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Amazing ‘improvised’ music by the Far East Network. Yuen Chee Wai, Yan Jun and Sachiko M created a tonal quilt of varying qualities within the background, as Ryu Hankil provided an understated trail of unusual percussion with his typewriter and motorised objects on drum kit. In the foreground, we have Otomo Yoshihide and DJ Sniff assaulting us with a barrage of fragmented squeaks and tears with their ‘bastardised’ turntabalism. At times, all sounds seem to cascade together into a swirling wall of noise, as each single and minute variation from either player dramatically changes the quality of their joint attack. Their set reaches a highpoint at its tail-end when Otomo Yoshihide brings on his trusty noise guitar onslaught – a series of releases and restrains which let out bouts of hair-standing ecstasy. However, music aside, we have to address the elephant in the room – the interplay between the music and the projected short films by Charles Lim.

I’m a big fan of Charles’ All the Lines Flow Out, which was such an immersive cinematic experience when I first viewed it, a very interesting nautical approach taken to explore the landscape of Singapore. In Beaches, which I believed was screened for the first time, Charles’ camera floats a distance away from several shorelines as we observe the land and the human figures loitering on the beaches. As the footage is slowed down, the frantic movement of water is made tolerable and a little calmer, but at the same time, human movement becomes much slower as the figures move in a way akin to stuttery stop motion footage, at times coming to a total standstill. There are some creepy images which really linger… Such as when a figure crouches down at the beach, seen in almost a fixed shade of black, becoming a mere stain in the landscape. Or when a still figure awkwardly hangs its arms on a tree… When obscured by distance and splashes of sea water on screen, these figures become so uncanny and ghostly.

However, within the first few minutes, it struck me how the tempo of sound seemed a bit too fast for the meditative pace of Charles’ films. As the set went on, it seemed that the musicians hardly even looked at the screen… just some glances here and there, and very far from the attentiveness of live scoring performances i’ve seen in the past. My recollections of Charles’ films from this event was not affected or tainted by the music, and I remember them purely visually. During the performance, I also found it hard to really immerse myself in the music, that’s until I closed my eyes at the start of All the Lines Flow Out (reluctantly, and with the excuse that i’ve seen it before).

During the Q&A, Ryu Hankil revealed that he had not seen the film before. So was the same for Yan Jun who was given a vimeo link which only loaded some still images due to the cranky internet in China – all he knew was that the film was about ‘water’, deciding not to watch the film during the performance, as starting from zero is better if one does not have the time to fully study the film. With total frankness, Otomo Yoshihide revealed that he deliberately avoided watching the film with his back to the screen, and his only stimuli from the film was the colours and flicker which reached his peripheral vision. His rationale being that he does not want the film to dictate the way he plays, as it would not be an equal exchange between filmmaker and musician, and that he would prefer any connections between sound and image to happen spontaneously.

If anything, beyond the separate pleasures of FEN’s set and Charles’ films, this show was a success in the way it revealed the ‘politics’ of live-music accompaniment/scoring for cinema. Perhaps in this instance, it can’t be considered accompaniment at all. I kinda hold the belief that live-music accompaniment should always ‘serve’ the film. It can be seen as a support to help illustrate the film, as a composed soundtrack would. In the silent era, improvisational talent would translate into a pianist’s ability to follow the movement of the film without much practice, or even on the fly. When we commission musicians for live-accompaniment, we are aware of their specific style and character, which might be a good fit for the film, or could lend it a different quality. In either case, there should be some form of discipline, and a basic understanding of the filmmaker’s work, or could we say.. certain affinities with the film to begin with.

Within the improvisational framework of Playfreely, we can of course do away with that. But it becomes problematic when a finished film is a crucial element within the picture. The fact that it’s creative process is completed in advance and entombed in its fixed form makes it surprisingly oppressive towards the improv musicians (It would be a different matter with live video mixing). Perhaps the film can be seen, not in the foreground, but as a visual trigger for musical improvisation, but this would then devalue the presence of the film.

