In his latest experimental drama “Small Hours of the Night”, Daniel Hui offers viewers a provocative glimpse into his home country Singapore’s politically charged past. This psychological thriller centers around an interrogation between a detainment officer and a female prisoner accused of undisclosed crimes against the state. Through their tense back-and-forth filled with cryptic references and temporal mind games, Hui explores the oppression of dissent in Singapore post-independence.
Shot entirely in shadowy black-and-white and spanning multiple decades, the film blurs time periods to create an unsettling sense of displacement. We follow the nameless officer and detainee Vicki through fragmented storytelling as Vicki recounts her political awakening and the systematic injustices she has witnessed. Her stories raise larger questions about the very nature of guilt, innocence and personal freedom.
As both director and writer, Hui continues his examination of Singaporean history through a bold allegorical lens. Having previously dramatized major riots and protests around the country’s contentious formative years, he now tunnels into the darker corners of its authoritarian legal system. Hui leads his audience on a tense yet philosophically rich journey to contemplate the untold stories of those forgotten souls trapped in the machinations of power.
With its stark visuals and implicit social commentary, “Small Hours of the Night” promises to be a haunting meditation on the ghosts of Singapore’s past, one that may prompt difficult but vital conversations about unresolved national traumas. Hui brings impressive technical artistry and psychological insight to excavating this painful history.
An Unsettling Realm of Shadow and Light
Immersed in stark black-and-white, “Small Hours of the Night” pulls viewers into a foreboding world of dramatic shadows, hushed tones and cryptic exchanges between captor and captive. Cinematographer Looi Wan Ping makes chilling use of high-contrast lighting, with faces alternately illuminated then plunged into darkness. Much of the film dwells in a liminal space between the seen and the unseen.
As Vicki recounts fragmented memories under grilling by her unnamed interrogator, both remain shrouded in gloom, with only slivers of light defining their features. When Vicki first appears on screen after 40 minutes, it is during an eerie power outage where she seems to materialize from the shadows. This visually reinforces the sense that personal identity and objective truth are unstable things under an authoritarian regime.
Beyond the actors, the primary visual focal points become objects in the spartan interrogation room – an overflowing ashtray, tapes spinning ominously, moonlight glinting off handcuffs. Even the corners of the set take on an ominous character, with shifting shadows that resemble dark creatures lurking. The barren office conveys the chill of the wider bureaucratic system holding Vicki captive.
Meanwhile, sound designer Akritchalerm Kayalanamitr layers in unnatural echoes and an amplified clock ticking to ratchet up the tension. Combined with Cheryl Ong’s ambient score, these effects create pockets of stillness pierced by bursts of activity that fracture the timeline. The overall result is an environment of creeping dread, confusion and paranoia that echoes the unease of those persecuted for their beliefs.
Through manipulated lighting and strategic use of visual and audio elements, Hui crafts a surreal purgatory. Parts interrogation room, prison cell and theater stage, this liminal setting provides fertile ground for Vicki’s winding personal odyssey to reclaim her voice and identity. Viewers are left struggling to distinguish reality from nightmare in this visually arresting and cerebrally challenging drama.
Untangling the Web of Truth
Rather than following a straightforward plot, “Small Hours of the Night” immerses us in a web of disjointed scenes, repeated motifs and references spanning decades. After opening with a title situating us in the late 1960s, the film proceeds to layer in later historical events out of sequence. Hui employs a fragmented, cyclical structure mirroring the struggle to build personal narratives under authoritarian systems that distort truth.
We continually return to the interrogation room where Vicki is subjected to invasive questioning about her unusual behavior, specifically her belief that there is a new detainee being held nearby. As she provides glimpses of her political past, the line between reality and paranoia blurs. It gradually becomes apparent that Vicki represents an amalgam of multiple real-life prisoners and little she recounts can be taken at face value.
