All directors turn in top grades for SG50 film project 7 Letters

Short anthology 7 Letters, done by seven writer-directors here with government funds, is a top-class product

Child actor Rey Phua and Zhang Jin Hua (both above) in Kelvin Tong’s dramedy Grandma Positioning System (GPS).
Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix (above) in Irrational Man; and Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff in Paper Towns. PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
Emma Stone and Joaquin Phoenix in Irrational Man; and Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff (above) in Paper Towns. PHOTOS: GOLDEN VILLAGE, TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Give a bunch of artists some money, leave them alone and quite often, they will deliver something good. But once in a while, as in the case of shorts anthology 7 Letters, they will knock your socks off.

Perhaps it was the spirit of competition or maybe it was down to the desire of the film-makers trying to impress their peers. But whatever the motivation, the final product is top class.

7 Letters (PG, 116 minutes, 4.5/5 stars) started as a passion project by Royston Tan who, with the six other writer-directors, received government funds to make seven short films marking Singapore's 50th birthday, with each artist given free rein over his concept.

"Funded by government" and "commemorating a national event" are not phrases usually associated with good art. Perhaps it is time to revise that opinion.

Singapore's most commercially successful film-maker Jack Neo's That Girl is the most linearly story-driven and logistically ambitious of the works, featuring a kampung setting and a cast with a large number of speaking parts.

The theme is pure Neo and also very Singaporean: It is good to know where the path of virtue lies, but smart people know when to step off.

The moral dynamic, with strong performances from child actors Yan Li Xuan and Josmen Lum and the kinetic cinematography of Harris Hue, fuels this achingly bittersweet depiction of a childhood crush.

Neo packs in period detail of the sort that makes people of a certain age quiver - tikam-tikam (lottery games) at the shops, the casual caning of children by parents, etc.

Like Neo's effort, Royston Tan's sweetly charming Bunga Sayang has a child in the forefront (Ray Tan). The use of period detail is both understated and evocative. There is one quick shot, lasting around 20 seconds, of a row of schoolchildren squatting, brushing their teeth over a drain. Its humanity and humour speak volumes of Tan's eye for visual storytelling.

Kelvin Tong's dramedy Grandma Positioning System (GPS), like Tan's Bunga Sayang, has at its heart the relationship between an ignored child and a wise, warm grandparent figure, both turning to each other in the face of friction from parents.

As short film devices go, this dynamic might not be the most original, but Tong generates real laughs and genuinely tearjerking moments from this work that draws on the uncanny sense of direction that some older people possess.

Cinema, Eric Khoo's whimsical tribute to the Shaw and Cathay film factories of the 1950s and 1960s, also features older people. As in the other films, there is a tendency to idealise the elderly, but Khoo, like Tan and Tong, thankfully stops just short of infantilising them. Khoo's work draws on his strength as a film-maker not just in love with the content of cinema, but also its history and lore.

The Flame by K. Rajagopal, like the works of Boo Junfeng and Tan Pin Pin, is a drama driven by inner pain. A single-location, almost single-room, dialogue-driven theatre piece that relies on just four actors (T. Sasitharan, N. Vighnesh, Nithiyia Rao and Fatin Amira, giving strong naturalistic performances), The Flame speaks to those who debated whether to stay or migrate.

Boo's gentle, dream-like Parting points, in symbolic way, to the 1965 expulsion of Singapore from the Federation. An older Malay man (J.A. Halim) with dementia crosses the Causeway, searching the island for a Chinese girl he left behind in the 1960s. Past and present, fantasy and reality collide in this moody road movie, the most non-linear but also the most visually creative of the films.

Tan Pin Pin's Pineapple Town allegorises political separation as familial separation as Singaporean adoptive parents (Lydia Look and Nickson Cheng), in a move that might be the mirror image of Boo's story, search Malaysia for the biological mother - the "real" mother - of their daughter. The film-makers did not collaborate on scripts, so it is interesting to see this convergence of ideas. Tan's work has an allusive, multilayered depth that lingers in the mind after the credits roll.

On the other side of the depth spectrum is Southpaw (NC16, 123 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars), a melodrama of masculinity that does all the thinking for you. Christian Bale, Tom Hardy, Mickey Rourke, Robert DeNiro and others had their shot at scenery-chewing, body-morphing, Oscar-baiting pugilist roles. Now it is Jake Gyllenhaal's turn.

Macho director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day, 2001), working with a script from the equally andro-centric Kurt Sutter (televison cop drama The Shield and biker family saga Sons Of Anarchy), delivers a Rocky-meets-Death Wish story of a boxer (Gyllenhaal) who, after meeting with a tragedy, turns to legendary trainer Titus Wills (Forest Whitaker) to win not just a prizefight crown, but to also erase the gnawing sense that he might not be man enough to be a winner.

A more bookish variety of male wishful thinking comes to the fore in Irrational Man (NC16, 95 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars).

Abe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a professor of philosophy that writer-director Woody Allen imagines could exist: tormented, drunk, prone to declaiming the futility of life - a combination that drives college girls mad with lust.

Emma Stone is Jill, a student, and once again the actress portrays a woman in love with a decidedly age-inappropriate man. Allen's sophomoric script, filled with dated ideas about everything from college life to male-female relations, turns on a plot twist that is not as dark or ironic as Allen wishes it to be.

For a junior version of the chase for male validation, see Paper Towns (PG13, 107 minutes, opens tomorrow 3/5 stars).

The much- awaited film adaption of the John Green young-adult novel has a bracing twist in its tail, in what at first seems like another version of the "hot, troubled girl cures nerd of terminal awkwardness and virginity" story.

British model Cara Delevingne is surprisingly polished as the wild child Margo, while Nat Wolff as shy guy Quentin largely mopes, in between going into Hardy Boys-mode searching for his disappeared crush.

That twist-slash-payoff takes a long time to arrive, by which time, for many, it might be too late.

  • 7 Letters will be screened at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum of Singapore, on Aug 8, 9 and 10 at 11am. Tickets are free and available on a first-come-first-served basis at the museum's front desk on Aug 1 and 2, between 10am and 6pm.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 22, 2015, with the headline All directors turn in top grades for SG50 film project 7 Letters. Subscribe