A couple of weeks back in mid August, Singaporean filmmaker, Liao Jiekai, screened his award-winning debut feature, Red Dragonflies at The Puttnam School of Film, as part of our weekly Friday Seminars. Liao Jiekai sincerely brings to the table a delicate and poetic delivery of themes concerning adolescence & friendship.
My first encounter with Red Dragonflies dates back to nearly a year ago at the Asian Cultural Cinema Symposium. At the time, I had just started my venture out of the likes of Hollywood. So naturally, I was caught off guard by the unconventional methodology of Red Dragonflies. Yet, it was one of the films that I felt was engaging despite its long takes and lack of a narrative plot.
There is a mystery which subtly dominates the film throughout. The camera quietly observes Rachel, Tien and Jun as they trek along the abandoned railway tracks as an after-school activity. It allows us the time to admire the landscapes while having a glimpse of the friendship they share. As the minutes go by, there is a growing fascination with this forest-esque part of Singapore that is so unfamiliar (especially to the most of us residing here). It forces us to appreciate the parts of Singapore it is less known for. There is a scene where the trio buys Cha Ye Dan (tea eggs) from a Pasar Malam(Night market). It is a simple scene, but not simplistic, because for those who have been to a Pasar Malam growing up, it acts as a portal to that tiny bit of our memory which we never would have thought of revisiting. For the most part of the film, we find ourselves lost in the images and our minds start to wander off to our own set of memories–possibly triggered by something we have seen somewhere, whilst trailing these students, or even the older Rachel. Shortly put, and in the words of the director, we “see our own past in other people”. Never mind the absence of a concrete storyline… we relate to the characters not on a story-plot basis, but on a deeper level, where emotions and feelings are at stake.
Interestingly, a number of the locations seen in the film are no longer around anymore…The railway tracks, the Pasar Malam, the cafe in Chinatown and the art gallery in little India. So, I guess although it was unintended, the film managed to capture the last days of these places. In a way, the Super 8mm footages of the NJC outdoor activity club’s trek that the director inserts in the middle of film, and at the end, also serves as such. It is a documentation of the director’s first hand encounter in the forest, and you also see everything from his perspective as he follows the students closely…These are parts of the film where “reality meets fiction.” The footages were shot 6 months before the shooting of the rest of Red Dragonflies. Because these sections are distinct from the rest of the film, it creates an awareness in the audience, and it feels like the whole film is somewhat a manifestation of what the director felt whilst observing the students on this trek. This certainly adds to the film’s contemplative nature, and the quality of the footages also manage to evoke a sense of nostalgia in the viewer.
Andrei Tarkovsky writes in his book, Sculpting in Time, “I am firmly convinced of one thing…that if an author is moved by the landscape chosen, if it brings back memories to him and suggests associations, even subjective ones, then this will in turn affect the audience with particular excitement.”
Red Dragonflies has that kind of effect on me. It is personal, and has an authenticity that is hard to find in most films today. Watching it has certainly widened my perspective of cinema. Red Dragonflies carries a valuable lesson to filmmakers. That is, we are not to take for granted the power of images in Film. We should constantly challenge ourselves not to blindly follow conventions (or non-conventions), but to devote ourselves to finding the best way to convey what the film necessitates.
Vivien Koh is a first year student at The Puttnam School of Film and a member of the PSOF Editorial Committee.