Making Ends Meet – BMW Shorties 2017 (part 1)

In the first of two parts, Fikri Jermadi goes through some of the nine finalists from the 2017 BMW Shorties short film competition.

This is a bit late, especially given how the competition has come and gone, but work has finally cleared up (a bit), and I am still keen to discuss what remains an exciting set of short films for us to feast on. Perhaps in good time, I will get back to the 2016 set I never did, but for now and for the next few paragraphs (and beyond), I shall be expounding further on the finalists for the 2017 BMW Shorties. The films will be dealt with on an alphabetical basis.

That means beginning this journey with ‘After Tango’, directed by New Chun Hui. It features three young characters: Kee Khai Ern (the director himself), Kho Man Kit (Chung Wai Kiat) and Winnie Goh (Winnie Tin). Firmly situated within the Chinese context, they deal with much of the socio-economic factors that comes with that. Khai Ern having his scholarship revoked, for instance, echoes much of the same grumbling about the disproportionate dissection of that pie between different ethnicities in Malaysia. The reaction to that same choice (for Khai Ern to pursue his education and career in the film industry) is also a familiar refrain, as they spend a lunch session being berated by a family member because of that. I am reminded of ‘Diari Kuala Lumpur’, a Shobaan Pillay film which also featured the director as the protagonist, ruminating on the struggle one faces as a filmmaker. This highlights again the struggle faced by those who wish to pursue any form of performing arts (especially if we’re looking at the lower strata of society).

That’s not to say that this film is only for Chinese filmmakers; rather, there is a universal element here that’s worth celebrating. It’s a rough and ready film, a confident reflection by Chun Hui of that which is around him, and his aspirations for the future. These are, after all, young people, those most adept with technology in a world ever more technical; an earlier scene even featured Man Kit, Winnie and Khai Ern in the back seat, phones all joined up to a powerbank, as they talk about stealing money to make ends meet, a slight mockery of the opinion that technology will result in people not talking anymore.

We transition from youth to maturity with ‘Desakan Dewasa’. Directed by Johanna Johan Ariffin, it stars Habielutfillah as Asib, a young protagonist who is forced to grow up before his time. He lives with his grandmother (Mak Iwan), and is forced to make ends meet by working with Salleh (Bront Palarae), running a sundry shop together. However, he is placed in an uncomfortable position when money was stolen from the shop. Similar to the above, we see a discussion of economic forces squeezing people ever tighter, with the victim here being Asib, forced to give up not only on school, but also on actually being a child. This is represented by his desire to purchase a remote controlled car, a wish often suppressed by the bigger picture narrative of providing for his grandmother’s needs.

What Johanna did really well was to set us up right at the very beginning. As the scene inside the house is dark and quiet, Asib stands in front of the mirror, all dressed in a school uniform. “I’m Asib. My vision is to be smart.” With the metaphorical snap of a finger, however, the scene and lighting changes, and we’re back to reality: he is dressed in drabbier clothes, looking at himself in the mirror and not necessarily to the day ahead of him. I find that quite clever, and must applaud the director and cinematographer, S’ham Mokhtar. There are plenty of bright moments in the film, one that gives hope to Asib and also those viewing this. Screening this to my Indonesian students, a number of them recognised Bront Palarae from his turn in ‘Pengabdi Setan’, and was pleasantly surprised to see him act in a short film.

Another pleasant surprise is the film ‘Gold! There’s gold in the river!’ The film’s story follows a man down and out on his luck, as he struggles to provide for his family. However, by the glint of the sun, he becomes convinced that the river near his house has gold in it, and that it can be prospected. His early efforts fall flat, as he fails to actually find any gold. However, he pushes on in the belief that there is indeed gold in the river. The film is pleasant for a number of different reasons. The director, Mallory Lee, has made a number of pleasing shorts in the past, relying on nostalgia to effect happy endings. In particular, ‘A Gift’ was delightful little film, and no doubt a nice walk down memory lane for those who attend public schools in Malaysia. The second thing that’s pleasant about this film is how it is actually not all that pleasant; without giving away the ending, the bigger picture at the end is not as happy is it has been for a number of his previous films.

