S'pore short film snags top prize at festival

Singaporean director Chai Yee Wei's short film, Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex, beat over 10,000 submissions to win the Grand Prix award - now known as the George Lucas Award - at the Tokyo festival yesterday.
Singaporean director Chai Yee Wei's short film, Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex, beat over 10,000 submissions to win the Grand Prix award - now known as the George Lucas Award - at the Tokyo festival yesterday.

Singaporean director's film will be eligible for nomination at next year's Oscars

A wistful Singaporean short film about the loss of heritage, nostalgia and a young boy's sexual awakening bagged the top prize at an international film festival in Tokyo yesterday.

Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex, by Singaporean director Chai Yee Wei, won the Grand Prix award - now known as the George Lucas Award - at the Tokyo Short Shorts Film Festival and Asia 2018.

As this is one of the qualifying festivals for the Academy Awards, the film will be eligible for nomination at next year's Oscars. The 2016 Grand Prix winner, Sing by Hungarian director Kristof Deak, went on to win Best Short Film at last year's Oscars.

Chai, who turns 42 on Thursday, also picked up the Best Short Film award in the Asia International category.

He told the audience of international film-makers that he was grateful for the win, especially as the 15-minute film has undertones that could be sensitive in Singapore, in the epiphany and sexual awakening experienced by the main character.

Chai, who is married, said he wanted to capture that "in honour" of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) community in Singapore.

His film beat over 10,000 submissions from 130 countries and territories.

The five-member jury, which included director Takashi Miike and veteran actor J.J. Sonny Chiba, said its powerful message was conveyed through a "unique and fresh perspective", portraying through pastel colours the "innocence of one's childhood that everyone has".

Jury member Linda Campos Olszewski compared Chai's work to the recent Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language film, A Fantastic Woman (2017), from Chile.

Chai later told reporters: "I wouldn't even dare to imagine myself being in the same league, and to be referenced in that way."

His was one of three Singaporean entries in the official competition. The other two were Wee Li Lin's Areola Borealis, about a conservative mother who tries to upstage her daughter's non-traditional wedding dinner, and actress Jeanette Aw's debut directorial effort, The Last Entry, a personal story about a daughter's last moments with her mother, who has Alzheimer's disease.

Benjamin's Last Day At Katong Swimming Complex has a scene with homoerotic undercurrents that Chai believes will be censored for the mass Singaporean audience. He hoped the win might sway the censors' decision.

The short film, his first in more than 10 years, cost $35,000 to make and was commissioned by StarHub Cable TV.

Chai told The Straits Times in an interview ahead of the ceremony that he set his film in a pool that was built in the 1970s because "we have been closing down a lot of important places and people don't realise their importance until after the fact".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 18, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore short film snags top prize at festival'. Print Edition | Subscribe