefers the longer exposure that The Arts House would give 3.50, compared with that which a commercial exhibitor could provide.

For director Jasmine Ng, 41, it was crucial that Pink Paddlers had to work as a piece of action-driven entertainment, not a "women crying and bringing out the tissue boxes" story, she says.

"Knowing how hard it is to get the audiences' attention, we made sure there was a good story, an action-packed story," she says.

A group of determined women are seen trying to beat the odds to win the first Breast Cancer Survivor Dragon Boat World Championship, held in Singapore.

Ng made the documentary after learning about the teams and competition from Ms Suzette Cody, a volunteer with the Breast Cancer Foundation who went on to become the film's producer. Ng then secured a grant from the Khoo Foundation to make the film, which received several charity screenings in cinemas before moving on to television and DVD.

She was also involved in Both Sides, Now. Installed at the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, it was commissioned by the Lien Foundation and the ACM Foundation to provoke visitors into thinking about end-of-life issues.

While there were no feature-length works at the exhibition, 15 short films were shown, all conceptualised, executive-produced or curated by Ng. Film-makers such as Tan Wei Keong and the Zhuang brothers as well as Ng herself contributed works.

It might be tempting to think of message films as commercials of another kind, ones which sell uplifting ideas rather than shampoo or cars, but Khoo and Ng would disagree.

Cancer and death are highly sensitive topics, they say; a hard-sell approach would backfire.

Ng adds: "It would reek. People would smell it from a mile away."

And that is why films, whether as short or featurelength works, are so powerful as tools for communication, she says. When message films work, the distance between the viewer and screen vanishes. The world of the film becomes the viewer's world.

"It gives you a safe space. It's a rehearsal for life," she says.

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