Quality Street – The Short Films of SeaShorts 2019 (part 2)

Adi Iskandar goes through some quality short films that makes him feel hopeful for the future of Southeast Asian cinema.

‘Masa’ by Aznniel Yunos is not an easy cookie to crack. It tells the story of a man, Hafiz (Fecks Ali), who has the ability to stop time, and rewind to replay certain events. It sounds very much like a science fiction film, and to my mind, it is. Often, there is a desire to associate flash and opulent production designs with such a genre. Yet there can be a failure to recognise how this is a category in which the inexplicable juxtaposition (science and fiction put together) can result in deeper considerations about our own lives without having to displace us from verisimilitudes we’re familiar with.

Additionally, what helps to set ‘Masa’ further apart from its competition is the intersection with religious ideals. I must admit that while it is not the main thing, its presence in the background makes it more unique than most. Hafiz speaks about moving through the timeline, but not to change their destination that is fate. This harks to a classic line often espoused by people of faith (myself included): “Kita merancang, Dia menentukan.” We plan, God decides. Thus, even as Aznniel pushes the envelope that bit further, it stays firmly within a safe playground.

That is not to say that the film does not play around. In terms of content, I can appreciate the film’s rumination on life itself, asking questions that we dally with once in a while. It makes me think that our director here is something of a thinking man himself. What I love most about the film is how I could not quite predict the narrative turns of the story. Yes, some elements could be seen telegraphed a mile away, but the pathway to the destination mentioned above is not quite so expected. The shifts of levels in the film’s diegesis, for instance, disorients me; I thought I was watching a film within a film, before it is revealed to be the opposite. If Aznniel is a footballer, he would be like the Brazilian Ronaldo, always taking his shot a moment sooner than anticipated.

‘Sons of April’ works with that same expectation in a very different way. Set in the mid-1970s, it tells the story of two medical practitioners. The older doctor of the two (Kompheak Phoeung), is a man more willing to toe the party line. His younger compatriot (Sobon Nuon) is a little more hotheaded, but understandably so. Tasked with sustaining life in a Khmer Rouge camp, they were told to keep alive a person they found most disagreeable. This is a part of the film’s core, asking its audience what they would do in that conflict between a commitment to life or death.

If ‘Masa’ proved to be unexpected and difficult to predict, making me ask how we got here, ‘Sons of April’ made me ask what will happen next. This can be attributed to the set and costume design by Chanry Krauch. Quite frankly, I did not expect this to be a film so well-designed. From top to bottom, even down to the sweat on the actors’ faces, it feels so complete and immersive that it felt more like a selection of scenes from a feature film. It is ostensibly a short, but in truth, I feel that the director, Robin Veret, can also use this as a feature film audition. “This is what I make on this amount of money,” he could say. “Imagine what I can tell with more.”

Which is not to say that he has not done enough. What Robin (a French filmmaker with a background in the video game industry) has done here is not to capitalise upon the misery of Cambodia’s brutal history. Rather, the focus is on the human condition, zeroing in on the conflict that lies within: the desire to save the lives of others against the wish to survive at all costs. Both sides of the fence carry a heavy price on the heart, and Robin’s directing is respectful of this. His camera does not rest on the physical suffering of the victim, but upon the pain reflected on the faces of those who cause it, their reactions telling us everything we don’t want to know (but do). In one sequence, this is so effective that it underscored, italicised and bolded that which we may not know, but need to.

Thank goodness that the next film is ‘February Wind’. If that title sounds like a wishy washy Korean drama, that’s probably because a part of it seems to be inspired by it. I was quite taken by the film’s clean aesthetics and technical quality, but by the film’s end, I realised that it was as much an advert for Soyo, which sounded like a product. Further research revealed it to be a Cambodian online streaming platform, which gladdened my heart more than a little bit. Though it does not detract from the actual experience of the film, I do not like watching a short film only to have it revealed to me as an extended advert.

The story focused on the eternal topic of long-distance relationships, told through the eyes of a coffee shop worker (Sai), whose girlfriend (Marie Thach) is off studying in another country (Japan, perhaps). The trials and tribulations of this up and down relationship is shared with Sai’s female co-worker (Jimi), though their colleague (Prum Bandiddh) also eavesdrop, dropping in randomly like Silent Bob for comedic effect. For the most part, it didn’t really float my boat, although there was one time when it did, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

Directed by Mony Kann Darung, it’s actually a very nice film, the tonic needed after the heartwrencher that is ‘Sons of April’. It reminded me of some of the short films I watched at the Chaktomuk Short Film Festival in 2014, some of which were incredibly funny and heartwarming. It plays out like a sickly sweet romantic short film, one which the Wong Fu Productions boys would have specialised in earlier in their career. I particularly liked the interplay between reality and fantasy; during their phone conversations, Sai and Marie would actually appear on screen in the same scene, talking face to face. Of course, that wasn’t actually taking place, but it does evoke that sense of the closeness, deleting a rapidly disappearing distance with intimacy.

Speaking of distance, ‘Aliens Ata’ is one which goes to great heights to discuss that issue. By that, I mean that this is a short film that is shot entirely using a drone. Forget your medium shots and close-ups, because this film presents its narratively only through the birds-eye view. Positioned a top a group of people, we follow the story of two young boys, Ralph (William Buenavente) and RJ (Alexus Gelacio). They are in the fields, taking bike riding lessons from their father (Bernard Carritero), when he suddenly passes away. Later in the film, their mother (Diana Alferez) returns, helping to fill the void in the life, at least momentarily.

In spite of the bright-coloured aesthetics, this film is actually quite a serious one. What quickly becomes clear is that the mother is a migrant worker in Singapore, and so have had to spend plenty of time away from her children back home in the Philippines. What the film does is to humanise that which is real, but often dismissed to the margins in mainstream media. More to the point, it does so in a way that is very palatable to major audiences. In his review of ‘Rise to Power’, Fikri Jermadi briefly mentioned how the films of Southeast Asia have often been popularised by outsiders based on images of poverty. Often, the story of the poor is allied with a gritty aesthetic deemed necessary to make it ‘real’.

Here, ‘Aliens Ata’ divorces both notions, and the director, Glenn Barit, chooses instead to take a more surrealist approach. By this, I mean that the decision to stick only with drone shots position us, the viewer, as a kind of god. In a sense, as a film audience, we are, observing all sorts of cinematic shenanigans from a fairly privileged and omnipresent view. I must admit that there are moments when it’s a little on the nose (“It feels like someone is looking at us”); I half-expected the other boy to go all French New Wave and point at us. Nevertheless, the film is delightful, and one in which I feel most tempted to rip off in terms of style.

You can read part one here, while part three will be posted soon. 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: Bruno Girin / Wikipedia 

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