Cornucopia of Conflicts – SeaShorts Film Festival 2017 (part 2)

Concluding his adventure of the 2017 SeaShorts Film Festival selections, Fikri Jermadi shares his thoughts on these thought-provoking films.

Continuing our adventure through the films of the recent SeaShorts Film Festival, we land in Malaysia’s capital for Shobaan Pillay’s ‘Diari Kuala Lumpur’. Relative to all the other films, this one feels a little rawer compared to the rest, both in terms of style and substance. It tells the story of a struggling filmmaker in a very reflective way, one that ponders and ruminates. It’s not quite a silent film per se, but the silences in this film does weigh as heavily on you as it does on the protagonist. The love of his life is soon to be married to a doctor, and Shobaan weaves in socio-economic impressions on both professions; the protagonist himself applies a more critical view of his love’s fiancé’s occupation, turning parts of the film into a quiet rage against the machine that is society. Though appearing less structured compared to the rest (in a colloquial sense, it very much felt like the vomiting of feelings unto the screen), it is no less affective, especially for those who have been in situations where the dilemma between passion and love (not necessarily the same thing, as proven in this case) weighs as heavily on you as the silences in this film do.

A film that is very loud is ‘Aurelie’s Garden’ by Qistina Ruslan. I’m not quite sure how to describe this film, so here’s the blow-by-blow account of the opening scene. Told in stop-motion, a florist arranges flowers to be delivered to her customers. One of them falls to floor, and as she looks for it, it opens, revealing an eye in its middle. Shocked, she drops it to the floor and runs away, as the flower opens a portal into which it escapes. The florist, intrigued, gets closer and closer before she, too, gets sucked into this portal, where she wakes up in what appears to be… heaven? A dreamscape? It feels like the kind of film where all sorts of interpretations would be available, once we allow ourselves to think outside of the box. Perhaps, as a former student once did in writing an analysis of Ingmar Bergman’s ‘Wild Strawberries, it is best enjoyed and analysed when you’re high, as the film itself is a very imaginative trippy trip in its own right.

‘Udhar’, directed by Tunggul Banjaransari, brings us right back to earth. To be more precise, the film is set in Yogyakarta, which, in addition to being arguably Indonesia’s higher education capital, is also a cultural place soaked in mysticism and mystery (certainly relative to many others parts of the country). Tunggul’s story tells of an elderly woman who dreams that her lost ring was found in Mecca. She converses with her son about this, as well as with other beings less seen by others. An example of this can be seen in the opening scene, which portrays this very mother and son as they listen to a radio broadcast (or perhaps watch a television broadcast off screen). As they switched stations, voice aiming to induce hypnosis comes on, telling them (and us) to focus on its voice, and relax. What makes it eerie is the son’s switching of his attention, as he shifts his gaze to look at us, before a sudden blackout catches everyone (including us) off guard. That’s the kind of film this us, as it seeks to place us in different positions, almost at the same time. It destabilises us, as we are reminded of our position as a voyeur into these worlds created by filmmakers. The fixed camera approach highlights just how zany of these actions are. This is especially emphasised if you’re watching in a classroom with scores of other people, making it that bit eerier than expected.

For a bit of lighter entertainment, look no further than ‘Prince Johnny’. Patradol Kitcharoen’s effort here certainly continues much of the mini-tradition set by these films here in upending the stereotypes and expectations of its audience. However, what it does is to subvert the standards of masculinity and heroism one would expect of a story featuring a horseback-riding, sword-wielding prince who attempts to save a princess locked away in a tower. In so many ways, it reminds me of ‘Death in D Minor’, a Malaysian Digital Film Award winner some years ago; though the animation styles are very different, the subversion of expectations is one that is equally pleasant. My only complaint is that perhaps it is a little too short, with perhaps another incident or plot point being able to accentuate further the impact aimed for by the film’s end. At the same time, it is a project produced for academic purposes, so I suspect there may well be limitations in terms of time duration that could have hindered this. Nevertheless, it remains a short by sweet divergence from much of the seriousness on offer here.

Annie Ma’s ‘Bunga Raya’ takes us back unto a more serious path, discussing as it does the never-ending racial interludes this country falls back into many times over and over again. It deals with a young Chinese girl, who attempts to deal with the pitfalls of falling in love and wanting to be with a Malay boy, Fariz. In many respects, there’s little that’s particularly unique or original in terms of its themes, though its continued relevance is as much an indictment on the society it is a part of rather than the filmmaker’s particular fault. Not that there’s much to fault, to be honest; there are the usual technical drawbacks you’d associate with young filmmakers starting out in their careers (and I don’t exempt myself from this). This, however, can also be a plus: there is also much of the sincerity and searing honest that can be a boon, and this film has that by the bucket load. The ending, in particular, is one long take of over two minutes, yet it packs so much more into that duration than many other feature films do in nearly two hours. Whatever Annie Ma does later on in her career, I feel certain that this is a film she can look back on with pride.