Visual and dialogue cues repeat as we spiral through different versions of the truth. The lights flicker on and off at pivotal moments, Vicki describes the same dream-like vision multiple times, and discussions keep circling back to missing names and forgotten faces that haunt Vicki. These repetitions reinforce how the history of subversive actions against the government have been occluded over time.
Meanwhile, the interrogator’s tactics shift from bureaucratic indifference to violent outbursts to faux sympathy, encapsulating the schizophrenic power complex that envelops Vicki. His fluctuating demeanor highlights the uncertainty faced by dissidents who must navigate ever-changing rules and parameters for “acceptable” behavior.
As these fragmented scenes coalesce, Hui examines the painful transformation of Singapore from colony to independent nation to authoritarian state. The film emerges as an elegy for lost freedoms and a desperate cry to reconstitute forbidden personal narratives before they vanish entirely from collective memory. Amidst such confusion and trauma, where does truth reside? Hui leaves the audience to untangle the puzzle and decide for ourselves.
Shedding Light on Silenced Voices
While “Small Hours of the Night” unfolds in an abstract realm, the story is firmly rooted in Singapore’s complex political history. Hui conducts a muted yet scathing critique of the structures of authoritarian power that have evolved in the country over recent decades. Without directly reenacting specific events, he evokes the paranoia, surveillance and oppression that dissenters have endured.
The interrogator represents the faceless state bureaucracy demanding conformity. His questions about Vicki’s odd behavior after hours allude to the stringent rules and close monitoring that political prisoners face. Meanwhile, Vicki gives voice to a generations-long lineage of activists, communists, lawyers and writers who dared to challenge the ruling party only to be detained without trial or evidence.
When Vicki describes fellow dissidents being charged for providing memorials for a deceased brother or circulating a petition, it references actual court cases where minor infractions drew draconian punishments. Through these personalized stories, Hui highlights the human impact of restrictive laws like the Internal Security Act (ISA) which enables detention without representation.
The most haunting theme becomes the erasure of prisoners’ identities, beliefs and histories in the official state narrative. As Vicki inhabits various aliases and repeatedly asks after missing detainees, the film emphasizes all those forgotten souls, some likely fiction, snuffed out by the system. Their fragmented stories form the emotional backbone of this drama.
In atmospherically conjuring the literal and psychic confinement exerted by Singaporean authoritarianism, Hui gives indignant voice to the voiceless. Small rebellions like pacing one’s cell, whispering through walls or dreaming seditiously represent attempts to preserve one’s sense of self under hovering threats. The film stands as a mournful tribute to those denied such liberties in reality.
Captivating Performances in the Dark
As with the film’s visual landscape, the lead performances by Irfan Kasban and Vicki Yang dwell largely in a world of shadows. Facial expressions, gestures and vocal tones convey as much raw emotion as the sparse dialogue in their hypnotic pas de deux. Both actors prove capable of evincing psychological complexity despite inscrutable characters and hazy motivations.
During the first half set in the interrogation room, we study Kasban’s face for flickers of doubt, cruelty or sympathy as he applies rhetorical pressure on an unseen Vicki. His mercurial shifts between cool authority, violent outrage and faux camaraderie demonstrate the instability forced upon those working for authoritarian systems. By keeping Vicki off screen initially, Hui also implicates the audience as we visualize her based solely on the interrogator’s charged projections.
Once Vicki materializes, Yang takes center stage to deliver an anguished monologue about the recurring dream of being buried alive that haunts her. With widened eyes alternating between anger, confusion and profound sadness, she wordlessly etches deep trauma into her gaze. As she lingers in and out of the shadows, Yang channels the despair of an entire generation of forgotten souls who dared to think differently. Her raw vulnerability coupled with defiant pride gives voice to the voiceless.
Because neither character is afforded a concrete backstory or identity, they take on allegorical weight as stand-ins for the countless real-life players on both sides of this systemic power struggle. Their emotional authenticity and chemistry grant this politically minded thriller its beating heart.
