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Rotterdam Political Drama ‘Small Hours of the Night’ Examines Harshness, Absurdity of Singapore Legal System

Jokes about Singapore being a fine city – meaning that many seemingly small transgressions are punishable with monetary penalties – or the trope about Singapore’s now repealed law against chewing gum would not be lost on filmmaker, writer and film editor Daniel Hui.

He says that his new film “Small Hours of the Night,” which premieres in the Harbour section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam on Saturday, deals with small incidents, small gestures and small emotions. The little things that shape history.

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And with just a telephone, an ashtray, a tape recorder, a rough corner of the wall in the film’s opening scenes, the treatment of Hui’s subject matter may be minimalist, but it is also quietly brutal.

“Hui’s film represents a rare political work from Singapore, one that tackles the city state’s iron-fisted policy towards dissent head on. The main character, who is an amalgam of various real-life defendants from Singapore’s history, becomes a subject beneath the Law, standing for all those whose fates were at the mercy of the courts,” say Rotterdam’s programmers in their notes.

In a dark room, some time in the 1960s, a woman (Yanxuan Vicki Yang) is trapped, being interrogated by a man (Kasban Irfan). Through the course of one long night, identities and duration starts to blur. Ghosts from the future haunt their conversation.

Although Hui plays around with time, the factual core of “Small Hours of the Night” is a court case that took place in 1983, known as the Tan Chay Wa tombstone case. In the early years of Singapore’s independence (from the British Empire in 1963 and from Malaysia in 1965), Tan had been an armed activist, possibly a Communist, who rejected the two countries’ separation. By the time that authorities caught up with him in 1976 he was working as a bus driver. He escaped Singapore, but was caught with a loaded gun in Malaysia and was hanged in 1983.

The precedent-setting trial of Tan’s brother, later the same year, related to the militant and revolutionary poem that Tan sought to have inscribed on his grave stone. The brother was jailed for advocating acts prejudicial to the security of Singapore.

“For Singapore, as for many other places in the world, the criminal court is a place where public mores and taboos are defined. The court sets an example of what is allowed and disallowed. It publicizes this through its sentencing and disseminates the sentencing through the press. The public is then expected to follow suit,” says Hui.

“The Tan Chay Wa tombstone trial depicted in the film intrigued me because of this very reason; it intrigued me not because it was a major incident — in fact it has largely been forgotten — but because through it we can see the practices through which Singapore became the way it is now — harsh punishments for trivial crimes, stifling of opposition voices, and the absurdity of a censorship that spares no one, not even the dead.”

Not content with critiquing an embarrassing and formative moment in Singapore’s uncompromising judicial history, “Small Hours” gets slippery with time and identity. Hui suggests that this is partly a defense mechanism.

“This film only has two characters on screen. But there are five characters who speak through Vicki — four are based on real figures from the 1983 Tan Chay Wa tombstone trial. None of them are mentioned by name, for safety reasons but also because they could be anyone,” Hui says.

“Vicki herself is a fictional character, representing the paranoia and fear that activists — then and now — still have to deal with. The shifting of realities and identities, like what happens in a dream, is important for me, because the boundaries between us are always changing and forever being re-negotiated,” he continues.

A graduate of the film program at the California Institute of the Arts, Hui is especially equipped for an exercise in mind-bending. In addition to his short films and three previous features 2013’s “Eclipses,” 2014’s “Snakeskin” and “Demons” (in the Kim Jiseok Award competition in Busan 2018 and the Berlin Forum in 2019) as director, Hui is an in-demand film editor. Recent editing efforts include Yeo Siew Hua’s Locarno Golden Leopard-winning “A Land Imagined” and “Last Shadow at First Light,” the acclaimed feature debut by Nicole Midori-Woodford.

Along with producer Tan Bee Thiam, Hui is one of the founding members of 13 Little Pictures, an independent film collective in Singapore. In Rotterdam, Hui will be doing double duty, also pitching his next work “Other People’s Dreams” at CineMart.

Watch the trailer for “Small Hours of the Night” here:

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