Singapore Film Festival Embraces Thematic Programming, Patient on LGBT

Organizers of the 33rd edition of the Singapore International Film Festival are naturally keen to prove that the event is as nearly as possible back to normal after two years of COVID turbulence. Thong Kay Wee, in his first full year as program director, has also been keen to put his mark on the lineup.

That effort has been embodied by a widening of the Asian-themed festival’s geographical catchment area and a simultaneous completion of the shift to thematic presentation of the selection.

“When I came in, I wanted to break the geographical mold of how curation is done. I wanted to actually profile them in terms of interests. So, I thought through them in terms of where you will position things,” Thong told The Hamden Journal.

This year’s lineup stretches to 101 films (features and shorts) from 50 countries, to play out over 11 days. Local, Singapore-made films account for about a quarter.

The thematic structure now arranges titles according to six different categories: Altitude, Foreground, Horizon, Undercurrent, Standpoint and Domain.

Foreground, says Thong, comprises accessible, top of mind, festival films. Fitting into that category this year are: “World War III,” Houman Seyedi’s multiple prize winner from Venice; Irish psychological thriller “Nocebo,” starring Eva Green and Mark Strong; and breakout Korean debut film “The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra.”

Thong’s new Altitude section is the highbrow pen for Asia’s leading auteurs, making significant films. Titles here include: Hong Sang-Soo’s “The Novelist’s Film”; Jafar Panahi’s Cannes title “No Bears,” and Carla Simon’s Berlin Golden Bear winner “Alcarras.”

The other new section is Horizons. “Our thing here is festival discoveries that really expose audiences to different perspectives from around the world. And maybe stories that they are not so familiar with. It’s really [designed] for a local audience to open and broaden their horizons. Among the ten are: Malaysian folk horror “Stone Turtle”; “Divine Factory,” an observational documentary by first time director Joseph Mangat from The Philippines; and (increasingly rare) a Chinese film “A Long Journey Home,” another debut film, by Zhang Wenqian.

The Standpoint section is a collection of topical, political or otherwise currently relevant titles. Unsurprisingly, this is the showcase for the Asian premiere of “A House Made of Splinters,” Simon Lereng Wilmont’s documentary about refugees in Ukraine. It also includes disability documentary “I Didn’t See You There,” “Myanmar Diaries,” by the anonymous creative resistance known as the Myanmar Film Collective, and to “We Don’t Dance for Nothing,” inspired by memories of some of the 400,000 Filipino guest workers in Hong Kong.

“The Undercurrent section gives space for more imaginative expressions. We have some artists, filmmakers that are included in a section that is more experimental. Some of these films are not really from the festival circuit. We actually plucked them from the contemporary art scene,” says Thong.
Selections include “De Humani Corporis Fabrica,” an immersive, visceral journey through the structures and pathologies of human and medical bodies in the 21st century, which played first in Cannes sidebar Directors’ Fortnight; and “All The Things You Leave Behind,” by Thai filmmaker Chanasorn Chaikitiporn and “The Unburied Sounds of a Troubled Horizon,” by Vietnamese filmmaker Tuan Andrew Nguyen. The latter pair are politically-charged films that take a localized look at the lasting impact of war.

Guest curator section, Domain sees South West Asia and North West Africa specialist Roisin Tapponi handle a selection of films about land and the places we call home. They include “Foragers,” by Jumana Manna about the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and Lebanese filmmaker Ali Cherri’s political fable “The Dam.”

With Singapore’s censors both conservative and active, the SGIFF selection is always open to change from without. When The Hamden Journal spoke to Thong and festival the festival’s executive director Emily J. Hoe they were awaiting decisions from the authorities on their proposed lineup. By the time the festival started, one of their choices had been denied a public release, for an alleged breach of racial and religious laws. But in a late move, they gave pride of place to drag scene documentary “Baby Queen.”

This year, same sex relations have been particularly in the spotlight. Singapore authorities insisted on giving a 16 and over classification to animation movie “Lightyear,” due to a gay kiss, but later in the year said they would decriminalize homosexuality.

Hoe’s view is both quietly determined and sanguine. “We’ve never shied away from content that addresses LGBTQ issues, and we still will not shy away from it,” she said. “It remains to be seen, from a ratings perspective, whether [decriminalization] changes the [censors’] level of sensitivity. I’ve been looking at censorship over the last 15 years. It can be quite elastic. I think there has been progress. And then sometimes it snaps back.”