Of Two Halves – The Road to God

Adi Iskandar considers the spiritual cacophony that is Jef Samaroon’s ‘The Road to God’.

In football parlance, the term ‘game of two halves’ often carries with it both positive and negative connotations. It considers, for instance, how a team would have performed well in the first 45 minutes, only to capitulate in the second. Vice versa, it could also showcase how a shambolic first half could be reversed into a more positive crescendo. Arguably the most famous quote in this context is attributed to Sven Goran Eriksson, the Swede opining succinctly about his England team at the time: “First half good, second half not so good.”

Though this is related to my assessment of Jef Samaroon’s ‘The Road to God’, I also want to expand beyond that, which requires a setting of the context. A lot of short films I have seen take a more singular approach in the telling of its story. There is a greater degree of consistency in terms of the method of communication. For example, we noted how the approach employed by Chan Teik Quan echoes much of the mumblecore movement that permeated the American independent film landscape in the 2000s, in which many of the major characters do little more than talk and talk and talk. This can be contrasted to more silent methods, where the focus is more on the visual as a conduit of meaning making, relegating dialogue to the background.

Those two halves can be found in ‘The Road to God’. The film tells the story of three siblings: Loga (Jaiyanthara Naidu a/l Rave Chandran), Bieber (Logavinayagam a/l Ayan) and Kajol (Renuka a/p Vasudevan). We start in the morning, with them already being late for a particular event. The opening scene sees them rushing to leave the house, as Loga cajoles them on their way. It soon became clear that they are on their way to sprinkle their late father’s ash in a holy place. In doing so, they are required to overcome certain obstacles.

A big part of that can be found within them. All three siblings appear to have a more antagonistic relationship with one another, each blaming the other for their father’s death. Indeed, Bieber and Kajol appear to try to top the other in terms of how much they love their father. Once again, it is Loga that is left to keep the peace, telling them how they now have no one but themselves: “We already lost our parents. We should stay together, always.” The rest of the film is a test of the strength of that bond, as they try to overcome obstacles in trying to get to their destination.

‘The Road to God’ is not a particularly new one, with IMDB listing it as a 2016 film. However, I first became aware of it when it was first shortlisted, then disqualified, for the BMW Shorties short film competition in 2017. For a number of different reasons, there is a history of such short films being selected and then removed from the running, and in that regard, it follows in the footsteps of Aliff Ihsan Rahman’s ‘Dermaga’ through that exit door. Ironically, that has also helped to make it that bit more memorable for me; Jef Samaroon is a relatively prolific filmmaker in his own right, but this is the one film of his that jumps to mind if I think of him.

It is not without good reason, though. In terms of the story, it is one that I might have been tempted to work with myself, packing in a lot of narrative elements into a singularly-ordered chronological space. Others might have opted for flashbacks, either aural or visual, but I am quite pleased that Jef decided to maintain this ordering of the temporal sequence. Credit must also go to Jaiyanthara Naidu, who, in addition to acting as Loga, is also involved in the film’s production and costume design, the script writing and supervision, and being the film’s second assistant director. Given the depth of that involvement, I am guessing that this is something inspired, at least in part, by his own experience.

Bringing this back to somewhere near the start of this review, the first half of ‘The Road to God’ featured the siblings speaking almost incessantly, arguing almost annoyingly on what must have been a very important day. I must admit that there are parts where I was nearly lost, not in the sense that I could not follow the story, but more towards how I was beginning to be quite frustrated by them. Like I said, this appeared to be a very important occasion in all their lives, yet they appeared to prefer immature discourse over treating this with the seriousness it deserves.

That bickering, however, soon makes way to a more contemplative silence as the narrative enters the final third of this 13-minute piece. We are treated to longer shots of the characters, camera rests on each character, closing in on their emotions as they are engulfed with melancholy. This satisfaction, for me, is a stark contrast from the earlier, noisier half of the journey. Perhaps in that regard, that prologue is the necessary journey one must undertake to make the film more worthwhile.

That’s not to say that all is well. Indeed, there remains much in terms of the technical aspect that, given another shot, Jef would probably have loved to do again. The inconsistency of sound recording quality, for instance, from one shot to another, shifting between the inside and outside of the car, draws a little too much attention to itself. The quality of the image could also have been improved for a similar reason; the film utilised a number of drone shots (operated by Zamhari Abol Hassan), whose sharp focus and vivid colours made the ‘normal’ shots seem worse in comparison.

Nevertheless, those are the nitty gritty that does not necessarily get in my way of ‘The Road to God’ and its story. I appreciate the attempt and relative success achieved by Jef and his team. For instance, the film gives a relatively equal amount of screen time to all its major characters. I myself would have often focused on one singular character. However, this film’s multiplicity of the three eventually leads to a more united singularity, in which the differences melt way and bigger picture objective is made more clear, vivid and realised. This film of two halves eventually blend into a more satisfying whole. I wonder whether Jef intends to consider not only a micro story of three siblings honouring their late father, but also a more macro spiritual narrative of the nation that is Malaysia.

Or not. But does it matter? After all, to the sea, the rivers run.

Click here to watch the film. Jef is currently crowdfunding on his next effort, ‘Story Behind the Wall’. Click on to find out how you can support his film, and discover more of his works through Facebook, Vimeo and YouTube

Featured image credit: Pixnio

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