Spectrum of Flavours – SeaShorts Film Festival 2017 (part 1)

Having scoured the Internet, Fikri Jermadi came across a number of SeaShorts Film Festival 2017 available online. He writes about them in the first of this two-part write-up.

Failing to make my way in time to the SeaShorts Film Festival held recently in Kuala Lumpur, the power of the Internet means that I did not have to completely miss out on the fun. I saw down to watch a number of films online and in class with my students, and discovered films like ‘Amelis’ by Dery Prananda. As much as the longer space and duration in some of the longer films are appreciated, I can respect those who pack their ideas into shorter durations for a stronger punch. That is something that certainly applies to ‘Amelis’. To be quite frank, I am not as aware of who Dery Prananda is, but after having seen this film, I am keen to find out more. His story of a young man dealing with the death of a father (and the practical issues that arise from it) is incredibly well told. There is the setup, there is the objective, and there is the conflict. Single shots here and there that quickly tells us what we need to know without going into overdrive. In that respect, it is very much a film prototypical of the short film genre, and all told without a dialogue to boot. That requires skill, and the lack of dialogue does not make for an absent experience.

Something that works along more conventional lines is Roystan Tan’s ‘Popiah’. By now, Royston is something of a stalwart on the Singaporean filmmaking scene, and his experience shines through. The slow-moving camerawork, for instance, captures perfectly the unspoken tension that lies within some members of the family as they gather for a family reunion of sorts. The title is indicative of a particular type of food the family continues to make at home, even if, as pointed out by the family’s younger generation, there are more modern methods available. The fact that it appears to have been part of a promotional effort did not detract anything from me, though I do feel that in terms of aesthetics, it wouldn’t be out of place amongst the rest of Petronas’ short film selection. Having said that, even if the clash of modernity versus tradition is not entirely unique (it seems to be present in every other Chinese-language short film I come across from Southeast Asia), it remains a fine film worth watching.

Another film with fine technical quality is ‘Friend’. Directed by Yandi Laurens, the film featured characters Joko and Widodo, but no one named Joko Widodo. Is there a political statement in there somewhere? I am leaning more towards no, though I also didn’t think that Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the former governor of Jakarta, would be jailed, so what do I know? What I do know is this film has a good story of two friends with an odd relationship. Why odd? Well, if you have a beef with your friend, you wouldn’t shoot his chickens (primarily because in that case, you would then have his chicken meat instead of beef). In retaliation, what’s the chances of you setting your friend’s house on fire? More to the point, what happens when you have to move away one day? It’s an intriguing little dilemma that briefly meditates on the idea of solitude. There is being alone, and then there is being lonely. Though it gets to it in a more roundabout way, this sweet little film is fun to watch, but most effective for me when it lingers on such greater thoughts. The performance of the two lead actors themselves are also on point; I can’t help but wonder whether they’re actually good friends in real life as well, as their interaction led to plenty of laugh out loud moments.

A similar quality could be noted in ‘300 Seconds’ by Palinya Xayyamongkhoun. Hailing from Laos, it tells the story of school kids fighting an unknown evil force. This antagonist stalks them throughout the school, killing someone once every 300 seconds. My students and I jumped into this film without even knowing that much about the synopsis, truth be told, and was pleasantly surprised by what I found. It’s a short film with aspirations to be more than just that. Very few of such films I come across actually aspire to be a form of popcorn blockbuster entertainment, but Palinya and her team put together something that is surprisingly delightful, with a nifty twist around every other corner. You might not understand everything as quickly as you want, though, and some plot holes are mildly regrettable, but I came across it on the Vientianale International Film Festival Vimeo account, where the majority of short films are around seven minutes in length. Perhaps this was the requirement for the competition, so that is understandable. Nevertheless, ‘300 Seconds’ is certainly worth 432 seconds of your time.