Another film that tackles this by the horn is ‘Akar Pula’. Directed by Daniel Cheang, it tells the story of Jasmine, a young gamer girl who is forcefully introduced to culture by her mother (and her mother’s friends). This involves taking part in activities such as traditional dancing, as well as dressing up in traditional costumes. In many situations, I’d be able to sit back and consider this as much of the above, another film made by a young filmmaking taking their first tentative steps into the world. However, the academic side of my brain considers much of the following implications. As much as Jasmine may well need some time outside of the home, there is also a very superficial idea of what getting in touch with their roots may be. The representation of Malay culture here is admirable, but also somewhat shallow in many respects, supposing that one can be traditional by way of dressing up and playing the part. There is, of course, a performance of culture worthy of a bigger-picture consideration here (you’d see much of this same identity being reenacted on a more national stage). At the same time, it also marginalises much of the same identities that Jasmine herself could be a part of and be further valourised in these films. Then again, this again appears to be a student production, which comes with all sorts of asterisks. I myself may well be misreading the characters own signifiers, a sign of the very same discourses we are all subjected to. This is a tricky subject matter to consider, and at the end of the day, I applaud Daniel’s courage in tackling such an issue. Whether he intends to or not, I feel like this is a film that would do well in competitions or showcases with 1Malaysia as its overarching theme.

The next film does much to provide a more alternative perspective on something many many not consider. ‘Without Mindfulness’ is a short film featuring at its locus the tale of a young monk (and by young, I mean Power Rangers-fan young, if that makes some kind of sense to anyone here) who tries hard to live up to the ideals of being monk of the highest order. However, much like everyone else who tries to do the same, there is a work-in-progress attitude that I’ve personally never seen before on screen. A Buddhist monk is often presented in many films as a particular ideal and idea, but here we see much of that as a (young) human being. For instance, we see the young boy being late for quite a number of activities, as well as being ill-equipped for some of these activities. What is interesting is how the overlay of audio, of the more senior monks chanting from the prayer halls, adds a greater level of tension in seeing whether he makes it to the prayer chants on time. I can definitely relate this to the Friday prayers I often attend as a part of the expression of my own faith. Parking your car, jogging quickly up the hill, and doing your wudu is all the more stressful as the loudspeakers blare out the final sentences of the sermon before the actual prayers. Perhaps it is naïve of me, but it is surprising that an identical feeling is evinced in the watching of this film. To that end, Novice Bouasy proves to be an old hand at this, keeping my attention and enlightening me along the way.

Getting to the final two films by Tham Wai Fook, ‘A Flower’s Eyes’ plays out in a very unexpected way. We begin by following a number of children who appear to be on a brief trip outside of their school compound, before one of them separates from the group. As he descends down a hill, being a little too attuned to such film language, I half expect him to fall. This is quite an experience for me, one that has become common but still uncomfortable following the birth of my son a number of years ago. We then cut almost immediately to a school, being placed outside of it, a series of shots around the school overlaid as the teacher inside teaches with a combination of Mandarin and Malay. The interaction is cute, cutting through much of the superficiality that often arises of such intersections (as noted in ‘Akar Pula’ above). In fact, there is a strong naturality to the proceedings that, upon further research, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that this is a true story, one which featured much of the film’s real-life counterparts as their reel-life portrayals. There’s even a Tamil (I believe, forgive me if I am wrong) song interlude in the middle, which segues into a scene where the tuition teacher now sings that same song to her son. I appreciate this unassuming entry into what many would call slow cinema, depicting life as life is, and for also making me miss my son even more.

We end our adventure (for now) with the uplifting-sounding ‘Revival’, again by the hard-working Tham Wai Fook. Instead of being treated to matches of the wrestling tag-team, here we are presented with a story of a young man coming back to his hometown with his girlfriend for Chinese New Year. Again, there is an unassuming naturality here that wouldn’t surprise me if once again I found out Wai Fook has been casting his friends and family members in this little drama. Again, not unlike other films of this ilk, we get a sense of what life is really like on this side of the fence. Unlike other films in this genre, though, I don’t really detect a strong socio-political statement being made in your face. Perhaps it could be construed as such, but it comes off well largely as a film about people in a place somewhere in Malaysia. I will point out one thing very specific about the film; having been treated to a snail’s pace of storytelling in both films, a scene in ‘Revival’ has the main character driving his car at almost the same speed (if not the same speed) as a speeding train. Putting aside the practical difficulties of pulling this off, I wonder how long such a scene has been in Wai Fook’s head. If he is indeed familiar with the locale, if he is indeed a native of the area, then this scene may well have played out in his mind for a while, a visual ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ come to life. Throw in Sudirman’s ‘Balik Kampung’, and I am so totally sold; if his previous film made me miss my son, this one leaves me longing for Kedah and Muar.

What a trip!

Part one can be read here. We interviewed the manager of SeaShorts Film Festival, Sheryl Chong. Find out more about the festival at Next New Wave.

Featured image credit: Huffington Post

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