Indie Pendants – HACTION! Short Films 2017 (part 1)

Like a hurricane, Fikri Jermadi breezes through the short films of the 2017 HACTION! competition, and finds plenty of food for thought.

Alright, let’s get to it, then. This has been in the back burner for a while, and its now time to fire up that generator. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re taking a closer look at the films selected as the finalists for the HACTION! short film competition held for Malaysia’s Independence Day celebrations last year. Organised by the YouTube channel HATCH and Panasonic, there’s much we can unpack here, and I think they’re worthy of a look. It has to be borne in mind that these films were created for a competition, with a RM4,000 production budget to be used in discussing themes of unity, peace and harmony. They were to be shot on a Panasonic camera, all targeting the ultimate RM8,000 cash prize (amongst others), and these are all important factors to be borne in mind.

First up is ‘Unsunk Heroes’ by Zul Luey. I’ve not heard of that name before, which indicates the wide range of short films being produced even in the shorts cinema of Malaysia. In fact, the only name I recognise is Tina Yusof’s, credited as a voice in the film. She made ‘Potong’, a sort-of coming-of-age story a number of years ago, which made its rounds in a few screenings and festivals. Cutting to the action, then, the film appears to work with a little chaos and confusion. The beginning was more than a little confusing, as we follow the actions of a group that appears to mimic much of appearance of Anonymous, that group of Internet hacking activists. Certainly, there appears to be much of that Robin Hood-like actions, as our (anonymous) protagonists put forth the idea of random kindness. The film starts with the apprehension of a member of this group by the authorities, before a series of flashbacks reveal how much of the so-called confusion and chaos sown by them are actually forms of altruism, ranging from deliberately overpaying a street seller of her goods (which I call it ‘tipping’ in real life) to providing water for random (migrant) workers.

I’m actually a big fan of such acts themselves, though the approach taken here is very much ‘on-the-nose’, one which I see as little different to much of the religious hardline approach in Malaysia itself. In that regard, it is a little to preachy for my liking, even if such a style is not uncommon in the country. I can still recall many a session of my students pitching what essentially amounted to the same stories and ideas over and over again, proselytising a) without knowing that they’re doing it, and b) without realising that they wouldn’t like it if others do it unto to them. ‘Unsunk Heroes’, then, is a story of what you should do unto others, but the method of storytelling is probably not what I would choose for myself. The music also creates a sense of suspense that is probably not quite in step with the film as a whole. It seems more at home in an episode of ’24’ rather than a short film about kindness. It’s a hammer approach when a subtler pinprick may be more successful in inducing the anagnorisis Zul and his team may be looking for.

A similar approach can be seen in ‘MerdekaKu’ by Aliff Zulkifli. There’s a clearer narrative at play here, as we are introduced in the beginning to two characters, Raymond (Jaemy Choong) and Anuar (Fri Till Dea, or Mohd Anuar Mustapha). Raymond is a Malaysian-Chinese (or Chinese Malaysian, or just a Malaysian if you will), while Anuar (also just another Malay[sian]) was seen photocopying forms of tender for his cousin. Is it just me, or is that a representation of cronyism? Whatever my cynicism may be, both characters talk about how they will spend the Independence Day that is Hari Merdeka. The example of Yasmin Ahmad’s seminal adverts, celebrating all that is good and positive about Malaysia, was brought up. Such adverts basically kickstarted the genre of for-profit companies using short films as adverts not just for national holidays, but also as a form of social (re)branding. The shift in technical tone and quality to mimic this in the film was cleverly done, which indicates a team and director who has a strong idea of what they want to achieve and how to get it. The first time they did it, it certainly got a laugh out of me, as I did not expect it. Going further, the film relies extensively on the usage of green (or blue) screens, playing around with the (dis)placement of these characters in different situations.

For instance, Raymond and Anuar would traverse through some of the major events in Malaysian history, including Tunku Abdul Rahman’s proclamation of independence way back in 1957. We also see other invocations of the imagined community, such as the Thomas Cup final in 1992 and the setting of a kopitiam shop being used. As a whole, the film actually works fairly well, as there is a more central narrative that kept me more interested a lot longer. Perhaps my only issue is how there is a sense of this being a public service announcement by our beloved government; though that is not necessarily a bad idea in and of itself, I am always more interested in having a greater variety of interpretations being presented beyond the mainstream hegemonic ideals (using the same mainstream hegemonic storytelling tools). Similar to ‘Unsunk Heroes’, then, I feel that a less obvious approach may well be more successful. Then again, it may be more useful for me to actually adopt a different perspective; this short film plays a lot better as a YouTube video, rather than a narrative short I had thought it would be.

I feel that much of the same could be said for Wong Sai Meng’s ‘Pride’. No, I’m not commenting on his sense of self-esteem. Rather, this focus is on his multi-character short film, strung together by an authoritative voiceover discussing the issue of pride. “When did you last feel proud of yourself? Was it an achievement? Was it a round of applause?” It appears to be a bold approach. If the previous films present a more superficial idea of what nationhood is, this one takes another tack, tackling the more invisible factors that connect all of us. We see a number of personalities on screen: a musician being well-received by his audience, a barista whose customer delights in her coffee, a young man providing a stray cat with water to drink. In that regard, ‘Pride’ is something of a mishmash between the two films I’ve written about above. Once again, there is an emphasis on random acts of kindness, which highlights a key theme of the competition. I must again remind you, dear reader, that I am not averse to this, but rightly or wrongly, the film evokes the feel of a public service announcement, YouTube video and Digi advert all rolled into one. I don’t think that is particularly intentional, and neither do I mean it in a derogatory sense.

In fact, the film has a lot of good things going for it. For one, the voiceover factor is not overbearing. I find it intriguing not only how soothing and calming the the voice actually is, but also the clear Malaysian inflection in the pronunciation of certain words. Whenever I see a film featuring characters who appear to be of a middle class background, there is that sense of aiming to speak English the way Westerners would. Language is a fluid and dynamic entity (if we can even call it that). The different flavours found all over the world, as reflected through the (mis)pronunciation of words, for instance, helps to make it more varied and interesting. Perhaps that is also a part of the reason why the voiceover is no hindrance to me connecting to the story, and Sai Meng’s direction of the voice should be applauded for this. Additionally, this short film (or video) is actually very technically competent; the previous two weren’t necessarily bad per se, but there’s a keen awareness of visual aesthetics that pops out in ‘Pride’. You can see that they really care for how the colours of one scene would look, and how they would complement subsequent scenes, creating in a visual sense that same unity the film (or video) is banging on about. For that, the cinematographer (Aidil Razali) and colourist (MK) must take much of the credit.

You can read part two of our thoughts here. To watch all the films, visit the YouTube page of the competition.

Featured image credit: Ini Blog Dr Singa

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