An Ambitious Auteur’s Haunting Vision
As writer, director and co-editor, Daniel Hui demonstrates ambitious and controlled storytelling. He immerses us in a pristine black-and-white nightmare fueled by the power of silence, stillness and fragmentation. While budget limitations sometimes constrain the film’s scope, Hui successfully sustains an ominous tone through impactful creative decisions.
From a visual standpoint, chiaroscuro lighting sculpts emotive faces out of darkness in memorable close-ups. Meanwhile, the convincing partial sets by production designer Eugene Linand highlight environmental textures – peeling paint, dank corners, concrete walls seeming to close in on Vicki. Sparing use of rain, fog machines and practical lights playfully distorts perception.
By avoiding coverage and instead framing characters in isolation even when sharing scenes, Hui and editor Gladys Ng structurally embed profound alienation. Custom audio effects courtesy of designer Akritchalerm Kayalanamitr externalize the dissociation of detainees struggling to retain their grasp of reality behind bars.
These directorial choices demonstrate sophistication, aligning Hui among contemporary Southeast Asian auteurs like Apichatpong Weerasethakul. That said, his cadence of extended takes and hushed line readings may test some viewers’ patience during repetitive middle portions. A few tighter shot sequences cutting between the leads could have enlivened certain dramatic beats.
Regardless, Hui displays admirable ambition and technical mastery in translating historical trauma into cinematic form. He has crafted an immersive psychological puzzle box interrogating the ghosts of authoritarianism’s past. One hopes international acclaim for this compelling indie might enable Hui to further develop his aesthetic vision.
A Mesmerizing Mind-Bender for the Thoughtful Cinephile
While “Small Hours of the Night” makes no concessions to casual viewers, patient audiences will find a mesmerizing feast for the senses. Hui’s intricate tale embedded in Singapore’s fraught history rewards interpretation and analysis rather than passive spectatorship. Multiple viewings may be required to unravel both the literal storyline and embedded sociopolitical commentary.
The avant-garde style prioritizes mood over accessibility, with extended sequences that indulge in abstraction. Striking as the high-contrast visuals are, those accustomed to mainstream fare could grow restless with the gradual pacing. Additionally, without sufficient context about Singapore’s political climate, the allegorical critique lacks some resonance.
Nonetheless, Hui has constructed an entrancing cinematic puzzle for thoughtful cinephiles to decipher. The technical creativity on display is tremendously impressive considering the project’s indie scale and limitations. For audiences who appreciate films as opportunities for intellectual sparring versus mindless entertainment, “Small Hours of the Night” delivers a penetrating and lacerating drama exploring state power’s crushing of dissent.
It seems unlikely such an unapologetically artsy effort will draw wide attention. But the film should enjoy respect on the festival circuit for those excited by bold stylistic maneuvers in service of sociopolitical themes rarely dissected so radically in contemporary Asian cinema. Here’s hoping adventurous arthouse audiences seek out this sterling sample of Singaporean vision and resilience.
Small Hours of the Night
Through sheer force of technical artistry and defiant spirit, Daniel Hui has created an indelible tone poem interrogating profound questions of truth and power. "Small Hours of the Night" makes no compromises in its cerebral approach, but offers deep rewards for those attuned to its dark wavelength. Amid some uneven pacing and potentially impenetrable references, Hui has etched a starkly beautiful psychological thriller grappling with government authoritarianism's legacy of trauma. For bold vision and thematically ambitious storytelling, the film earns an 8 out of 10 rating. While not an instantly accessible work, patient viewers willing to untangle its intricate narrative and emotional layers will discover one of the most haunting interrogations of state oppression committed to celluloid.
- Striking visual style and cinematography
- Creates an unsettling, ominous atmosphere
- Complex, nonlinear storytelling
- Allegorical critique of authoritarian regimes
- Emphasis on forgotten histories
- Strong lead performances
- Slow pace may test viewers' patience
- References are sometimes too oblique
- Monotonous line delivery at times
- May require multiple viewings to fully unpack