Watching Southeast Asia in Singapore: An Overview of the Singapore Shorts Programme

Featuring Singaporean directors, the first programme unexpectedly focuses on everything but Singaporeans.

Watching Southeast Asia in Singapore: An Overview of the Singapore Shorts Programme


Severance (Michael Tay, Singapore)
Not Working Today (Shijie Tan, Singapore)
Pifuskin (Tan Wei Keong, Singapore)
Last Trip Home (Han Fengyu, Singapore)
Dahdi (Kirsten Tan, Singapore)

While re-watching films for this article, I came to a sudden realisation: every film in this competition deserves to be watched at least twice. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not biased just because I’m writing about them. Rather, it wasn’t until I sat down with a notepad and pen to obsessively note the details that I began to really appreciate the hours of thought that went into each scene. Sadly, unlike Unlucky Plaza (Ken Kwek), these films will only be screened once during the festival so hopefully, and take this as a spoiler alert, this article and the other highlights will bring out the best in them.

Featuring Singaporean directors, the first programme unexpectedly focuses on everything but Singaporeans. Except for Severance (Michael Tay), which I’ll touch on later, the other films examine foreigners in Singapore and how we treat them, which is one of this programme’s selling points as none of the other programmes shine the spotlight on foreigners. I suppose this is indicative of the extent to which they have become an omnipresent sight in Singapore. Yet unlike the xenophobia usually encountered on the internet, foreigners are treated quite sensitively in this programme.

Since The Call Home (Han Yew Kwang, Singapore Shorts, 2002) gave us a window into the lives of construction workers in Singapore, filmmakers have taken to exploring their world as exotic gems that remain closed-off to the average Singaporean. In this vein, Not Working Today (Shijie Tan) provides a rather refreshing take by getting Apu Ahasan, playing himself, to show us a different side of our own country when he seeks help in getting paid. Particularly interesting is Apu’s interaction with the cold, indifferent civil service which stands in contrast to how Singaporeans expect to be treated. In fact, Apu’s appointment or rather, interrogation, is eerily reminiscent of rape victim blaming. While the subsequent shot of Apu overlooking the country he helped to build obviously critiques our treatment of foreign workers, I can’t help but wonder if Apu also represents the poor in our society, making it an even more layered critique.

Still from Dahdi. Photo Credit: Kirsten Tan

A similar film is Dahdi (Kirsten Tan) which is titled in Urdu and set in Pulau Ubin, away from the main island of Singapore. This is interesting because you could say that other than the police, nothing in this film is really “Singapore”. A fictional imagining of the 2009 Rohingya refugee incident, this film centres on the relationship between a chatty elderly Mrs. Lee, and a silent Rohingya girl, Naaz. Although I was disappointed that Tan did not get cast a Rohingya to play the girl, the warmth and care between Mrs. Lee and Naaz was very real, which sharpened the bitter arrival of the police. With her home quiet, Mrs. Lee shuffles to sit wordlessly, bringing one to wonder about putting absolute faith in the state.

Still from Pifuskin. Photo Credit: Tan Wei Keong / SGIFF

In stark contrast is Pifuskin (Tan Wei Keong) which was made with Loo Zihan and Darren Ng who are also notable artists. It comes as no surprise then, that the sound, theme and style of this work is rather experimental, making this the only unconventional short. Touching on the discomfort we usually experience with our own bodies, Pifuskin seems to suggest self-acceptance as a means to escape. Regardless of the narrative you’ll construct for yourself, you must pay attention to the visceral soundscape that Ng constructs as well as the visual metaphors, such as the zoetrope, that Tan uses to evoke a rather rich film for its length. Given its male subject though, I can’t help but wonder if it is informed by Loo’s controversial performance of Cane.

Expressly inspired by true events is Severance which employs a mixture of documentary and horror POV styles to capture the effect of changing religions in a family. A highly sensitive topic in multi-religious Singapore, I was at first affronted that Tay would re-enact such a scene. Probably anticipating such controversy, Tay takes pains to outline the group as extremist in nature. Once I got over the shock though, I came to appreciate his courage for portraying it. Certainly Severance can benefit from more polish, but without this film, would we even dare to consider adding nuance?

Still from Last Trip Home. Photo Credit: Han Fengyu / SGIFF

Finally we have Last Trip Home (Han Fengyu), made by the youngest director in this programme. Save for the background, car and a few lines, the film unfolds practically without any hint of Singapore. Dwelling on the relationship between a Chinese national father and son, this film centers around a car which the father sees as their ticket home. The father’s obsession over it – to the extent that he can’t bathe without it – causes tension with his son. Paradoxically though, the son seems to replicate such feelings out of his respect for his dad. Shot with a rather meticulously chosen background, the landscape seems to provide an undercurrent of feeling that adds another layer to the film, particularly when the son narrates a story of idyllic rural life whilst leaning against the back of the car. With the car being one of Singapore’s 5Cs though, I wonder what interesting parallels can be drawn?

Focussing on what happens when the foreign meets the local, these films open up new ways of seeing for things that we usually take for granted or prefer to ignore. This is a marked change from using dreams as in Singapore Dreaming (Colin Goh) and Perth (Djinn) as safe spaces from which to critique society. I’m not sure if this is indicative of a new trend in Singapore films but one question that kept nagging at me throughout this programme was “where is that slapstick humour Singapore films are famous for?”