Otomo’s contribution to the performance was most indicative of the power relations between sound and image. His (almost) complete rejection of the film is a strategic form of resistance, an insistence on following his own rhythm, which of course, works well within the musical context, but pretty invasive towards the film. Nevertheless, his strategy is appreciated in its upmost insistence on keeping the performance dynamics as egalitarian as possible – with film and sound moving together, but existing singularly apart. As with egalitarianism… the idea is beautiful but in reality can be quite odd. In this case, much like a well-oiled fraternity sitting beside a stranger on screen.

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Knew that I can’t miss this production after hearing about its premise. In a nutshell, it revolves around an ailing Chinese Father who in a state of dementia or delirium, finds a new lease to his desires when he starts to view his Malay son in the image of his dead wife. The Malay man strives to know who his mother is, and sublimates this desire through a ceaseless love for his father, caring for him till his death. A simple premise conjuring so many taboo issues, from gender, age to racial politics, all percolated through a simple familial relation.

Upon entering the space, we are assaulted with the image of the Malay Man (Yazid Jalil) and the Chinese Father (Michael Tan), both wearing only their briefs, staring at each other with such intensity and at such close proximity. The audience sits around a narrow t-shaped platform, much like a laid down crucifix, which is to become their performance… or perhaps… sacrificial space. The two men hold their bodies in place, uncannily rigid like fleshy mannequins, and their gaze is fixed and filled with the depth of a single emotion. From this opening image, their subjectivities are established: The Malay Man with his blank expression, searching in vain for his mother through his Father, whose gaze is charged with a psychotic and tragic yearning, of harbouring both the loss and discovery of the one his loves in an other. Their skin colour, and the difference in their physique –  the man’s athletic body and the father’s wrinkled skin – are amplified by their nakedness. If anything, this is the crystalline and defining moment of the play, and it could go on for an eternity.

As the father raises his hand slowly towards the man’s face, a set of motions begin. Soon they are caressing each other’s faces, first gently, then more violently. At one point, the man carries the father, in a scene of pure physicality and escalating eroticism. The man bathes his father; the father strips and dresses him in a kebaya, the man attempts to feed his father, who rejects his food. This sequence is then repeated a second time with more intensity, and with a few devices that propel the perversity of this peculiar coupling, such as when the son scrubs the father much harder, when the father puts on lipstick on his son, and at one point, even pushing him down into a submissive position and tearing his kebaya.

No words are spoken, except at a later point in the play when both characters mumble out a chinese song for children ‘世上只有妈妈好’ (what a fascist song!). However, we have a third character, a Malay woman – perhaps the manifestation of the mother –  appearing as an apparition at a corner of the theatre, illuminated sporadically when she sings in gibberish to accentuate the actions on stage. Asnida Daud’s vocals is a force to be reckoned with… wide in range and volume, from the gently melodic to distortion inducing banshee shrieks. Her voice bends, quivers and pierces through the silent atmosphere, forming figures that bind the body-to-body sounds let out by the men through their wrestles. The sheer intensity of her voice and the fact that she is singing gibberish transforms her singing into pure physicality, a non-linguistic sonority that is as violent as the tug-of-war happening on stage.

Time passes really quickly when a piece unfolds so minimally. At the end of one of the repeated movements, the father breaks into a desperate wailing and the malay man convulses on stage in possession, and the piece abruptly ends. At that point, I was overwhelmed, but can’t help feeling a bit short changed. I was expecting more to happen, and hoping for the political layers of the piece to be explored further… In fact, I realised that they were not developed at all (in a narrative sense) but just implied.

But after a few days… thinking about it further… I realised that this is impossible considering the essential form of the production, a theatre of cruelty with its disavowal of language for an agitation through gestures and actions. The Malay Man and His Chinese Father was successfully hypnotic in this tangent. It has the potential to conjure unconscious associations through its theatrical display of S&M. But most importantly, it awakens certain tensions that have been artificially held at bay (and perhaps even in place in an unspoken manner) through governmental administration… tensions that are taboo and prone to censorship. And i’ve come to appreciate how this piece does not position these tensions as a result of some kind of evil inherent in human nature. Instead, it conveys these tensions with tragedy and pathos, showing us how it’s in fact an undeniable potentiality within the fabric of communal living.

