Since its return in 2014, the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) has been the place to watch films that would otherwise never come to Singapore cinemas, not even to its more arthouse-friendly venues.
This year is no different. In its 28th edition, the festival, to run from Nov 23 to Dec 2, will have more than 100 screenings, many of them of films that have won awards and acclaim at other festivals.
The festival is also where fans and film students get to see film-makers in person. The Masterclass talks this year feature Shekhar Kapur, the Indian director known for his biopics Bandit Queen (1994) and Elizabeth (1998). Also on the Masterclass roster is Indonesian writer, director and producer Garin Nugroho, whose work is known for tackling social issues. He is co-writer of a festival highlight, Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts, a blood-soaked thriller that addresses poverty and women's rights in a remote part of Indonesia.
The Singapore Panorama section is where local talent is showcased and, this year, the documentary I Want To Go Home (PG, 61 minutes) will pull tears from even the most hardened soul. Wesley Leon Aroozoo's film about a Japanese man who goes diving in search of a wife who disappeared in the 2011 tsunami is a low-key gem.
The SGIFF's new Midnight Mayhem section, with its martial arts and horror selections, brings a much-needed injection of low-brow cinema to the festival. If your taste runs to "Cambodian prison action thriller" and "Mindanao monster movie", then this is the place for you.
One of the hottest tickets at the SGIFF, director Yorgos Lanthimos' thriller The Killing Of A Sacred Deer, looks to be sold out. Likewise, all screenings of the acclaimed gay coming-of-age story Call Me By Your Name are full.
But that does not mean there are no gems left.
BOOK IT / SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
WHERE: Various locations, including Marina Bay Sands, The Arts House, Capitol Theatre, Filmgarde Bugis+, National Gallery Singapore, Shaw Theatres Lido
WHEN: Nov 23 to Dec 2
ADMISSION: Tickets for opening film Angels Wear White: $25; Special Presentation films The Song Of Scorpions and Oh Lucy!: $15; all other films: $12
INFO: For schedules, bookings and to register for the free In Conversation event, go to sgiff.com. Tickets are also available via Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)
There are a few tickets available for art-world satire The Square (M18, 142 minutes). Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund loves piercing the thin veneer of polish that hides the weak, incompetent person hiding inside. He did this with great effect in scathing family drama Force Majeure (2014), Sweden's entry to the Academy Awards. In his latest work - which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival - Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang) is the wily, narcissistic head of an art museum who butts heads with an American journalist (Elizabeth Moss from TV's Mad Men) and wealthy donors.
One of the picks in the Midnight Mayhem section is splatter-fest Mayhem (M18, 86 minutes). It stars Steven Yeun, whose appearance in The Walking Dead television show should have prepared him for this horror-comedy. A couple, played by Yeun and Samara Weaving, are locked in a building and have to fashion weapons from office supplies after a viral outbreak turns fellow desk jockeys into violent maniacs.
Director Joe Lynch will speak after the screening of this allegory about office politics, visualised as a skull-cracking gladiatorial fight.
Yeun's fellow Korean-American actor John Cho appears in another pick, Columbus (PG13, 104 minutes). In this slow but beautifully-framed drama about belonging, single-named writer-director Kogonada places his characters in the Indiana city of the film's title. In this hub of modernist architecture, two persons, played by Cho and Haley Lu Richardson, develop a cautious, tentative connection under the shadows of the iconic buildings of I.M. Pei and Eero Saarinen.
Surprisingly, tickets are still available for The Florida Project (NC16, 112 minutes). Selected for the Cannes Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, the drama about struggling families living in a cheap motel owned by Bobby (Willem Dafoe) bursts with colour and realism, thanks to its cast composed of actors and real-life residents of the rundown motel in which this movie was filmed.
No one told Indonesian film-maker Mouly Surya that she could not make a western in Indonesia, so that is what she did and the result is the gripping and visually stunning tragicomic revenger Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts.
Filmed on the largely undeveloped island of Sumba in the east of the country, one woman (Marsha Timothy) has to fight both gangsters and centuries of misogyny in her quest for justice.
Award-winning director Vahid Jalilvand's No Date, No Signature (NC16, 102 minutes) is an example of how good Iranian films are at exploring the fallout after social classes collide. One dark night, a motorcycle carrying a poor man and his children strike the car of a wealthy doctor.
