Wrapping Up – Southeast Asian Short Films of Locarno 2020 (part 3)

Fikri Jermadi concludes up a series of reviews that has run on for a little too long.

‘Void’ is a Burmese film set in a low-cost flat, the kind of place where you can hear your neighbours having a bath next door. That is exactly what our protagonist (Min Nyo) did, being enticed by his next door neighbour (May Lay) cleaning herself. I must note that while the rest of the film would develop nicely, I am uncomfortable with this problematic invasion of privacy.

Beyond that, the film reminded me of ‘High Way’ by Chia Chee Sum. The identical location highlights that same lack of personal space; I described the environment there as “a visual soundscape unmasking your sense of privacy… we get a sense of who people are without seeing them.” Here, the sound work of Thar Pauk and Can Dal is key to the film’s impact.

It goes without saying that our performers are too. Our protagonist appears to be a musician, the quiet type whose sensitivity does not equate to an uncaring introversion. He is exactly what our leading lady, a homemaker without much of a home to make for, needs; her husband (Kyaw Zeya), often away, is an intimidating presence in absentia, but that is preferable to his abusive presence.

All this begets a lingering loneliness in our characters. Together, however, there is an interesting chemistry silently cackling between the two. This is most evident in a long take during a lunch scene, when I wrote in my notes: “Food and sex – Maslow would be happy.” They did not get that far, but that time and space did give them ample opportunity to shoot furtive glances at each other.

That unspoken between recalls for me much of the same between Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova in ‘Once’; indeed, the lyrics for ‘Falling Slowly’ might well apply to ‘Void’. The curiosity in this film is somewhat endearing, even when drenched with trepidation. Of course, director MG Bhone brings us back to reality with the husband, knocking on the door to shake them (and us) from that reverie.

While Hansard and Irglova were able to let their love grow out in the open, our characters here do not have that luxury. As empathetic as they may be for one another, both are trapped within their social structures, the flat itself a prison standing in for this faceless society closing in on them and with no way out.

One break the film did get is the weather. It is an independent film produced for a scriptwriting class, so I don’t imagine there’s much in the budget for rain dances, but the elements absolutely did them a favour, as the rain, wind and stormy clouds externalising much of their dilemma locked up within. That sums it all up, really; though there’s not much by way of dialogue, that which is unspoken was well said all the same.

Staying in Myanmar, we tune in on ‘Listen’. The Min Min Hein film is a documentary of the Burmese artist, Chaw Ei Thein. A brief research suggests her to be a highly-regarded performance artist, with numerous commendations and achievements attained in the United States, Singapore and the United Kingdom, among others.

That same research also suggests her art to be laced with feminism in tackling socio-political issues. Those are things I can get on board with, but it is evidently proving more difficult for the Burmese government, who have her living in exile outside of the country. And this was before the military coup late last year, which put paid to hopes of a flowering democracy.

In considering this constriction of an already limited space, I am reminded of Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese artist who has followed a similarly fractious path; closer to home, the likes of Fahmi Reza and Amin Landak have also been subjected to unscrupulous scrutiny from the state just in the past few months alone. Perhaps Chaw Ei Thein said it best in the film, then: “You can get success, only if you shut up.”

I doubt Min Min Hein got that memo, though. Much like the its subject matter, the film veers into other genres beyond documentary, with some parts feeling more experimental than others. ‘Listen’ begins with an arresting opening shot, the camera drifting up to the sunlight peeking between the leaves.

This mise-en-shot makes me think of ‘Rashomon’, which has identical shots in its forest scenes. They have often been interpreted as humanity getting in the way of the truth (that is the sunlight). In this film, Chaw Ei Thein relates an anecdote from her youth, as her father queries her about the colours she sees when looking at a tree.

Her answer of “Only green” was deemed inadequate, and the father tells her to look harder and find the blue that is also there. It’s a process of reading between the lines that also forces her to dig deeper within herself. “When an experience gives me an unexpected emotion, I dig deeper,” she says in explaining her art creation process, “and if I find something to retell, the creation of art begins.”

‘Listen’ includes excerpts of this recreation, featuring elements of waterboarding and guns surrounding a ‘foetus’. The discomfort it inspires pales in comparison to reality; an iron fist status quo in place means it’s unlikely that more sunlight will find their way through the leaves any time soon.

We move away from such political landmines and take a dive into the ocean with ‘Manong ng Pa-Aling’. Translated as ‘Man of Pa-Aling’, it is a Filipino film directed by E del Mundo, who is also the scriptwriter and producer. Her background in diving makes the film’s subject matter somewhat less surprising.

It tells the story of Manong (Jeremy Banda), a fisherman who has spent an almost-literal lifetime at sea; with 65 years already on the clock, he is at the precipice, peering at retirement as the greater unknown than the depths of the ocean he’s completely at ease with.

The film’s black-and-white cinematography stands out. Photographed by Marissa Floirendo, that choice ensures we remain anchored to the emotional core that is Manong’s dilemma; I can imagine the original surroundings to have been beautiful enough to distract us from the film’s objective.

This film is one for cinephiles, as ‘Manong ng Pa-Aling’ is a comfortable entry in the lexicon of slow cinema. Its long and languid takes are appropriate, unifying us with Manong’s mindset as he ruminates on life (and death). One particularly poignant quote is memorable: “You can’t trust your body. Sometimes it betrays your mind.”

There are no prizes for guessing how the film ends, but that is again testament to del Mundo’s skill. She foreshadows much of that conclusion with plenty of bait along the fishing line. For instance, shots of the fish Manong caught, wriggling around in the net, can be interpreted as him considering his own plight.

Beyond such figurative language, del Mundo utilises a fair amount of that storytelling toolbox: frame within a frame, mirrors, shots of statues underwater… this film ticks all the boxes of the independent Southeast Asian film bingo. If I were to pick one film out of the many in this series to discuss in class, ‘Manong ng Pa-Aling’ would be it.

Read parts one and two. Check out 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: Marcelo Jaboo / Pexels

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