When local filmmaker Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined won the Golden Leopard Award, the top prize at the Lucarno Film Festival, it became clear that there is more to Singapore cinema than Jack Neo’s grassroots comedy and CGIs in Ah Boys to Men. The leap forward is in no small part thanks to the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), which has been the platform for establishing local, and Southeast Asian, filmmakers to present their work for the last 30 years.

Other than the headline-grabbing Wet Season — the opening film of 30th SGIFF by local writer-director Anthony Chen — cinephiles can look forward to films across a number of categories. Here’s what should be on your radar.

Special presentations

To celebrate strong female characters as films’ protagonists, SGIFF presents three films — Not A Time to CelebrateDowntown Abbey, and Nina Wu. And we look forward to Burmese filmmaker Midi Z’s Nina Wu, a film featured in the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.

Wu Ke Xi as Nina Wu 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Nina Wu’ | Actress Wu Ke Xi playing as Nina Wu

Inspired by the events of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Nina Wu is a struggling young actress who is desperate for the career-defining breakout role. After years of mediocre acting roles, she was offered the lead role of a film that comes with a catch: perform explicit sex scenes with nudity. The film provides Nina the fame she craves, but her shot to fame eventually haunts her psychological well-being and her personal life.

Nina Wu premieres on 24 November, 8 pm, at the Capitol Theatre. Ticket information here.

Southeast Asian Short Films

Some films featured in this sub-category are international premiere status Gallery (Vietnam) by Vo Anh Vu, Asian premiere status Adam (Singapore) by Shoki Lin, and a banned film from Thailand’s art event Biennale Krabi 2018, Birth of Golden Snail (Thailand) by Chulayarnnon Siriphol. And these offerings are split throughout four programmes, each comprising four to five short films.

Our pick is Programme 2, and specifically, Kris Ong’s Sunday (Singapore), which includes Pham Thien An’s Stay Awake, Be Ready (Vietnam), Chuah Jie Xie’s Lanny (Malaysia), Lidia Afrilita and David Darmadi’s Diary of Cattle (Indonesia), and Duong Dieu Linh’s Sweet, Salty (Vietnam).

Sunday 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Sunday’.

Prior to Sunday, Ong, a script consultant for HBO Asia, has written and directed short films like You Idiot in 2018, which was screened at the Norwegian Short Film Festival (Kortfilmfestivalen). Unlike You Idiot, which talks about a gentle relationship between two straight men, Sunday, her third film, broaches heavier issues. It is about a young woman with a full-body rash, driven to violence during a forbidden encounter with her sister’s boyfriend.

Sunday, part of the Southeast Asian Short Films (Programme 2), premieres on 29 November, 7 pm, at the National Gallery SingaporeTicket information here.

Asian Feature Films

If you still prefer the old-fashioned movie experience, the Asian Feature Films’ list is packed with choices like the fear of retirement in Oren Gerner’s Africa (Israel), the abusive marriage in Raymund Ribay Gutierrez’s Verdict (Philippines), and the conspiracy within a prison in Serhat Karaaslan’s Passed By Censor (Turkey). But our pick goes to Shahad Ameen’s Scales (UAE).

Scales 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Scales’.

With the recent incident of India’s Nusrat Jahan Rafi, Hayat’s desire, in Scales, to be heard and to be relevant in her community is a fitting narrative for recent times. This makes Ameen’s film, which won the Verona Film Club Award in the 76th Venice Film Festival, relatable and one to look out for at SGIFF.

Scales presents a religious fishing community that believes in sacrificing a daughter from every family during an annual ritual to appease the “sea creatures” for a good harvest. Hayat, however, was spared from it. This made her live in “shame” in the village as they believed that her being spared has cursed them. But Hayat is determined to prove them wrong.

Scales premieres on 28 November, 7 pm, at the National Museum of Singapore; 29 November, 4.30 pm, at the Oldham Theatre. Ticket information here.