The doctor pays off the man to prevent him making a police report. The next day, while on his rounds, the doctor finds the motorcyclist's young son in his morgue. Should he do the right thing or the safe thing?
Weekly dives to find his wife
For many non-Japanese, the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake will be remembered as the one that caused nuclear power plants in Fukushima to malfunction.
About 16,000 persons perished and of these, the bodies of more than 2,000 have never been found. The tsunami scoured coastal cities such as Onagawa, dragging tonnes of debris into the sea.
Among those who are still missing is Onagawa resident Yuko, wife of Mr Yasuo Takamatsu. In 2013, the bus driver learnt to scuba dive so he could search for her in the icy waters off the coast.
Singaporean film-maker Wesley Leon Aroozoo (photo) read about Mr Takamatsu's weekly dives in 2014 and felt that his debut documentary should be about the man and his search.
"He intrigued me. I couldn't understand why he was doing this," says Aroozoo, 33.
The result is the documentary I Want To Go Home (PG, 61 minutes).
The title is taken from the last text message Yuko sent her husband from the rooftop of the bank where she worked. She and other employees had been told to wait out the tsunami there, but the wave that came in toppled the roof.
In 2015, Aroozoo, who is also a lecturer at the Puttnam School Of Film and Animation at Lasalle College of the Arts, flew to Japan to film Mr Takamatsu and to interview him in person.
The director decided to go with on-camera interviews instead of using narration because he thinks that watching Mr Takamatsu's face and body when he answers questions reveals just as much, if not more, than words.
This is especially true of the key questions, such as why he is still diving, four years after the tsunami, and over the objections of family members.
"We spoke to him in his home, where he feels comfortable, and asked him the more personal questions there. It's important to see his expressions," says Aroozoo.
The film-maker says he wanted to inject variety into the images, as much of them show Mr Takamatsu going diving. So among other techniques, the film includes animation from the award-winning team of Henry and Harry Zhuang.
"We wanted to illustrate the things Mr Takamatsu might be thinking of when he is diving," he says.
Spending that week filming Mr Takamatsu and interviewing him revealed to Aroozoo a couple of lessons about love and loss.
"What I got from him is that sometimes, it's all right to do what you want to do, even if other people don't believe in it."
• I Want To Go Home screens on Dec 2, 4.30pm, at the National Museum of Singapore.
• Director Wesley Leon Aroozoo will take part in a post-screening dialogue.
Oh, look, there's Josh Hartnett
In case you were wondering where actor Josh Hartnett went, he is alive and well, and working in independent cinema.
One of his projects is the drama-comedy Oh Lucy! (M18, 95 minutes). He calls it "a mix of comedy and melancholy that is rare".
Speaking to The Straits Times on the telephone from Los Angeles, the 39-year-old star of big-budget Hollywood fare such as Pearl Harbor (2001), Black Hawk Down (2001) and Sin City (2005) talked about his lack of visibility.
"I've done only a handful of studio films and something like 25 independent films. I've been attracted to films that are more able to be more singular, more personal," he says.
But the perception that he is an A-lister remains and when it is suggested to him that it might be because of his leading-man looks, he agrees.
"To be honest, it's not been helpful," he says of how his matinee-idol attractiveness has worked against him in his search for unconventional roles.
"People have a certain idea of what type of an actor you are, it's hard to convince them that you are not that type of person. Everyone deals with this because as actors, we have our faces and physiques that we are known for.
"I've struggled to find work that appealed to me, that people would let me be a part of."
So in a town that chases youth, he finds that ageing is not such a bad thing.
"As I get older, I'm being allowed to work on more and more interesting characters," he says.
In Oh Lucy! - written and directed by Japanese film-maker Atsuko Hirayanagi making her feature debut - Hartnett plays John, an English teacher based in Tokyo who becomes an object of fascination for jaded older woman Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima).
Hartnett says he was drawn to the project because of how it deals with cross-cultural expectations, and what happens when reality hits.
"Both sides, the Japanese and the American, are out of step with each other. When you have high expectations of the other culture, you can't see past your own concept and the actual culture of a place remains fuzzy and far away," he says.
