26th Singapore International Film Festival

A granny, a busker and a maths genius at Singapore International Film Festival

Documentaries from China and elsewhere take centre stage

China-born film-maker Yu Xun's The Vanishing Spring Light (above) builds up a picture of ageing while Singapore Minstrel by Ng Xi Jie examines the issues of busking.
China-born film-maker Yu Xun's The Vanishing Spring Light (above) builds up a picture of ageing while Singapore Minstrel by Ng Xi Jie examines the issues of busking.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
China-born film-maker Yu Xun's The Vanishing Spring Light builds up a picture of ageing while Singapore Minstrel (above) by Ng Xi Jie examines the issues of busking.
China-born film-maker Yu Xun's The Vanishing Spring Light builds up a picture of ageing while Singapore Minstrel (above) by Ng Xi Jie examines the issues of busking.PHOTO: SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL

This year's Singapore International Film Festival takes a something-for-everyone approach.

It is a belief that its organisers have had for years. This is mostly a good thing, but with more than 100 films scheduled, there is a downside: the paradox of choice, or feelings of anxiety arising from the fear of picking the wrong option.

It would be impossible to give a definitive recommendation, but here is a rough guide, based on Internet research, previews and tip-offs from festival organisers, with an emphasis on the works of film-makers who will give postscreening talks.

This year, there is a focus on documentary-makers from China working outside the mainstream.


  • WHERE: Marina Bay Sands, FilmGarde Bugis+, National Museum of Singapore, Shaw Theatres Lido, The Arts House, National Gallery Singapore, The Projector, The Substation

    WHEN: Till Dec 6

    ADMISSION: $12 to $25 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

Having seen examples of how good Chinese non-fiction work can be, this reviewer was excited to get an advance copy of The Vanishing Spring Light(PG, 2011, 112 minutes).

China-born film-maker Yu Xun, 32, rather than looking into the plight of miners or factory workers, examines life on a street in a city in Sichuan. The lane, terraced with pretty pre-war houses and lined with cobblestones, is home to Grandma Jiang and her extended family. She is beset by ailments, both physical and emotional. Her daughters, in their own brusque ways, do what they can for her while juggling other duties as women everywhere do.

Yu is the ubiquitous fly on the wall, recording family conversations as well as neighbourly gossip. You can almost smell the spicy tofu hotpot on the dinner table.

He builds up an extraordinarily detailed picture of ageing and the tensions it creates in the family, set in a particularly picturesque locale.

But he tells Life in an e-mail interview that his film could have been set anywhere.

"The alienation within a family and the tension between elders and the young have become common scenes in today's world. I remember when my father was in hospital in Canada a few years ago, I saw that many elders had been abandoned on their deathbed, while their offspring showed up only to fulfil a routine," he says.

Grandma Jiang's daughters, at first glance, seem to be handling her roughly - some scenes will make you wince.

"To be honest, during the filming, I had a little prejudice against her daughters. But later, l asked myself: Am I doing any better with my loved ones? Will my children be there for me when I am weak? Those are some questions that have troubled me a long time and somehow we all have to submit our own answers eventually," says the independent film-maker, who trained in Britain and Canada.

Yu, like the others featured here, will be available for questions after the screening. His film is one of eight documentaries in the special section on independent China documentaries, Focus: Between Visible And Invisible (see other story).

In the section for local works, Singapore Panorama, there is Singapore Minstrel (rating to be advised, 2015), the feature debut of Ng Xi Jie, 28. You have probably seen the guy covered in silver paint, known to perform outside Tampines MRT station. He is Roy Payamal. Ng worked with him to make the film, a non-fiction look at a busker's life, but with a storytelling style that includes elements dear to the hearts of Payamal and Ng: mime, dance, music and the use of homemade props in the style of Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, 2004).

The film is one of eight works in the Singapore Panorama section of the festival, which also features works of fiction such as the minimalist drama Voluptas (PG13, 73 minutes) from Sanif Olek, whose drama Sayang Disayang (2013) was selected as Singapore's official entry to the Oscars last year.

In Singapore Minstrel, Ng never hits you over the head with self-righteousness as films about artists like to do. She addresses the often-contradictory web of regulations that buskers face, but her tone is wry, not hectoring. Her images contain real, even-handed journalism - a response from a National Arts Council spokesman on the topic of licensing is included.

All this is spiced up with re-enactments featuring Payamal, dancer Bernice Lee and other artists.

There is one section that records what happens at the busker licensing auditions conducted by the National Arts Council. The scene is funny, humanising and makes concrete what many think of as an abstract and unfair concept: the policing of the arts.

"I wanted to show how it can be frustrating for some people and, at the same time, there are people who appreciate the endorsement (from the council)," says Ng.

Festival programmes

Special Presentation

Headliners here include Eric Khoo's much-anticipated erotic drama In The Room (R21) as well as The Man Who Knew Infinity, a drama based on the bittersweet true story of Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel), a clerk from India who, just after the turn of the 20th century, had his mathematical genius recognised by a professor from Cambridge (Jeremy Irons). Patel and director Matthew Brown are expected to be at the post-screening discussion.

Singapore Panorama

This showcase of made-in-Singapore work includes Singapore Minstrel, a documentary that explores the life of busker Roy Payamal and the issues about busking in the Republic using straight reportage as well as dance and mime.

Other works include the Malay-language drama Voluptas from film-maker Sanif Olek and two short films packages.

Silver Screen Awards

In this competition section, shorts and feature-length projects from Asia are showcased. The mix of fiction and documentary works include the Iranian-German co-production Paradise, a drama about the oppression women in Iran face daily.

Focus: Between Visible And Invisible

Eight films from Chinese documentary-makers, all working independently, make up this section. The Vanishing Spring Light by Yu Xun examines one family and how coping with an ageing relative affects its dynamics. Cotton, winner of the Best Documentary prize at last year's Golden Horse Film Awards, sees how one product makes its way from the farm to the factory and how China's workers find justice in a vast industrial system.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 27, 2015, with the headline 'A granny, a busker and a maths genius at a film festival'. Subscribe