Tail Wagging – Dogs

Fikri Jermadi takes Andy Darrel Gomes’ latest work for a walk.

‘Dogs’, directed by Andy Darrel Gomes, works with a video conferencing software (like Zoom) as the primary storytelling tool; with numerous lockdown conditions imposed on Malaysian society, creative filmmakers like him have taken to explore their boundaries to the fullest. As will be touched on later in this review, a number of them have taken the same approach, but this film is of a slightly different breed.

We follow the story of a boy (Nigel Zhen) and a girl (Geraldine Piong). They are two teenagers in a relationship, one that sprouted online. The film, running a touch under 16 minutes, takes place in real time, but even in that context, a lot takes place to bring us through a key phase in their relationship.

The story begins before the film does, with Nigel idly humming ‘Goodbye My Love’ by Teresa Teng. It might just be me, but being somewhat familiar with how her songs are often utilised, that beginning harbours a certain dread that is usually fulfilled by the film’s end; the inclusion of any Teresa Teng song almost always carries a bittersweet nostalgia, and here it makes us pine for something that’s not quite in full bloom just yet.

One of the key things I need to note is the layers to the narrative. Many films have more than just one, but here, Andy’s exploration of the form leads to more than just the conventional few you may be used to. The first is the diegesis that is the rooms Nigel and Geraldine are in. The second layer is what we see on screen, a representation by way of the aforementioned video conferencing technology.

The third layer is the interaction between the two representations on screen, an interplay in a space many of us have become a little too accustomed to over the past year or so. Even so, Andy’s film differs from the convention; usually bound by the stasis of their hardware, there is a lack of dynamism that reduces the energy to keep us interested in such sessions.

However, what Andy has done here is to really charge this with a variety; in addition to enhancing the meaning to be made (for without difference there is no meaning), it is also a narrative tool that helps to attract and maintain our attention, ensuring there is a noticeable hop and dip to the story just as we’re about to lag a little behind. Kudos, therefore, to both Andy and Kiefer Yu (film’s editor and cinematographer).

For instance, when she says, “I see a child”, is she actually referring to the Rorschach test plastered on the wall behind the boy, or is she actually referring to the boy himself? A conventional film would have provided a greater hint with the subsequent shot, but here the camera lenses does not differentiate between the two, meaning that we need to rework how we ourselves think about the gaze in the context of Zoom short films.

This dynamism is reinforced with the inclusion of a third screen, an unexpected element in a two-person show. That multiplicity highlights Nigel’s playful nature, contrasting with Geraldine’s more serious demeanour. If you’re counting the blank screen at the film’s start and end, that’s a total of four layers to the narrative, all coming and going in their own ways.

In these films, the general sense I often get is that of a fly on the wall, a third wheel forever doomed to attaining second-hand information. However, this genre is challenging that convention, as the story delivery is done with us positioned centrally in the narrative; looking into the cameras on their respective devices, the audience is often spoken to as if we are the characters themselves.

This reminds me of Yasujiro Ozu’s famed tatami shot, where the camera is placed directly in front of the actors. As they converse with one another in a cut-to-cut editing pattern, it nevertheless makes us feel a little more involved than we would have been otherwise. Present through our absence, this seems like a major factor to be looked at as more and more films are made in this fashion.

On that note, it should be noted that ‘Dogs’ is not the only one in town. The various lockdowns that restrict more conventional filmmaking practices have not curtailed the creativity of Malaysian filmmakers, with efforts such as ‘Kifarah’ by Alif Yazid. However, the variety and dynamism noted above differentiates Andy’s film from the others.

In terms of the story itself, it’s one becoming more and more common. “We haven’t been on a date,” Geraldine thinks aloud, “but we’re in a relationship.” A change in lifestyle have not necessarily arrested life itself, but numerous anecdotes abound as to how our characters’ predicament is no longer a strange one. This is a realism I appreciate, making ‘Dogs’ just that bit more important.

That title, in addition to reflecting the puppy love of our protagonists, hails to the conditioning method as proposed by Ivan Pavlov. Ostensibly used in the training of pets to associate sounds with sense, it is often applied to human beings being adaptable to changing and challenging conditions. That is what I want to discuss as well, in terms of the filmmaking context.

With the director not seen on set, much preparation and planning must have taken place, especially in ensuring the right timing for all the different screens to interact in sync. In essence, this is a one-take short film with three different cameras. That multiplicity in lenses means that a different mindset has to be employed, so once again, kudos to those in front of and behind the camera.

Perhaps, like the Rorschach test in the film, I am reading too much into ‘Dogs’ itself. Nonetheless, these are some of the thoughts provoked in watching the film. It is a different experience from a number of other entries in the genre, as well as Andy’s own work in the past. To that end, I think it’s a worthwhile watch, and I am looking forward to see what else the filmmaking team have up their sleeves.

Featured image credit: The Spruce Pets

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