• Oh Lucy! will be screened as part of the Special Presentation section of the Singapore International Film Festival on Nov 30, 7pm, at Marina Bay Sands Grand Theatre.
• Director Atsuko Hirayanagi and actor Josh Hartnett will speak at an In Conversation panel on Nov 30, 3pm, at ArtScience Museum.
Murder drama on a remote island
The island of Sumba, in eastern Indonesia, has dry, treeless parts that do not look tropical at all. "It's very un-Indonesian," says film-maker Mouly Surya (photo), 37.
She had thought of shooting her blood-drenched drama Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts (M18, 93 minutes) as a western, with its themes of loneliness, lawlessness and vigilante justice and needed a location that carried no hint of "rainforests and orangutans", she tells The Straits Times over the telephone from her home in Jakarta.
Sumba fit the bill and she, with writers Garin Nugroho and Rama Adi, also worked in local beliefs.
"Eighty per cent of the island's population practise animism and the rest are Christians," she says.
The local practices shown in the film are ancient ones. These include believing that disobedient women will be cursed with difficult pregnancies and giving pride of place in the home to the mummified corpse of a loved one until the family can afford a lavish funeral.
Other, more modern aspects of Sumba life were also incorporated.
"The buses there are amazing. They are jam-packed with people and animals. Then the driver turns on the really, really loud techno music," she says.
In the film, farming widow Marlina (Marsha Timothy) lives in a remote cottage with her livestock. A gang of thugs arrives one day, setting off a chain of events both violent and blackly comic.
The film was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival and competed at the Cannes Film Festival this year.
The character of Marlina at first appears to be fragile, but she is tougher than she looks. She has to be: Life on a remote island demands a lot of strength, says the film-maker.
"Access to the police is difficult in such a rural area. Access is a big issue. I heard that its first school opened in 1982. That's tragic. I got angry about it. I wanted to show how distant the government is."
•Marlina The Murderer In Four Acts screens on Nov 29, 9.30pm, at the National Gallery Singapore. Director Mouly Surya and some cast members will give a post-screening dialogue.
A woman living life on her own terms
Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani speaks Hindi in the fantasy-tinged drama The Song Of Scorpions (PG13, 120 minutes).
Director Anup Singh (photo) says she is not doing it phonetically. She went above and beyond by learning to speak the language, to better play her part as a healer in the arid, desolate part of northern India.
"She's a dedicated actress. She started working on the language six months before shooting," says the Geneva-based director on the telephone to The Straits Times.
Farahani, who appeared in Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017) and also starred in acclaimed Iranian drama About Elly (2009), worked with a Hindi tutor for two hours a day in her home city of Paris, before going to India two weeks before filming to practise with native speakers.
"She got the basics of the language before she started learning dialogue from the screenplay," says Singh, 56.
In the film, she plays Nooran, a village healer whose speciality is to sing ancient songs that draw the poison out of those stung by scorpions. She is pursued by camel trader Aadam, played by Irrfan Khan (Life Of Pi, 2012; The Lunchbox, 2013).
When tragedy strikes, robbing her of her singing powers, Aadam comes to her rescue.
The film has, at its centre, a woman trying to live life on her own terms and the men who are hostile to that idea.
These ideas sprang into Singh's mind after the infamous rapemurder of a student in Delhi in 2012. The horror he felt expressed itself in a drama, with elements of fantasy, set in a desert, he says.
Why cast a non-Indian actress? The writer-director says he initially auditioned actresses in India.
"I met some fabulous actresses there," he says. But after meeting Farahani at a film festival a few years ago, he saw she was familiar with the pain that the lead character feels.
"Golshifteh lives in exile. She lives in constant pain of separation from her country and her family," he says, referring to how, following a semi-nude shot in a French video in 2012, the authorities in Iran threatened action against the actress if she returned.
"When she was speaking to us, there was this pain she carried, but there was no bitterness... This sense of exile is every similar to the one Nooran is living with."
• The Song Of Scorpions will be screened as part of the Special Presentation section on Nov 24, 8pm, at Marina Bay Sands.
• Director Anup Singh and actor Irrfan Khan will speak at an In Conversation panel on Nov 24, 3pm, at ArtScience Museum.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 15, 2017, with the headline 'Bring on the film gems'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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