Film Conversations Week 1: Corrie Tan, Amanda Lee Koe, Loo Zihan

Ng Yi-Sheng

June 28, 2016

I'm not sure if a lot of people know this, but part of The OPEN Film involves getting random people to sit in a circle and talk about the films.  

OK, "Random" is a bit of a misnomer—they're artists and critics, but they're not connected with the films on show in any way. No directors and screenwriters or stars here, sorry. Basically, they're just folks on curator Tan Bee Thiam's contacts list. He calls them "beautiful strangers", which ought to be creepy, but isn't.

From left to right, we have artist/filmmaker Loo Zihan, fiction writer and editor Amanda Lee Koe, and theatre critic Corrie Tan. (Bee Thiam's on the edge, as we'd all like to believe we are.)

TBT: I have brought together three very brave friends. I say brave because they are all very nervous. They are not from film-film backgrounds, they are very diverse in practice. But this is really a sharing session…

It's all very awkward, though, because what he's done is ask each of these people to watch a different subset of his programmed films and talk about them—even though these aren't the same films the audience members have seen.

Loo Zihan: It’s difficult to be given on the first panel, so do we give away information, do we spoil the film for you?

Not to mention that they've only watched such films on tiny laptop screens, which was at times actually laborious. Also consider how an audience member (such as myself) who hasn't seen Tangerine or Lost and Beautiful might try and process critical remarks on the selection:

Amanda Lee Koe: They are political, but both staged on a very personal stage as well as the national. As I was watching these things, it also led me to wonder how as a curator, when selecting these films or watching these films or watching stories or creating artwork, how do we know what the right balance is, about how the personal will be replaced in the face of the political, and how will the national be played with in a certain stylistic sense. And what aesthetic do you need to be able to digest that, as a layperson watching these incredibly diverse and incredibly different styles, different politics, different aesthetics? And of course it’ s not possible to be versed in every kind of political scenario. What do we take away from it, what is our way of digesting?

Um. Verbatim transcription might not be the best strategy for digesting this event.

But this event wasn't all abstract discussion. Clearer themes emerged that everyone can identify with. The ethics of inserting oneself into a documentary, for example, as occurs in Arabian Nights, Return to Nostalgia, A Magical Substance Flows into Me. Are we exposing our subjectivity or appropriating the trauma—making it about ourselves when it's not about ourselves?

Loo Zihan: (regarding Uncle Howard) You could say this work is self-reflexive to the third generation. We see William S Burroughs being documented, Howard making documentary on Burroughs, Aaron making documentary about Howard making a documentary about William S Burrough. I think that’s the stage we’re at: we are in a prism of refelctivities, constantly reminding ourselves of our position.

In Uncle Howard’s case, he constantly states the power as the person to tell the his story. So at the end of the story he shows himself playing with Uncle Howard. I’m interested in drawing of relations and claiming of authority. Who has the authority tor represent—especially a queer person, with nobody to succeed him. 


I decided to shake things up by grabbing the mike and talking about howArabian Nights was a tedious six-hour snoozefest. Bee Thiam had already admitted that it had been a "violent film" to impose on audiences at the opening, but the this really did lead to a good debate.

Amanda immediately brought up how a Japanese person once assured her that it was OK to fall asleep during noh theatre:

Amanda Lee Kow: It’s OK to fall asleep and it's very respectful that you can fall asleep and continue on in that world. And I was like, "Oh I would so afraid to fall asleep during any kind of cultural experience!" So it’s a great compliment. I wonder if in that kind of violent six hour experience is supposed to be part of it in and of itself.

Loo Zihan: His [filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul's] desired state of the audience was drifting in and out of consciousness. That’s why the languid pace of his shots. So the author actually gives permission for us to fall asleep. 

Amanda Lee Koe: But I feel that drifting in and out of consicouesnss now means we're checking Faceook. I wonder if, for Apichatpong, that would be an acceptable kind of in-and-out of consciousness. I would accept it if you fell asleep or went for a smoke, but I would be offended if your brain was polluted by social media or ads.

Corrie Tan: Durational performances tend to bring out a lot of interesting experiences in the audience, because you expect to be entertained— what's your response when you're not? And so the way someone experiences being subjected to eight hours of theatre, that brings out interesting parts of your personality.

Amanda: So I want to know if Bee Thiam thinks this program is a test... and finally you’ll be baptized by Fire at Sea!


TBT: We are confident in the audience, to subject them to these difficult works. And it’s OK to leave the cinema halfway if you do not like it. The act of leaving the cinema is part of a mature filmmaking culture. At Cannes, it’s seen as a mark of respect, whether you like it or do not like it.

I’m thinking of something Apichatpong said. He’s against films which are popular that like the popular friend or person. So he likes films which are divisive: either you really like it or really hate it.

Zihan had expressed his disappointment in Apichatpong’s Vapour earlier, so Ong Keng Sen weighed in.

OKS: I suspect Apichatpong would see his film as a sketch. I think this is what has changed in recent times: artists are not afraid to put out their sketches for he audience. Not every film is a finished work. I don’t think we can look at this work like a two-hour film. I don’t think Picasso ever thought his sketches would be exhibited. Sometimes it’s really a waste product. Sometimes it’s everything I’ve edited away and I’m trying to experiment to see what has happened with the audience.


OKS: With Arabian Nights, the big change that has happened with documentary, now documentary is no longer about the authenticity, the real. I think filmmakers are moving seamlessly between fact, fiction, magical reality and some kind of proposition as well. So you can see that with Arabian Nights, from fable he was moving into magical reality, he was moving into fiction. 

You see that with Riding on a Cloud, where he actually says that what happens in the theatre is a fiction, is not a fact. I think for me the moment I discovered this fiction when I spoke to Yasser [Mroué] after his performance and I realised that he did not speak English, so he could not make films with names like “Discipline and Punish”, and so it was all a fiction to say these are films made by Yasser. 

The first time I met Yasser, he cold not engage beyond normal conversation at the café, and I realised all these films were not his but Rabih’s. And it’s very clear when something is apparently documentary, and artists are moving so seamlessly, I feel that’s a new medium in the last 15 years perhaps…

More of the audience started speaking up!

Audience member: Our [Singaporean] films are still very careful in dealing with linear narratives, in making sure audiences know what’s going on. There’s still no formal breakthrough in structure. 

Kirsten Tan [Singaporean filmmaker in the audience]: I want to say a lot of these non-linear, non-populist films do exist in Singpaore but they don’t become popular. So it doesn’t explode the way Ilo Ilo explodes or The Apprentice will explode. So it’s not the creators but also the audience.

Someone pointed out that to us, a film that features Portugal X the Arabian Nights is magical, but Singapore X The Three Little Pigs would be a farce. But to folks overseas, Singapore X The Three Little Pigs might be viewed as pretty awesome.

Audience member: It’s not even like reverse exoticism. It make syou feel special to participate in this foreignness, if you’re a human being in a multi-polar world.


TBT: How do you choose the films you want to watch? How do you take the lists? When I was a student I used to make a list and say I want to watch all these films [at a film festival], but it would cost me $300, $400, so I have to cut cut cut…

So that’s the beauty of The OPEN Film. You get to experience everything.

They might experience everything, maybe. For me, I'll be at the live events. Plenty more to report on there!

  • 2016