Of Caves, Cafes and Culture – FROM:

Adi Iskandar takes a deep dive into the short film that is ‘FROM:’ by Lim Yee Teng and Mathieu Castel.

‘FROM:’ is a short film directed by Lim Yee Teng and Mathieu Castel. It featured Nicole (Adrienne Chong) as its protagonist, someone who has returned to Malaysia from the United States after a long time away. She receives a package from a friend, addressed to her using her Chinese name of Shee Yan. “No one has called me Shee Yan in a long time,” she remarked to her friend (Chiu Hui Jian).

I must admit to not knowing at all about the film, prior to the news that it would be screened by Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia. Thus, I went in ‘blind’, knowing very little about the story or any of the people involved in its creation (with the exception of Sonia Randhawa, whom I recall as a lecturer in Monash Malaysia many, many moons ago).

What I discover, then, is a film that, at its core, is a deep exploration of a character’s psyche, and the connection that has to their roots. The film’s story, which proceeds in a contemporary setting, is also interspersed with Nicole making her way out of a cave. This suggests someone who is more than a little lost, trying to discover a route to the light at the top. Along the way, she meets an older version of herself (played by the film’s co-director, Mathieu Castel). It is perhaps a little confusing to begin with, given that there is not only a gender difference between the two versions of Nicole, but also a racial and ethnic one (Adrienne is Chinese, a stark contrast with the Caucasian-looking Mathieu).

Yet even this may not necessarily be a negative, per se. There is a scene in which both the contemporary and older Nicole would encounter her younger self. The older Nicole would query why she is not the same as before: “Why change? Is it because of me or something?” This is quite a striking statement to make. Of course, change is a natural order of things, the one constant the runs through to the end. However, it’s difficult to look at such a statement, coming from a white man and being addressed to a Chinese girl, as being apolitical.

I feel that there are deeper connotations of cultural imperialism or disconnection at play here, one that could be unpacked more through a thorough Q&A session with the filmmakers. I firmly believe that this disconnection is what Yee Teng (also the co-scriptwriter along with Mathieu) is getting at; in yet another scene, the younger version of her (Debbie Hope) somewhat lamented how she received some comics in Chinese, as she is not able to read it: “It’s OK, I’ll just look at the cartoons.”

It could also be seen through the primacy given to her Western/Christian name, Nicole, instead of her Chinese name, Shee Yan. Names are highly political in many respects, especially for those considered to be on the fringes or a part of the minority not just in Malaysia, but also in this region as a whole. At a single stroke, names could almost serve as a shorthand for a person’s political ideology and the direction and frequency of their prayers (and everything else that comes with all that jazz).

Reading ‘FROM:’, a lot of this is conjecture, of course, but I do believe this to be a deliberate and guided effort. There is a lot of room for this to be read differently, particularly given the disparate nature of the narrative. We cut back and forth between the action on the surface (Nicole in the café) and what must have laid beneath it (Nicole in the cave, trying to find her way out). I must admit that this is the film’s strong point, an emphasis on the visual as a way of highlighting the underlying theme. The beach and cave certainly helps, as they are great locations, allowing audience members to imbue the visual with all sorts of meaning. At times, it feels as if some of the shots are included because they look cool (what would this film have looked like in the hands of Mahen Bala?), but it does not particularly detract from the film as a whole.

It’s a pity, though, that the audio does not quite keep pace with the film’s ambitions. There are times where it feels like a more experienced sound designer or mixer could have added subtle layers of meaning, making for a more complete experience; the echoes of young Nicole, for instance, could have been reworked in a more effective manner. As it is, at times it is distracting, and this disconnection can be a little uncomfortable.

Having said that, it’s probably not all that inappropriate, as ‘FROM:’ appears to be all about the disconnect many people feel, a tension existing between what they are and what they (think they) should be. Citizens of nowhere may well find this more relatable than most. I will advise, however, against promoting this film above its station. It is promoted as a selection of the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival, but a little Googling around revealed nothing of the sort. A more careful consideration of how this film is presented is in order, as that would help to rein in expectations to more suitable levels.

This film will be screened as a part of New Malaysian Shorts, organised by Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia, on Saturday 29th June 2019. Click on the link for more details.

Featured image credit: Alexander Stein / Pixabay

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