To the Sea, The Rivers Run – Southeast Asian Short Films of Locarno 2020 (part 1)

Having covered the Malaysian selection, Fikri Jermadi turns his attention to other films showcased from the region.

Though some time has passed since their screening at the Locarno Film Festival, these notes and memories are still relatively sharp for me to commit some words with regards to selected films from Southeast Asia. After all, having done so for the Malaysian ones, it would be interesting to see what our brothers and sisters from the region are up to.

Some caveats remain. The focus here is on short films, split into the International Competition and Open Doors sections of the festival. I could not get a ticket for ‘The Unseen River’, a part of the ‘Mekong 2030’ anthology (to be covered elsewhere). I did get one for ‘An Act of Affection’, a Portuguese-Vietnamese co-production by Viet Vu, but it had little impact for me to write home about.

What was more effective is ‘Aninsri Daeng (Red Aninsri; Or, Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall)’. Directed by Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke, such titles often denote one of two things: either an ultra-serious melancholic musing on the meaning of life (see the independent films of Woo Ming-jin), or a more comedic film that pushes boundaries. I’m happy to note it’s more of the latter, contrasting wonderfully to other films seen at the festival.

Apparently, the standards it challenges are conventions of Thai cinema during the Cold War, when performers on screen would have their voices dubbed. The additional dialogue recording would often emphasise the moral nature of these characters; a hero would sound a little more heroic and masculine, while the bad guy would have his villainy enhanced just that bit more.

It also explores a more comedic application of Judith Butler’s theory of gender performance. Our protagonist is Ang (Sarut Komalittipong), a feminine transgender sex worker tasked with honey trapping the idealistic student activist Jit (Atikhun Adulpocatorn). In going undercover, Ang is disguised as a cisgender (read: ‘normal’ heterosexual) man, whose manly voice (by Gandhi Wasuvitchayagit) is a comedic counterpart to Ang’s normal, more feminine voice (by Ornanong Thaisriwong, who also plays the boss).

The concept sounds ridiculous, but it is also not entirely unfamiliar. I think here of ‘Doraemon’, the wildly popular Japanese cartoon which owes its success to localisation efforts, where the characters are dubbed into local dialects. Even with that in mind, I have no doubt that the sound team, led by Sorayos Prapapan (more on him later), was kept very busy indeed.

What is less familiar is the film’s brazenness. It’s exemplified through the warning from Ang’s boss that they are watching him/her at all times: “We can get into your vagina if we want.” “Maybe you forget I’m a ladyboy,” came the rapid response, “I don’t have a vagina.” It’s absolutely hilarious, and showcases the tone you can expect from the rest of the movie.

Cut through that comedic clutter, though, and you’ll find more critical readings to be made. For instance, Jit’s role as a student activist could be connected to Thai social activism, often led by university students themselves. The use of the French national anthem as a ringtone is also smart, harking back to a scene in ‘Casablanca’ where its singing is seen as a powerful moment of emancipation against political oppression.

All these elements lead to one question Ratchapoom is asking of us: how can you have your own thoughts if you do not have your own voice? Somewhat predictably, the plan comes loose when Ang falls for Jit, but that familiarity is dealt with in a fantastic way, making ‘Aninsri Daeng’ a unique experience running against the grain both in terms of style and substance.

Hailing from the more serious side of the spectrum is ‘Here, Here’ by Joanne Cesario. We follow Koi (Kael Vilar), a university graduate returning home for the first time in a while. His hometown is something of a mining town, connecting to the director’s own hometown in the Batangas region, where minerals such as gold are extracted by foreign entities. Somewhat predictably, these are not welcomed with open arms, so the film represents an attempt by Joanne to interact with elements of her own past and present.

At home, he meets his mother, Tonet (Carla Zarcal), awaiting the return of his father after an accident in an extraction tunnel. Not knowing whether he is alive or not makes this period a void in which we ruminate on the environment through long shots that look longingly upon a landscape threatened by commercial and capitalistic endeavours. Joining him in that wait is his friend (Irish Yes Layas).

The father’s absence is made present in a variety of ways. For instance, Tonet often sets the table for the father, even though we do not know of his fate. On a deeper level, Koi also has problems with his hearing; with the eardrums also affecting our balance, I connect this absence of one parent to the discombobulation of his world. This can also link to the title, with the homophones of ‘here’ and ‘hear’ connoting this interpretation.

More explicitly, the characters and the landscape are also inextricably connected. For instance, his friend’s disfigured skin serve not only as a reflection of the impact of environmental degradation, but also as a metaphor for the damage done to nature, ravaged as both are by permanently harmful things.

Additionally, there is a scene near a cave, where its deeper exploration could perhaps signify as well an attempt to get deeper into our characters’ subconscious. What might we find there? Perhaps a bit of the Oedipus complex; as the wait grows longer, Koi grows closer to Tonet. Maybe I am reading too much into what might not be there, but therein lies a formula to understanding the film: that which we do not see on screen (e.g. the father) affects much of that which we do (e.g. the family, the environment, etc.).

All this is aided by a fine set of filmmaking aesthetics, such as the editing by Celina Donato. There are some bits with quick cuts in between, yet their inclusion felt like a natural addition to the narrative flow. The use of a side angle for Koi in certain shots is also clever, suggesting how things which are straightforward for him may be weird for others.

Coming back to a more conventional route, we cut across to Vietnam for ‘A Trip to Heaven’. Directed by Linh Duong, this is the story of Tam (Vu Thi Chung), a 50 year-old going on a bus tour to the Mekong Delta with her friend. While on the trip, she bumps into her boyfriend from high school. Her friend’s remark sets the tone for the film: “Your dead husband must be so proud to have such a rival!”

This comedic touch is also hinted at in the beginning, as both of them, waiting for the coach, compares aspects of their own lives; such comparisons, almost ubiquitous in the Malaysian setting, can also be seen in Samantha Tan’s ‘Ally Chia’. To that end, I appreciate not only the universality of the concept itself, but also how it was captured on screen, with a particularly long take made to seem as natural as the air we breathe.

Less common is the sight of such young-at-heart quinquagenarians. There is a vivacious element to their trip, especially with Tam’s attempts to attract her former sweetheart. There are other characters along for the ride (including a young couple, some students and even a foreign backpacker) who do pop up with their own idiosyncrasies once in a while, but the focus is very much on the golden citizens of the group.

Central to the film is a stairway purporting to lead to heaven. As people line up to take pictures with and of it, I am reminded of how photography first affected people. When the technology was initially introduced, many of the subjects believed, when they see themselves in the picture, that photography takes away their very soul (how can you be in two places at once?).

A clue lies in the director’s statement, as Linh herself wanted to note how a trip to arguably Vietnam’s most popular tourist destination has “uncanny resemblances” to what locals believe would happen to their souls after they pass away: “Along a muddy river where the souls sail through, around a temple fire where souls are cleansed of their life’s memories, ending it all with a stairway guiding souls towards, perhaps, eternity.”

Read parts two and three, while part three will be published soon. Read our thoughts on the Malaysian short films at Locarno here, while we also covered the Open Doors Roundtable session here and here.

Featured image credit: Centre A / Indiegogo

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