Singapore Panorama

What’s SGIFF like in Singapore without a local touch? Films in this category tell the stories closest to home, and reflecting the realities of her contemporary society. For instance, her marginalised families, her migrant workers, and her education system.

Yuan Bin’s I Dream of Singapore (Singapore), an individual film.

I Dream of Singapore 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘I Dream of Singapore’.

On one hand, this film documents the human rights being violated in a first-world country. On the other, it could act as a reminder of how our sense of xenophobia might hinder us from empathising with the migrant workers. I Dream of Singapore, Bin’s fourth film, latches on the journey of a migrant worker in Singapore, Feroz, who got injured and got denied treatment by his employer. Through his own eyes, Bin captures snippets of the daily lives of Feroz and the other migrant workers, from listening to music in their dorm rooms, to being policed aggressively in crowded areas.
I Dream of Singapore premieres on 24 November, 930 pm, at the Oldham Theatre. Ticket information here.

Asian Vision 

SGIFF introduced this category to acknowledge that films from these countries are shaping the Asian film landscape. We take a look at Hassan Fazili’s Midnight Traveler (Afghanistan).

Midnight traveller 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Midnight Traveller’.

Midnight Traveller is based on the real-life events of the director. In 2015, Fazili and his family found themselves having to flee Afghanistan to Tajikstan, after the Taliban placed a bounty on him for profiling an ex-Taliban commander in a documentary film.

Fun fact: this film was recorded with three old generation iPhones, establishing the strength of Apple’s cameras as documentary tools.

Midnight Traveller premieres on 23 November, 2.15 pm, at The Projector (Green Room). Ticket information here.

Cinema Today 

The search for identity, the turbulent dynamics of a marriage, the psychological effect of loneliness, and the faltered acceptance of LGBTQ. These are some topics covered under the Cinema Today category, by a slew of films that call on the talents of Scarlett Johansson, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe among others.
We look at Carlo Mirabella-Davis’ Swallow (USA).

Swallow 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Swallow’.

Swallow follows a housewife who spends her days waiting for her husband and her nights waiting on him. To the delight of everyone but herself, she learns that she’s pregnant. In spite of this, her eating disorder, called pica, prevails. And the protagonist starts to eat inedible objects like a marble, and even a thumbtack. Note: this film is not for the faint-hearted. It reportedly made an audience faint when it aired during the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.

Swallow premieres on 25 November, 7 pm, at the National Museum of Singapore (Gallery Theatre). Ticket information here.

Midnight Mayhem

This category consolidates the wildest and weirdest films in the genres of action, horror, fantasy and thriller. There are five films up for selection, but let’s look at Lorcan Finnegan’s Vivarium (Ireland).

Vivarium 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Vivarium’.

Starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, Vivarium is very much like doing a reality check on a couple’s future; whether they are ready to settle down in their relationship, or even have a baby. This movie reminds the audience why and how commitment can be daunting.

Vivarium premieres on 23 November, 11.55 pm, at the Filmgarde Bugis + (Hall 6); 25 November, 4.30 pm, at Oldham Theatre. Ticket information here.

Classics

SGIFF didn’t neglect the value of classic movies that have entertained audiences for years. There are two films up for grabs: Palme d’Or-winning director Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder and Asian legend Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. We look at Bong’s Memories of Murder (South Korea).

Memories of Murder 30th Singapore International Film Festival
A movie still from the 30th SGIFF’s ‘Memories of Murder’.

This classic goes way back, before Ho’s recent award-winning Parasite, Snowpiercer with actor Chris Evans in 2013 and Netflix Original’s Okja in 2017. Inspired by the true events in South Korea, Memories of Murder is a detective film set in 1986, about the rape and murder of a number of women. According to the LA Times, the man responsible for these heinous crimes came forward, after almost three decades, and is now arrested.

Memories of Murder premieres on 23 November, 2 pm, at The Projector (Redrum). Ticket information here. This article was first published on Augustman Digital.

Lester Tan