Penghulu, a film by Lillian Wang was screened a few weeks ago in August as part of the Friday seminar. This film was a tad more special than others I’ve watched in the past few weeks. Lillian, a director and also lecturer at The Puttnam School of Film, collaborated with her colleagues at school namely Hide Urata as cinematographer, Sean Ashley as editor and colourist and Mabelyn Ow as producer. PSOF students also took the opportunity to learn as they were part of the production as key crew members on set – all in all, a true PSOF affair over the big summer vacation at the end of the month of June!
Lillian was selected by the Singapore Writer’s Festival as director to adapt from a local novel, Penghulu by Suratman Markasan. Penghulu depicts the life of a retired fisherman / headman of the village who yearns for the days of kampung (Malay village) life. Veteran Malay actor, M. Ramlee played the role of Pak Suleh with ease giving a fine balance between resilience and yearning. We see Pak Suleh now much older and living in his HDB dwellings. He lives with a great view of the shore by east coast but things are not the same as before, the calm sound of the waves is now replaced by the sound of traffic. There is a scene where Pak Suleh lectures his son about his low grades in Malay. His son replies that he doesn’t need to do well for Malay to get into a Polytechnic. This scene accentuates the theme in the passing of time. Lilian also saw the story as one that is appropriate for the current happenings in Singapore where residents in Pulau Ubin are forced to make way for an upcoming theme park project. Pulau Ubin, as we know, hosts the last of Singapore’s kampungs, in time that way of life like the island of Pak Suleh’s Sebidang, will too, be gone.
The film is in Malay and Lilian had to depend on her translator Zulkifli Salleh who also served as 2nd Assistant Director on set. Lillian made sure that Zul understood her approach towards the story so that they were always in-sync on set. In pre-production Mardhiah Osman, lecturer in Critical Film Studies also assisted Lilian with the translation in her script as Lillian first wrote it in English. Sean Ashley, the editor for the film who had edited in multiple languages before shared that there was no problem editing a film in a language that he isn’t familiar with because he understood the story and understanding the story is the essence that helps with pacing and visual storytelling. The seamless edit was accompanied by the beautiful images captured by Hide Urata. Hide worked with Sean in the colouring process to achieve the right mood for the film.
The imagery remained vivid in my mind weeks after the screening. There is a shot that shows the point of view from a boat observing the silhouette of a fisherman in the sunset that was of absolute beauty to me. Shooting took place in 3 locations – Pulau Ubin, Marine Crescent and Changi beach.
In Penghulu, music is used only in the final third of the film as Lilian thought the final scenes needed a ‘lift’ in conclusion. Lilian felt that music should only be used to support and not dictate a scene. True enough, the wise use of music by the thoughtful filmmaker gave the film a strong sense of mono no aware that is reminiscent of the works by master Japanese filmmaker, Yasujiro Ozu.
With the kampung way of life sailing away with time, Lillian and her collaborators delivered a film that leaves us with Pak Suleh’s memories to hold on to.
Kenneth is a second year student at The Puttnam School of Film who has directed award winning short film Band of Mischief, 2011 & Houseflies, 2013 (Travelling) He enjoys reading and writing about films which have a clear sense of voice.
Photography credits to Lor Hui Yun, The Puttnam School of Film editorial team’s principal photographer.