7 Letters – Review

Getting a bunch of acclaimed directors together to produce an anthology of short films isn’t as failsafe an idea as it sounds on paper (Movie 43, shudder), but do it right and the whole truly becomes more than the sum of its parts. 7 Letters, the anthology of shorts that seven of Singapore’s brightest cinematic luminaries have banded together to create, does indeed imbue this magical quality.

7 Directors (Working)Initially conceived by Royston Tan, 7 Letters is a collaborative effort with Tan, Eric Khoo, Kelvin Tong, Tan Pin Pin, K. Rajagopal, Boo Junfeng and Jack Neo each contributing one segment. With just the single unifying theme of home, each director was given full creative rein to portray just what that occasionally nebulous concept meant to each of them. The resulting film is an eclectic mix of different styles, concerns and emotions, all celebrating the journey that began on 9 August, 1965.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, Eric Khoo (2)Eric Khoo’s segment, entitled “Sinema”, is what Khoo calls “a tribute to the golden era of Singapore filmmaking” in the 1950s and 1960s. The aesthetics and plot of a classic Pontianak horror film are evocatively reproduced with Mata Mata’s breakout star Nadiah M. Din as the eponymous spook. Khoo also leaps several decades into the future to portray the film’s cast and crew members recreating their glory days. Dual time periods aside, the narrative thread of Khoo’s short is largely predictable, but his heartfelt respect for Singapore’s filmic pioneers ensures that the emotional impact is present regardless. The new-old Pontianak sequences are great fun, simultaneously allowing older Singaporeans to re-experience their childhood entertainments and introducing younger ones to their cinematic heritage.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, Jack Neo (3)Jack Neo’s ability to discover young acting talent is on full display in his short “That Girl”, which boasts a group of energetic child actors. Essentially a tale of puppy love, “That Girl” is set in 1975 when the last of the kampongs were being cleared to make way for new HDB flats. Leads Josmen Lum and Yan Li Xuan steal the show as the star-crossed couple at the heart of the short film’s plot, which is remarkable for its streamlined simplicity and genuine pathos. Loosened from the constraints of making overt product placements every two minutes or so, Neo shows that he can still tell a simple story well with his trademark flair for local colloquialisms.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, K. Rajagopal (3)Of the seven directors involved with 7 Letters, K. Rajagopal may be the one with whom mainstream audiences are most unfamiliar, but his short “The Flame” is indicative of the polished work he has delivered over the years. Shot entirely in black and white, “The Flame” is perhaps the most meditative of the seven. Situated in the turbulent wake of the British withdrawal in the early 1970s, it explores the dynamics of a small Indian family cast adrift after the departure of the colonial presence. Rajagopal puts the proceedings on a slow burn for most of the duration of his short film, which makes the explosive confrontation all the more impactful when it comes. “The Flame” also acts as a rare vignette of Singaporean Indians’ cultural history, an area sadly not given enough coverage in pop cultural depictions of Singapore’s past.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, Royston Tan (2)Royston Tan’s piece is predictably suffused with local music of some form: his short film takes its title from Dick Lee’s song “Bunga Sayang”. In it, a young Chinese boy and an elderly Malay lady bond over the appropriately cross-cultural theme song and even sing a duet in a psychedelic music video-esque sequence. Though by all appearances a tad too light-hearted and inconsequential, “Bunga Sayang” is actually a poignant reminder of how art and music can transcend racial and cultural boundaries. If Eric Khoo’s short showed the collective filmic heritage of Singaporeans, then Tan’s short celebrates the musical equivalent.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, Tan Pin Pin (4)By all accounts, including her own, Tan Pin Pin has had “a very exciting year”. This, of course, is a reference to the banning of her most recent feature-length film, To Singapore, With Love. Watching her short film “Pineapple Town”, one gets the feeling that Tan is more than prepared for further ‘excitement’. “Pineapple Town”, Tan’s first fictional piece, is ostensibly about a young Singaporean woman who has just adopted a baby and develops a fixation with tracking the birth mother down. Tan handles the inherent drama of her narrative well, but the true payload in her short is on an allegorical level. Without giving too much away, let’s just say it involves the importance of comprehending the full historical picture, even those details which might cause discomfort or distress.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, Boo Junfeng (3)Malaysia also features prominently in Boo Junfeng’s “Parting”, in which an elderly Malay man travels to Singapore via the KTM express to look for an old flame whom he has lost contact with. There is nostalgia aplenty as Boo charts the myriad changes to Singapore’s landscape since his protagonist’s last visit, focusing in particular on the relocation of the KTM terminus from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands. The scenes filmed in the old Tanjong Pagar railway station are especially moving, blending the old man’s personal loss with the collective one felt upon the decommissioning of a national icon.

Photo credit - 7 Letters, Kelvin Tong (3)Rounding off the pack is Kelvin Tong’s “Grandma Positioning System”, given a comic boost by the comic chemistry of real-life married couple Zheng Geping and Hong Huifang. Zheng and Hong play a typical Singaporean couple who get lost on their annual trip to honour the remains of Zheng’s character’s father (with daughter, son and granny in tow). Granny saves the day by remembering the exact location of grandpa’s grave (hence the short’s title), and her precise geographic memory is the primary device through which Tong commemorates the physical landmarks of Singapore past. It’s deeply sobering to realise just how much has changed in Singapore within a scant twenty or thirty years, and Tong uses vintage snapshots of demolished landmarks to underscore the emotional core of his short to great effect.

Viewed in its totality, 7 Letters actually possesses a curious unity, something which none of the directors involved expected. There are some tonal inconsistencies, but nothing major enough to derail a heartfelt tribute to the people and places of Singapore’s last 50 years.

Summary: Makes one contemplate the past and anticipate the future in both the general and filmic respects.

RATING: 4 out of 5 stars

Screenings on 24-26 July are sold out; tickets for the 8-10 August screenings are available at the National Museum of Singapore’s front desk on 1 and 2 August (first-come-first-served).

– Leslie Wong