Having had some seafood (of sorts) over the Raya weekend, Fikri Jermadi serves up this review of an under-the-radar Malaysian animation film.
The opening scenes of ‘SeeFood’ were reminiscent of a number of different films. The design of the shark and his first appearance on screen, for example, is identical to ‘A Shark’s Tale’, while the end of the scene, which had human boys stealing a number of fish eggs, was narratively structured in a fashion similar to ‘Finding Nemo’. Having said that, while these markers are visual links to other texts, ‘SeeFood’ remains an admirable work of art in its own right.
It tells of the story between the aforementioned shark Julius (voiced by Gavin Yap) and Pup (Diong Chae Lian), a brownbanded bamboo shark. Though they may come from different backgrounds, theirs is a friendship rooted in playful acts. This stems from Julius and his awareness of what others think of him; he is, after all, a shark, and he’s being friends with other animals of the sea such as a turtle named Myrtle (Christina Orow) and Octo the Octopus (Kennie Dowle). As such, there is a certain lack of real acceptance by others, even though he himself has promised not to eat them. “It’s not your fault,” said Myrtle in a key scene. “That’s what you are.”
What he is is also a protector, for it is his presence that inspires fear in others as well. Murray (Mike Swift) is a moray eel (you can see how the characters are named by now) bent on leading an army of Japanese spider crabs in taking over the brighter parts of the sea. Theirs is a darker world, made murkier by the extreme pollution caused by a nearby factory. This darkness is another visual indicator, one that clearly denotes and connotes evil intentions. I read some hints of the Freudian subconscious here, with the rise and spread of this so-called evil reminiscent of what we don’t really see. It was a line, warning of their march upwards, that did it for me: “Who’s coming?” “The ones from the deep!”
A far more obvious theme to consider is that of environmental conservatism. Pup, lamenting about her powerlessness in saving the fish eggs, was incredibly despondent. “I thought I could save them this time,” she sobbed. This suggested that it wasn’t the first time it happened, and it highlights how she herself could be of a strong character, not letting the disappointment of the past cloud her present and future. Sticking with this theme a bit further, the first time we saw Myrtle, she had her head stuck inside a plastic bag, the kind you might find provided for you at a local grocery store. Again, while this may not be a completely new drum, it delivers its environmental beats it in a visually effective way.
A big part of that is due to the characters. We clearly side with our protagonists; the issue may be a complex one, but the characterisation here (with especial consideration to Julius) is black and white in the deep blue sea. We very quickly get accustomed to the levels of affection required for each character. In this regard special props must be given to the filmmaking team, led by Goh Aun Hoe. They know what their target audience is like, and making it easier for them to get on board is a fine achievement on a visual level.
Take Myrtle, often regarded as the wisest of the group. The animation level detailed enough lines on her face to suggest a certain level of wisdom gained through harsh experience. Octo is also something of a maverick scientist, his disproportionately big head signifying a heightened sense of intelligence, which is further exemplified by his constant tinkering and invention of things; in an early scene, we see Octo looking on admiringly at the video of a rocket launch in an underwater research facility.
That in itself is an indication of the attention paid to the narrative detail. It foreshadows a key element in the plot, at a time when such ingenuity is required to move the story forward. Quite frankly, despite my own misgivings I became rather engrossed in the film. Pup, upon realising that she can breathe even while she is on land, attempts to save the eggs that are her brothers and sisters. When her friends finds out about this, they themselves set off on a fishing journey of their own.
This part of the story was highly involving, inclusive of a number of supporting characters memorable in their own right. A pack of roosters and hens, for example, proved to be hugely entertaining sidekicks. There’s even a hint of a gender reading to be done here, as the (very) male roosters do all they can to impress the hen, posturing almost aimlessly without much effect. Judith Butler wrote of how we perform, rather than naturally become the gender assigned to us. This is a perfect example of that; thinking Julius to be an enemy of theirs, they rashly chased after him, hindering the rescue operation, performing what they believe to be the role of the hero.
Having said that, without these faux machismo fowls, we wouldn’t have the sequences that does make us wonder, “What happens next?” As mentioned before, the filmmakers did a very good job of making us ask that question, before slowly feeding us the answer. Some of them may be suspenseful (though a fair number of sequences are comedic in nature), but they all add up to a logical and satisfying conclusion in the end.
In some sense, the film is ultimately about power and its inversion, as well as how certain structures have been posited as natural and is therefore difficult to change. The treatment of Julius by others, who were constantly looking to get rid of him, is emblematic of this. At the same time, a world sans Julius is also infinitely more dangerous, as the onset of invasion from below would have manifested itself a lot sooner. As such, Julius is both perceived as a danger to danger itself as well as his charges, an insider who is also treated like an outsider (and vice versa). The addition of the human characters also suggests that even those beyond the immediate environment (i.e. not of the sea) can play a key role in shaping it.
One of the funniest ideas that worked the best for me is Julius himself who, along with a number of other fishes, run a restaurant with motifs reminiscent of a Chinese restaurant. Think about that: a shark whose fins make for popular dishes in such restaurants has become the boss of such an endeavour.
That’s the kind of humour I can appreciate, and this is the kind of film I can get behind.
No animals were harmed in the writing of this review by Fikri.
Featured image credit: Cupegraf Wallpapers