Now I kinda wish that this piece could have gone on for much longer in its repetitions. I’m also very curious about how the three hour durational performance that was cancelled would have played out.

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This is a mature and important work that is absolutely timely for us. At its core, it’s a film about the Singaporean condition addressed specifically to Singaporeans, offering us an untimely solution to our malaise.

As our government calls for a mass celebration of Singapore independence this year, what better way than to approach that call with a more astute gesture – an inward reflection on the becoming of Singapore, and how the shaping of our histories (and also the shaping of our very ability to understand and remember history) have been refracted into that catch-all grand narrative of national identity and history?

Snakeskin is a bold attempt at addressing the mechanics of this history of control and refraction. It does so without any direct face-to-face representation or criticism, nor any dramatic devices (pulling your heartstrings, wave of nostalgia, amplifying the sacrificial disposition of the oppressed etc.). Instead it does so simply by delving into a subterranean labyrinth of associations that take place behind the functions of this grand narrative. Behind the artificially induced state of communal identity is the libidinal web of shifting and mutating subjectivities, where our identities and the historical meanings inscribed onto time past is fluid and in constant becoming with our agency in the present and the virtuality of the future.

Utilising the devices of time-travel, reincarnation and frank recollections of personal memories, Daniel Hui tells the stories of several characters which have just enough revelation as they have the ambiguity to fluctuate and weave into one another. They exist as memory fragments, spectral guests which fly into and out of our consciousness, exploiting and demonstrating that very important power of cinema, its oneric quality –  pure optical images captured and freed from its time and space, its plasticity achieved through editing, the projection of celluloid dream images within a darkened room, its call to suspend reason and utility and open our minds to receive these imagined narratives…

A voice tells us about his relationship with his dead cult leader, recounting the events which led to his exile and downfall, a film programmer at the Substation tells us about an event in her adolescence and her obsession with a photograph of an actress from the 1970s, a cat looks back at the circumstances of his previous life as a soldier in Syonan-To, a veteran from the golden age of Singapore cinema talks about how he received his name from P. Ramlee and the multicultural makeup of film production during that era… These are some of the threads explored in Snakeskin which are presented with such humane tenderness. Yet they are presented ambiguously, blending seemingly real and fictitious memories – some of which are anchored with references to specific historical myths and events, while others seem to mirror moments in our history through personal situations.

The film’s power lies in its persistence in veiling all these images… a veil that obscures its concrete allegiance to the factual, that breaks its narrative relation to one another. Veiled and made opaque, these cinematic images are free to follow the spectator’s own associations, moving into private tangents. It effortlessly conjures at the point of viewing, a state of feeling that a spectator generally harbours days and even months after watching a film – the swirling of afterimages and sensations that merges and connects with one’s everyday life. Most of the time, it is at such a distance from its origin (the point of viewing) that the unspoken ‘truth’ of an artwork reveals itself.

It’s a real feat that Snakeskin manages to conjure this revelatory state of mind with such immediacy. As the credits roll, we are affected by a mutated form of nostalgia, a nostalgia that comes too soon, a nostalgia for the future…. With flame in hand, the film enacts a call for us to burn, not just the bridges, but the baggage in our mind that prevents us from living. Fire becomes a tool to bypass the mechanisms of repression offered to us by that big other, through a symbolic form of direct action… arson.

Those that hold the flame exist within the shadows. But it is exactly within darkness that the act of starting a fire finds its purpose. The film conjures a community of fire-wielding time travellers and shapers, laying testament to the individuals that exist within the cracks of our history, as well as rallying those that have yet to come. Perhaps we all exist within the shadows of this bleak State. Perhaps the majority is unaware of the darkness. Perhaps they are contented to exist within it with the comforts of artificial light. But we see an allegiance to life itself, a joyful resistance, in the multitude that sees the darkness for what it is and go on to start a fire – which Snakeskin reminds us, is created from materials given to us readily by nature, and one of the most primal and universal actions in the history of mankind.