Pick and Mix – The Short Films of SeaShorts 2019 (part 1)

Adi Iskandar looks at some of the offerings from this years’ SeaShorts Film Festival.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is that time of the year again when Malaysia independent cinema is having a bit of a gold rush in terms of cinematic offerings and events. In addition to the likes of ‘Shadowplay’ and ‘Motif’ making themselves known in cinemas, events such as the Freedom Film Fest and the SeaShorts festival are also abound. For now, let’s take a closer look at some of the short films at the latter.

First up is ‘Please don’t tell me how to be perfect’ by Sophie Vonkhamsao. It works more as an experimental dance piece, even if there is a clear-enough narrative in the mix here. We see a girl, often mocked for being overweight, dancing as a way of asserting her power and emancipation. Clips of her doing this is juxtaposed with scenes in a school, where she is often mocked for not being as thin as others.

I must admit that the film is a little rough around the edges, and feels more like someone’s homework, as opposed to a tip-top accomplished short film. It was actually made for the 2016 Vientianale International Film Festival, where it was placed third in the short film competition. My main issue is with the editing; it is perhaps a little too quick, with each cut lasting little more than a second in parts. Such techniques are often employed as a way of hiding the fact that not much is going on, and Sophie’s choice in editing here doesn’t do the dancer on screen much justice.

Nevertheless, I can appreciate the sentiment and spirit behind the film. It is not easy to step up and truly open your heart on issues like this in the context of filmmaking. Furthermore, the current furore sparked by Bill Maher’s comments about fat shaming has meant that such body positive discussions are being held, making this film a little more relevant than it would have been otherwise.

We move from Laos to Brunei with ‘A Letter From France’ by Hanifi Juffri. The film is largely powered by the voiceover narration of the protagonist, traversing through the plains of Brunei in discussing how much he had enjoyed his time there. The lovely lemon in the drink here is that the language is French. I’m not necessarily of the ‘everything sounds cool in French’ brigade, but I am intrigued by its employment here, as it is not a common combination. Visually, Brunei is relatively similar to Malaysia, so I can get on board with that. Yet to have such images overlaid by French words is a unique experience for me.

What is less so is the sense that the film works as much as a tourism video as it is a narrative one. Having come in to this film expecting a particular story (even if it is an experimental one), to be given something else feels a little more disappointing than it would have been otherwise. Yes, there is much to be happy about with Brunei, and, putting all sorts of political discussions aside, I am certain it would be a lovely place to visit, with much to discover and all that.

Having said that, I did come into this expecting a short film with an emphasis on narrative. Instead, what I get is a lot more descriptive, with little by way of a story going on. There is a story, yes (or at least an idea of one), and the shots are quite beautiful in parts, but it does not do justice to the supposed film this text has been promoted as. A realignment of expectations here (on my part, but also on the part of the filmmakers) would do wonders.

Having said that, at least on the surface, that film made more sense than ‘First Taste’. Directed by Nguyen Duy Anh, it takes on a more experimental approach, one which borders on the psychedelic at times. After a while, I could recalibrate myself and make out the story embedded within, a narrative focusing on forbidden liaisons between a teacher and his student.

It certainly does look wonderful. I loved the colours, and I enjoyed the clash between classic Americana (primarily signified through the soundtrack) and what may well have been symbols of the Vietnamese high school experience. It could also be argued that this may well be better enjoyed if one is slightly high. There is a filmmaker who recently told me that his film is better understood as such, but lest this be seen as a clarion call for people to get drunk, I would hastily point out that you don’t need such intoxicants to make head and tails of ‘First Taste’.

This is because some of them are fairly obvious. In particularly, I was quite tickled by the usage of biscuit sticks as a stand in for cigarettes. As a child, I myself had pretended to do the same, eating the rolled chocolate wafer sticks as if I am smoking a cigarette. Here, contextualised in a more experimental film playing around with ideas of innocence, it takes on a more salacious meaning. If you still don’t get it, Nguyen levels up by inserting the headphone jack into the cigarette, a phallicception if ever there was one. Somewhere in Malaysia, Z. Lokman is standing up and clapping his hands.

I don’t think he would do the same for ‘Mr. Rook’. Hailing from Brunei, the film is directed by Drablo Max, who employs a non-linear narrative structure. It tells the story of a mental institute patient (Md Bubba), whose wife (Lynn Amal) had gone missing, and he finds himself being implicated in her disappearance. Playing out in the context of an interview, the telling of the story is quite non-linear (at least, I had thought so), with a great reliance on scenes to denote the past.

‘Mr. Rook’ comes at us as a straight up narrative film with not much that is particularly straight about it. As I watch it, I start to get a feel for what is going on, and begin to settle down. Yet, just as I clamber on to that platform of comprehension, the rug is pulled out from beneath me, causing me to stumble, fall down and start from square one. We get to near the end, and I am about to feel that sense of completion, before the film’s falling action hoodwinks me into something else. I have an idea that Drablo is keen to impart a sense of instability to the film’s audience. To that end, he has succeeded.

Yet in the midst of that confusion, I still find it difficult to define the film. Is it about redemption? Are we also seeing an element of flash-forward at play here? Wishful thinking? The afterlife, even? I suppose there’s nothing wrong in playing around with such levels of diegesis, but this works well if things are properly signposted. It is an ambitious film made by Drablo (look at the credit list!) and friends, and Md Bubba has a very intriguing look, but the execution of ideas left me feeling disjointed from being pulled in different directions.

Thankfully, it’s a little more settled when it comes to ‘Llop Mougn’. Directed by Oktivani Anggia Rachmalita, it is an academic project of a film, made by Oktivani for her studies at Institut Seni Indonesia in Yogyakarta. Coming in under a brisk five minutes, it brings us back to the experimental realm Nguyen introduced to us earlier, and tells the story of an Indonesian girl going through an important stage in her life. She does this by confronting a myth in her culture, in which a bite on the bellybutton from a dragonfly will stop bedwetting.

That information came right at the end of the film, appearing on screen as a quote. I’d wager that placing it right at the start (as Nash Edgerton did for ‘Spider’) would help in reorienting the audience; if they better understand the context, they can better understand the text. It is not a particularly important point, mind you, and perhaps I am not a part of the film’s target audience, for without that cultural capital, I remained interested until the end.

It is without dialogue, so you can make all sorts of your own meaning. The animation techniques are relatively simple, but it is a great fit for the subject matter at hand, dealing with a loss of an innocence in a very different way. There is also a scene of her diving into a swimming pool; whenever I see a body of water in a short film, I’m thinking rebirth or transition. Again, and like the dragonfly, perhaps my lack of knowledge of the local context comes back to bite me here, but it does at least hint at Oktivani being a thinking filmmaker.

You can read part two here and part three here. We previously looked at films from the 2017 edition here and here, and interviewed Muzzamer Rahman and Bebbra Charles Mailin, whose films were selected for the 2018 edition. Additionally, we also interviewed the festival manager for the 2017 edition, Sheryl Chong.

Featured image credit: The Little Sweet Co.

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