Though this is clearly a divergent in his filmography, I like how his mixing things up keeps us on our toes. In terms of his style, Mallory makes the prop work for him well; a relatively minimal set up in the beginning of chapter two utilises a mirror, adding way more depth than I had initially expected. The film also has a bigger feel to it; while ‘Desakan Dewasa’ and ‘After Tango’ are very personal, the brief interactions with other characters outside of his family hammers home the more macro societal pressure one feels in this same, tight economic context. Speaking of which, the film’s subject matter made me literally double check whether the theme for the 2017 competition is indeed ‘vision’, instead of ‘not enough money’.

Something that is a little more left field is ‘Livornia’. Directed by Muhammad Zainadi Zainudin, it tells what must have been a fairly scary concept: that of the boyfriend meeting his girlfriend’s father, and to ask for her hand in marriage, to boot. Brayan (Khareef Daniel) is doing exactly that. Portrayed by Hasnul Rahmat, Livornia’s father evokes a somewhat sinister feel to proceedings. What’s interesting about this film is not just how it doesn’t really push the same issues as the films above (although Livornia’s accent hints at a family comfortable in comfortable surroundings). Rather, it is what appears to be an update more the more superstitious backgrounds from which many Malaysians hail. “It’s not nice to have broken mirrors in the house, otherwise the bride will lose her charm” says the father to a repairman, who is removing that very item as Brayan and Livornia’s father is having this conversation.

In Bahasa Malaysia, the latter part of that original line could be read in two different ways. “Nanti hilang seri pengantin” denotes how the bride may indeed lose her charm, but for some reason, I’m now watching the film again and seeing how it can also be understood as how the bride will lose that which makes her happy. This film can also be seen as a clash between the modern (Brayan and Livornia [Livonia Ricky] themselves appear to be a very contemporary couple, in terms of race and cultural capital) and tradition (Brayan is practically forced to eat some betel leaves, seen largely as a relic of yesteryears). Aside from the lead actor’s popularity in cornering the ‘white guy who can speak Malay’ market, I am also reminded of how my grandmother would often make similar statements about broken plates (“Nanti kahwin lambat”), which, in spite of the message, is pleasant to be reminded of all the same.

‘Never Was The Shade’ steps back into the major theme(s) of Malaysian shorts cinema; is it too much to say that it’s not an independent Malaysian short film if it doesn’t deal with race or religion? Lim Kean Hian deals with both, taking a double-barrel approach to the issues at hand. Arif (Pablo Amirul) and John (Steve Yap) are at the hospital, preparing for the burial of their father (James Quah), a Chinese man who had converted into Islam. You can therefore imagine how this becomes an issue, as the clash between race and religion comes into play. John is very keen for their father’s burial to be slightly delayed, allowing for his sister to be back in time from overseas and attend the funeral. Arif, on the other hand, is not willing to diverge too much from accepted Islamic conventions, in which the corpse must be buried as soon as possible.

This is a common echo for those who follow enough of Malaysian news. This film deals with that issue heads on, without pulling any punches. While I appreciate that, perhaps a more indirect (read: artistic) approach would have gone a lot further; I feel that simply beating people over the head about this doesn’t change people’s minds. Then again, it is a thorny issue, and perhaps few methods are more effective than smacking our face with the durian spikes. What I do agree with is how Kean Hian (below) understand and therefore manipulate his (Malaysian) audience. Slowly but surely, he puts the elements in place, before revealing the main characters and their relations to one another. I was misled, but that is more a reflection of my own biases. It is these biases that the director is aware of, and for once, I am happy to be putty in the hands of others.

Read the second part of this feature here, and check out all the finalists and winners from the 2017 BMW Shorties here. We took a closer look at the 2015 edition here and here, and interviewed previous BMW Shorties filmmakers Aw See Wee, Edmund Yeo, Karthik Shamalan and Mugunthan Loganathan

Featured image credit: UNICAF

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