Age of Inversion – The 2020 Oscars Short Films (part 1)

The first of a two-parter gets Fikri Jermadi animated about Oscar-nominated short films.

It’s that time of the year again, when the Oscars are just about upon us. We’ve not paid that much attention to it more recently, but with the number of short film candidates available online, it would be remiss of us to skip out on what could be an enlightening experience. After all, I nearly suffered did exactly that for ‘Sister’, the film by Siqi Song. It won an award sometime last year, and Hollywood trade The Wrap had made it available for online viewing through their website. I bookmarked the page, thinking I would check it out when more time is at hand. When it did, the film was no longer available, as it was meant as an exclusive, time-limited preview of sorts. It is therefore a pleasant surprise to see it made available again on a number of different platforms.

It tells the story of a man (narrated Bingyang Liu) recalling his childhood experiences of growing up with a sister. The story develops from a familiar starting point, highlighting the sister’s annoying traits more than anything else. These memories, though unpleasant for some at times, provides the bond with which such relationships can last through the ages, a foundation for families to fall back on way into the future. Nonetheless, it doesn’t make it any easier for the boy, whose sister ends up getting the favourable treatment. This intriguing power dynamic is creatively expressed, as evidenced in an early scene in the film, with the baby girl suddenly become big, and playing with her older brother’s toys without permission.

In addition to being a cool creative choice, the shift in size recalls the expression of the elephant in the room. The bigger picture context of the time is China’s one-child policy, in which families who have more than one child is often penalised. This deterrent to an increasing population, when allied with a strong patriarchy, leads to a great preference for boys. It has been identified as a source for major sociological issues in the present, which led to the government reversing said policy a few years ago.

However, Siqi maintains a more personal focus, leaving behind an emotional impact that lingers. I can’t help but be reminded of ‘Mama’, a Malaysian short film directed by Ernest Chong from a number of years ago, which plays around with a similar narrative. What is also helpful is Karen Tanaka’s soundtrack; I don’t know what the Japanese are feeding their composers, but it feels as if Karen is drinking from the same well as Joe Hisaishi and Yuhki Kuramoto.

Keeping with the family theme, ‘Hair Love’ takes off from that same platform. A daughter, keen to style her hair in a particular way, is opposed by her father, who favours a simpler, more practical approach. I should add that they are African-American, layering the hair with all sorts of different meanings. Beyond a physical characteristics requiring its own different treatments and stylings relative to other races and ethnicities, it is also a metaphor for cultural emancipation. The father’s solution (of putting a cap on it) is seen as suppressing that identity, cloaking that which should be celebrated, making this a film that converses with the context and culture in which it is created.

Such primacy for African-American identity makes ‘Hair Love’ is a perfect fit for the age of inversion we live in today. For instance, it may be a minor thing to present the father as the leading figure in the child’s life, yet this is a positive thing for two reasons. The first is that more often than not, it is the mother who is most present in a media child’s life (when was the last time you see a father leading a children’s milk advert?). Coming back to the African-American discussion, the second reason why this is significant is because of the absent father stereotype often perpetuated against that community. While not entirely untrue, this imbalance is one not often dealt with on-screen. With that in mind, I am incredibly happy that this film critically negotiates with that representation.

I also like the connection to the digital side of things. The young girl in the film refers to a YouTuber as a source of her inspiration. Though this is not a particularly new thing, I feel like it is a nevertheless a nod towards the platform as a form for self-emancipation for those (at least initially) on the fringes. Many of those who first took to YouTube like a duck to water are from communities starved of mainstream attention in American (and almost by default, Western/global) media as a whole, with the likes of Wong Fu Production and Lilly Singh allowing those out of favour to find favour through it.

Finally, I enjoy the hand-drawn aesthetics of ‘Hair Love’. In light of the dominance of computer-generated 3D animation, it is pleasant to (re)discover such delights. Perhaps my lexicon of animated films requires some updates, but this reminds me of one of Disney’s last hand-drawn animations, ‘The Princess and the Frog’. It is also one of the few in its library to focus on the same African-American community featured in this film.

We find a similar aesthetic at play in the film ‘Kitbull’, focusing on a love/hate relationship between a cat and a dog. The love and hate can be demarcated exactly along those lines: the cat, a feisty little pocket rocket, hates the dog, while the dog is more than open for friendly company. They live in a yard of what appears to be an abandoned house, though this would prove to not be the case. What helps to separate them are barb wires between their areas, which somehow makes me think of Korea’s demilitarised zone.

I find myself also being intrigued by the aura of things. In particular, the teddy bear inside the cat’s box caught my attention, along with how the cat finds comfort with it. In an episode of the Radiolab podcast not too long ago, Robert Krulwich shares his love for special things, particularly those with historic significance. For him, there is an aura that allows him to be connected with those whose names echo in myths, histories and legends. Though ‘Kitbull’ does not carry that same bombast, the state of neglect the bear is left in hints at a troubled childhood of sorts.

Hint is what this film does best. There is a darkness lurking within; though I am tempted to categorise this as a film safe for family viewing, there remains certain plot points which suggests a shift darker than Seth Rollins’ heel turn. It is never truly explored beyond minor signifiers here and there (at one point, an animal being stuck in a six pack ring recalls humanity’s damaging impact on those around them), but it remains effective enough to make me feel… something. Somewhere along the way, that something might also have been linked to American race relations, leading me to Google the filmmakers.

Surprisingly, the director, Rosana Sullivan, has also written a book called ‘Mommy Sayang’. The latter word is a key term in the Malay language, often used to address a loved one. It has not really travelled all that far beyond its own linguistic borders, so that caught my attention. It turns out that the book was inspired by Rosana’s mother, who hails from Malaysia. Given that our insecurity means quite a lot of Malaysians are generally keen to claim any kind of international success (even if it is of someone who is half or quarter Malaysian or whatever), it would be a missed opportunity to jump on the bandwagon now. So for those desperate for second hand success, get your tickets and hop on board!

Read part two here.

Featured image credit: Incrosnatu Danut

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