Thursday, April 16, 2015

Art of the Real ’15: Snakeskin

The recent death of Lee Kuan Yew is certainly a logical moment to reflect on Singapore’s past and speculate about its future. However, this film is probably not the right vehicle to do either. It is something of a city symphony and an exploration of the national character, but it views both past and present through a deliberately distorted dystopian futuristic lens, circa 2066. Stylistically, Daniel Hui’s Snakeskin (trailer here) is a wholly fitting selection for the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual Art of the Real series of aesthetically challenging docs.

Apparently, the narrator is the sole survivor of a doomsday cult led by a messianic prophet, who claimed to be the descendent and spiritual heir of Stamford Raffles, Singapore’s British Imperialist founder. This seems like a strange recruitment strategy, but it offers an opportunity to explore Singapore’s ambiguous and contradictory collective feelings towards its colonial past.

Our narrator’s ruminations are heard over and between surviving film footage his father ostensibly shot of contemporary Singapore, often featuring minority (but not especially marginalized) voices. It is certainly a timely reminder Singapore is not and never has been an ethnically homogeneous population.

Regardless of its intentions, Snakeskin prompts us to consider just how remarkable Singapore’s economic growth has been. This is a small archipelago-state, with little natural resources to speak of, and a historically fractured and factionalized populace. Race riots were relatively common place there in the immediate post-colonial years. Yet, it has become one of Asia’s celebrated “Tigers” solely due to its economic policies.

Be that as it is, a little of Snakeskin’s impressionistic reflection goes a long ways. The framing device is always conspicuously artificial and the images are often rather workaday. It is still a striking city and Hui gives us a sense there is both celebrated and secret history associated with nearly every street corner, but his approach is more conceptual than cinematic (or even installation-ish).

For those who appreciate the self-conscious aloofness of typical Cinema Guild releases, Snakeskin should scratch your itch when it screens Saturday (4/18) at the Francesca Beale, as part this year’s Art of the Real. You should now consider yourself duly warned or reasonably informed. The less adventurous who are still intrigued by Singapore’s history might find the HBO Asia miniseries Serangoon Road considerably more rewarding.