We can all remember a time when something happened, and we had expected some friends to call, to ask, to speak up, or just say something. After a while, when they didn’t, we were perplexed, confused. Then it dawned on us. We were on our own. They had looked the other way. Their silence was deafening. The feeling was beyond hurt or betrayal. We felt suddenly alone, abandoned and afraid. And what Martin Luther King said, rang loud and true. ‘In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.’
Once in a while, there is a film like ‘Spotlight’, which isn’t just the most significant movie about journalism since ‘All The President’s Men’, it is also the most enjoyable. It is about breaking this silence. On one of the most ungodly sins. Committed by priests who were protected by the ‘system’ when the Church and State were almost one. Co-writer and director Tom McCarthy tracks the team in the newsroom like a procedural thriller, letting the facts tell the knotty story with unrelenting integrity and mounting tension.
I messaged a friend recently, after meeting a young man still in school but intent on getting work experience and exposure. I have been impressed with the young people I am interviewing for internship. They are not only hardworking, often juggling a few part-time jobs and projects, they are also smart and driven. My friends are surprised by my impressions. After all, the so-called ‘Strawberry Generation’, while not as spoiled as the rich single child in China, are often accused of being ambitious yet laid-back, socially aware yet selfish, and they seem to be born with an imposing sense of entitlement. Admittedly, they have not gone through the hardship of the pioneer generation. Yet talking to them, I realise life for the so-called ‘Millennials’ is anything but easy.
Watching Jack Neo’s ‘Long Long Time Ago’, I suddenly saw a new context. I come from a generation which benefitted directly from the hard work of our pioneers. Our pioneers are a mix of immigrants and natives who must first find the means to make a living. Their lives were more about survival. It was more about how to start a life, than about how to live one. There were little options. It would have to be a life of strive, to make ends meet, to build the basics of having a roof over their heads and having food on their tables. Which was why the connection between ‘Long Long Time Ago’ and the older audiences was immediate. There is no romance. From the start, the protagonists in the film have to find ways to survive.
An Anglo-American operation pins down a group of Somali terrorists in a small house in Kenya where they are about to embark on a suicide bombing. A missile strike is ordered on this house. Suddenly, a little girl wanders into the kill zone. Unfolding almost in real time, this soberingly thriller follows the tactical, legal and ethical implications of a drone operation in East Africa that unexpectedly escalates from a ‘capture’ to a ‘kill’ mission. ‘Eye In The Sky’ is panoramic, covering four continents. But it is sharply focused on only this one military mission. This mission involves military commanders, politicians, legal advisors, a drone pilot, local special forces, all eyeing the terrorists in the house.
High-tech surveillance is the eye in the sky, providing a telegraphic overview for all, including the audience. What could easily have been a talky, theatrical chamber piece is turned into a dynamic work of cinema by Oscar-winning director Gavin Hood. This is a war movie with no face-to-face combat, minimal gunfire, and the roles of the good and bad guys are ever-shifting. It showcases a new kind of war, defined by the remote targeting of unmanned drones and eerily silent images of people in faraway lands whose fate are not decided on the battlefield but at the push of a button many miles away. The characters and tense dialogue, comprised mainly of political double-speak and second-guessing, drives the action of this effective nail-biter, from the voyeuristic opening sequences, to an emotionally gripping life-and-death dramatic finale.
Last week, I left an Imax cinema not fully understanding a movie yet feeling inspired. It was the science fiction movie, ‘Interstellar’. I knew, hearing the excited chatter among the friends I saw the film with, that like ‘Inception’, this movie would generate a lot of talk. Especially on which part of the film is science and which part is fiction. Each time we look up to the sky, most of us have accepted the unknown as the unknown. That there are no absolute answers. But some of us continue to question. And some of us go beyond the questions to explore. The mysteries of the universe have a parallel to the meaning of life. Our existence, our journey and the meaning of it all. At the heart of ‘Interstellar’ is a moving story about the bond between father and daughter. I was overwhelmed by all the science, some real, some fiction, but I was blown away by the emotions between parent and child, all real.
As I said, I was inspired. That a film with a subject matter I am almost alien to can touch me on so many levels. Just a few days before watching this movie, I was asked by a journalist about how Singapore films could travel better. To this proverbial question, I would have shrugged my shoulders or given the standard answer of local subjects with universal themes. This time, I answered with a passion that is both old and new. ‘Ah Boys To Men’ did well locally but did not travel. ‘Ilo Ilo’ was sold to many countries but did not perform well in foreign markets. Is it the subject matter of Singapore films that audiences beyond our shores cannot fully understand? ‘Interstellar’ is proof you don’t need to completely comprehend a film’s subject matter. There are many more examples where the subjects may be difficult to relate to but other aspects of the film transcend all barriers. In fact, the subject in many films is incidental to the themes, characters or premise.
In Singapore, do we have an actor of a calibre when if he is in a movie or program, people will make an effort to watch purely because this actor acts exceedingly well. We all have an actor we like, to a point of making a point to follow the actor’s career, the actor’s projects, and even the actor’s private life. In the world of entertainment, an actor’s public image and his private life may or may not be two separate entities, but to the general public, the acting abilities of the actor, however different the criteria of judgement, is important enough. An actor may have the best looks which invariably attract attention and adoration, but fans will, when they are less in awe and more objective, see and gauge the acting for what it is, not good, competent, good, very good. Of course, acting needs to be seen in the context of the role, the production values, the way the director directs, the way the director allows the actor the scope to express himself.
A prolific director told me recently when an actor finds the director who can see and bring out the best in him, this actor is blessed. We all see the best of Tony Leung because Wong Kai Wei sees the best in him and brings it out in his movies. When an actor trusts a director, or a producer, he feels safe. This safety allows the actor to do his very best work. Chow Yun Fat’s movie career took off after acting in John Wu’s movies. Andy Lau became more than a heavenly king, he became an actor, after acting in Johnny Toh’s ‘Running Out Of Time’, before moving on to work with Zhang Yimou, Feng Xiaogang and Peter Chan. Maggie Chueng only became an art house darling after appearing in Stanley Kwan’s ‘Centre Stage’. It is important for a director to find a muse as well, but it is absolutely crucial for an actor to have someone see and bring out that special X factor that sizzles cinematically.