Matters of Life and Death – Southeast Asian Short Films of Locarno 2020 (part 2)

The second entry in this three-part series sees Fikri Jermadi taking in three more Southeast Asian films at the 2020 Locarno Film Festival.

“One of my dreams is to organise my own funeral.”

That is a key line in ‘Digital Funeral’, a film by Sorayos Prapapan. His is not an unfamiliar name in this part of town, having also been referenced as the sound designer for ‘Aninsri Daeng’. In fact, in many respects, he is more well-known in that department. Having said that, Sorayos is definitely carving out a fine career as a director himself, exploring narratives rooted in that area.

‘Digital Funeral’, however, is not that. There are experimental elements here, ones that seek to make you question certain things, but this is far removed from, say, ‘Death of the Sound Man’, which puts at its centre a more personal narrative. This may well be that, but it is certainly not as coherent in a conventional sense.

We begin on a rooftop, as a man (Sorayos Prapapan), wearing shorts and a t-shirt, is taking pictures with his cameraphone. As he walks further and further away, the camera begins to fall, almost as if one of its legs is swept away; after all, what is technology without the human element? We are now lying on the ground, as the man, though out of sight, remains fixed in our minds.

We cut to a packed room, messy with things everywhere akin to a student’s accommodation. Many of these are ‘tagged’ with graphics appearing on screen like pictures on Facebook. That caught me off-guard, but it is a pleasant surprise, an element which quickens the turning of wheels in my mind.

There is a computer monitor on the table, playing a Quicktime video of the same footage at the start of the film; as we see Sorayos on that monitor, we don’t see him in the room, his existence predicated solely through mediated forms. Is he perhaps suggesting how social media plays an even bigger role in determining our existence? That we live only if others see us alive?

How does ‘death’, therefore, occur in such a digital world? I am reminded of Charlie Brooker, the creator of ‘Black Mirror’, saying in an interview how he is loath to delete phone numbers of people who have passed on, as deleting the very point of contact we often utilise to converse with them truly feels like a final goodbye.

From such experimental endeavours, it is time to say hello to ‘Kado’. Written and directed by Aditya Ahmad, we follow the story of Isfi (Isfira Febiana). At school, Isfi is accepted as one of the boys, wearing her long pants and shirts. She is best friends with Nita (Anita Aqshary Thamrin), seen as the more conservative of the two.

That comes into the equation here, with Isfi having to change drastically if they were to spend time together at Nita’s house. The clothing is the most obvious element of change, with the hijab is seen as an important piece of clothing for Muslim women. It is ubiquitous in Indonesia, home to the biggest Muslim population in the world.

Representing patriarchy is the literal father figure in the film. Nita’s father, a stern man who abides by his strict understanding of Islamic codes of behaviour, is seen to be less than pleased with Isfi on a number of occasions. In the context of the film, I see him as representing society at large, one that has no issues with publicising private relationships.

Much of this plays not only into Judith Butler’s concept of gender performance through clothing, behaviour and more, but also with Khoo Gaik Cheng’s idea of a protective masculinity. Here, ‘hierarchy’ is constructed to maintain pre-existing power dynamics by fair means or foul, ramped up with moral panics ‘placing’ women and children in danger.

All that equates to a repression of truths begetting small crumbs of comfort for our protagonist(s). This is hinted in the first scene, when Isfi, peering through a broken window at school, looks longingly at Nita. Nita is able to be out and about, free to be herself in the world they live in. Isfi, on the other hand, is forced to hide behind man-made barriers.

This is a clever film playing around with complicated scenarios. In addition to the clothing, the closet is also important; without giving away key plot points, it harks to the idea of being true to yourself by ‘coming out of the closet’. I might be reading too much into it, but I do not doubt that on some level this is close enough to some of the truth.

Getting away from the serious nature of the films above, I’m certainly up for a bit of comedy. We find this in ‘Babylon’, a Filipino film by Keith Deligero. Directing from a Gale Osorio screenplay, it features two young women travelling back in time to kill a barangay dictator (village chief), Tito Loy (Publio Briones III).

Though that character is presented as a Little Napoleon, it’s not too big a stretch of the imagination to cover the present time, with the villain’s style and substance evoking much of the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. It’s more of a gut feeling than anything else, but I’ll try to elucidate this further.

A part of it has to do with his clothing. Though it is not entirely uncommon, there’s just something it that is very reminiscent of the Duterte style, even to this very casual observer of regional Southeast Asian politics. It is hammered home with the chief’s preference for extrajudicial justice, echoing Duterte’s encouraging of drug-busting vigilantism.

You’d think that such activities would make him reviled in the eyes of many, but the opposite is true; in a stage play later on in the film, the chief takes it upon himself to take part in the play, as meta as art imitating art imitating life gets. “I am everybody’s uncle,” he said, justifying his actions to the audience’s approving nods.

Comedically, much of the absurd comedy comes from the ridiculous double-entendre of Osorio’s script: “My cock is smaller than yours,” said the chief. “Bring your cock inside.” The fact that we have a male chicken on screen does not negate the ridicule, a trick repeated throughout the film. “Blow on my cock,” he implores one of the characters. “Don’t be shy.”

All that adds up to an experience I don’t quite know what to make of, for this trippy tragi-comedy’s conflation of the two genres can be disorienting. I like the discombobulation, but I can also imagine others being caught off guard. It goes without saying, however, that those more keenly aware of Filipino politics may well find it cathartic, if not enlightening and entertaining.

Read parts one and three. Read our thoughts on the Malaysian short films at Locarno 2020 here, while we also covered the Open Doors Roundtable session here and here.

Featured image credit: AZ Big Media

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