The recurring theme of power and control seems to be prevalent within two films from Singapore Shorts ‘21. Mark Chee’s GUNKWORLD explores the insidious effects that mass media has on its viewers through a detached crude animation style. On the other hand, Alistair Quak’s Tuition immerses us into an oppressive tuition class with an abusive teacher through its subjective depiction of reality. Both films grapple with systems of power and control through different mediums such as animation and live action.
Mark Chee’s cultish and pulpy animated film GUNKWORLD opens with what seems like a weekend morning cartoon programme being played on a CRT television that a generation of kids (before the imminent rise of streaming platforms) would find nostalgic. The cult horror visuals bring to mind retro Japanese cartoons that one would have encountered in their formative years. Interspersed throughout the programme are product commercials that tie back to the popular cartoon show.
What seems like a play on our collective nostalgia is eventually subverted as the animated short slowly descends into a nightmarish reality. It eventually becomes an indictment on the manipulative powers and control of the media as the cartoon world invades outwards into the collective consciousness of the viewers in the ‘real world’ and causes a mass suicide by the film’s end.
Chee opens the film with a self-referential title card ‘GUNKWORLD’ that refers to the short film that we are watching, and the cartoon show within the television frame. The first episode introduces us to various cartoonish monstrous students that populate the school, Gunkman, Sallysweets and Roboji who prey on the only human student in the class. A teacher tries to stop them but is mind-controlled by Gunkman into jumping out of the window and falling to his death. Within the cartoon narrative, themes such as bullying, student romance and different social classes (with the human characters being the outcasts) are all touched upon briefly as the show gets increasingly interrupted by commercials.
Throughout most of its running time, the audience views the cartoon world of Gunkworld through the lens of a CRT television screen. Each episode within the programme is punctuated by commercials of toys, trading cards, bottled drinks and various other merchandise associated with the cartoon show. The detached experience of the world through this screen allows us to be aware of the subtle powers that mass media has on its viewers. News reports begin to feature depressed individuals proclaiming that their lives are meaningless. An interviewee declares that a Gunkman game is overtaking his life and that it is more important than his friends, family, and religion. We are made so aware of the exaggerated consumer culture through the excessive promotion of Gunkworld merchandise that it feels like it is a knowing jab at us, the real audience.
In another seemingly meta-twist, the camera pulls back revealing live-action footage in first-person, as if we are within the world, having just finished watching the cartoon show and then turning off the television with a remote. The end of the film implicates the audience—how are we being influenced or controlled by the media? With mass media inextricably intertwined within our modern life and while it seems as though we can never escape, we can be aware of its power to overtake our lives and beliefs.
While GUNKWORLD presents us with a crude and artificial animated world that allows us to lucidly observe the corruptive powers and control of the media over its viewers, Alistair Quak’s Tuition explores the limits of how a powerless student could stand up to an abusive tuition teacher. Working in the mode of a suspense thriller, we are made to view the film through the lens of Alan, a thirteen-year-old boy who is trying to collect evidence of the abusive behaviour of his manic tuition teacher Beatrice, on his phone without getting caught.
Filmed in hazy black-and-white, the environment portrayed in the film is oppressive, as though the students are cut off from the outside world. The line between discipline and abuse becomes obfuscated in shades of grey. Alan recognises himself and the rest of his peers as subjects, powerless against Beatrice, whose demanding expectation forces them to be at their academic best lest they be punished by her. They are conditioned to obey her out of fear and the routine she has instilled into the class. Students must stand when an alarm rings and they are only able to sit down if they answer her correctly. If anyone dares to oppose her, the rest are punished instead, creating a cycle of self-policing, thus making sure they do not step out of line. Social control, the idea that individuals are kept within a certain set of boundaries through internalisation is as prevalent in this world as it is in GUNKWORLD.
Quak presents the idea of control and the feeling of helplessness through subjective cinematography and sound design, creating a constant atmosphere of suspense and unease, making us voyeurs of the students’ ordeal. In a tense opening, the film starts with a close-up of a boy’s leg, and a hammer hovering over a spot above his ankle. Self-harm is inferred as we see the boy trying to break his leg, but we are not sure why. The film then thrusts us into a claustrophobic living room where students are seated around tables. The sound of flipping worksheets intensifies and the camera slowly dollies in as we get closer to our protagonist. We see Alan, as he is preparing to capture the audio recording of the teacher in secret on his phone. He cautiously watches Beatrice, who is on the phone quelling the worries of a concerned parent over her teaching methodology. She is framed in an ominous silhouette against the curtained window, an imposing figure that towers over the students.
Tension and unease are generated through the banal—the use of hands, a ruler, a boiling kettle, a scrunched up paper slowly expanding, a papercut and a hammer. Onscreen violence is alluded to but never shown. However, we feel the violence through the sound of a hammer striking a leg, a ruler lashing on a student’s palm, and Beatrice’s sudden guttural outbursts that traumatise the students.
Tuition seems to suggest the students’ impossibility of directly standing up to authority unless it is through subversive means. The suspense and our hopes throughout the film—whether Alan would succeed in documenting the abuse—dissipates as his attempt to save the evidence fails due to a lack of storage space on his phone. When Alan makes one last attempt to threaten her with his phone, it is immediately snatched away and thrown into the bin. The other students are punished again for Alan’s actions—being told to finish extra homework before they can leave. In the same scene foreshadowed in the opening, Alan resorts to skipping his tuition classes for the foreseeable future by feigning injury. To what end does academic excellence take priority over a student’s mental health? The final shot offers some sort of catharsis, albeit a devastating one where Alan gives a pained smile after breaking his leg. The subjectivity of Tuition allows us to confront what we have internalised through our formal education, to empathise and re-examine our own bias to help with reforming the still prevalent mindset of prioritising academic excellence over a well-rounded education in Singapore.
About the Writer
Alexander Lee is a writer and a filmmaker based in Singapore. He graduated from Nanyang Technological University, School of Humanities with a BA (Hons) in English and a minor in Creative Writing. His interests include watching films and reading essays on cinema. This led him to participate in the Youth Jury and Critics Programme and the Yamagata Criticism Workshop. Coming from a filmmaking and film studies background, he enjoys discovering new voices in contemporary cinema.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.