Making my way slightly down south from Laos to Thailand (or east, depending on where you come from), we come across a very different film in ‘Teun’. A more experimental animation effort, ‘Teun’ begins with a person in a bath or spa of sorts. There is a deeper meditation at play here, one that is, in a way, preoccupied with black circles. This black and white film, directed by Thanut Rujitanont, is certainly more challenging to access, relative to all the other films here. In one scene, for instance, the character stands in front of a mirror, after having observed black circles in a number of different places. He then takes a pen and draws one on his stomach, where his bellybutton would have been. This scene is key for me, for it helps to highlight, perhaps, the starting point for all of us. I am aware that in Asia, countries like India and Japan have a traditional fascination with the navel, one that is different from Western ideals. I believe accessing these discourses (could a deeper understanding of Buddhism help?) would allow for us to better assess ‘Teun’.

After ‘Teun’, we stay in Thailand for ‘Nine’, directed by two filmmakers, Tom Chawalit Kaewmanee and Mai Wanichaya Tangsutthiwong. It is actually an adaptation from a short story, a circularity that is not entirely irrelevant here. Our protagonist is a cat, one that was enticed by a blue butterfly turned red herring; in chasing it, he ended up being surrounded a group of wild boars. Problematic in its own right, it is in discovering a solution for this when things take a turn for the better (or worse). Though it features a cute kitty and very bright colours in many parts, its tale is a cautionary one, with the mood quickly turning to horror in key parts of the film. I liked it very much, both in terms of its idea and execution, but I am not sure whether this is a film I will share with my son. All the same, I will say this: from one frame to another, it is captivating, both in terms of concept and beauty, and I’m not sure how tempted you’ll be to even check your phone while this film is playing.

Unfortunately, I can’t say the exact same thing for many people when it comes to ‘Mao Shan Wang’. I had come into this expecting a short film, and while I’m not entirely wrong, it’s more of a melancholic documentary, one that works well if you are willing to linger (because the filmmaker most certainly is). Directed by Khym Fong, ‘Mao Shan Wang’ (which is actually a type of durian) follows the daily life of one man, Amin Rasif, as he enjoys the king of fruits in the relative privacy of his home. We start by seeing him going into the woods, looking for durians. On the way home, he stops at a durian stall, checking out the price (a brief criticism of rising prices in Singapore, perhaps?), before heading home to eat bihun. After dinner, he would eat the durian with his pet tortoise. All the while, a voiceover pops up in parts, telling us how his wife would have enjoyed all these things. If ‘Friend’ is a film that offers morsels of solitude, this film is practically a short thesis on that theme; given that the YouTube video comes with the tag of NYFA (standing, presumably, for New York Film Academy?), it may literally be exactly that. Criminally, there’s only a touch over 50 views of this film at the time of writing. I understand its pacing to be less than suitable for the general YouTube audience, but all the same, it is too low for a film of this quality.

I can safely say that’s not quite the case with ‘Spotlight’. Directed by Chan Teik Quan, this film’s view count (nearly ten times that of ‘Mao Shan Wang’) is probably due to its success in the Take 21 Film Festival in 2016. Billed as Toronto’s premier youth film festival, the success of this film caught me by surprise. Having made strong attempts to keep up to date, at least on some level the majority of Malaysian short films making a splash overseas rings bells in my head. This did not, though, and so it was a pleasant surprise to see a very different type of film. Set in a single room with two characters, we simply follow these two characters as they talk. And talk. And talk. And gossip. And bitch. And moan. And talk. Does that sound enticing? In and of itself, probably not. But watch this film, and you see the quality shine through. There is a natural flow to the conversation, one that is actually very difficult to replicate. I don’t entirely know for sure the purpose of this particular film, other than to document the ebb and flow of the conversation. Nevertheless, it does give me the feeling that I am eavesdropping on a very private exchange. As such, given that that’s what film is supposed to do (providing different perspective on and of the world), Teik Quan has succeeded in creating a film that is unique, more relatable to its mumblecore cousins in American cinema than its own geographical relatives here in Malaysia.

Part two will be published soon. We interviewed the manager of SeaShorts Film Festival, Sheryl Chong. Find out more about the festival at Next New Wave.

Featured image credit: Authority Nutrition

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