By Chuah Siew Eng
At the first instalment of Shorts for 2005 (it is presented at Help Institute three times a year by Kelab Seni Filem), a friend said she needed to go to film school before she could understand any of the short films.
For example, Kit Ong’s 1,3,5, is as obscure as its title. It is a series of “psychological, experimental” shorts featuring bleak spectres with no dialogue spoken, and appears to be a portrait of isolation and neglect. In 1, an empty moving swing and other snapshots of the deserted playground echo the loneliness of a desolate young woman with a bottle of mineral water and thumbtacks for company. 3 is set in an office where an older woman goes about her job oblivious to the presence of a young ghostly couple. A bedroom scene is next in 5, with quiet close-ups of a man smoking in a corner, the patterns of the swirling smoke, an open window with a fluttering curtain, an empty bed…
Thankfully, for this plebeian wannabe videomaker, there were a few less perplexing stuff.
Top on this easy-viewing list was Broken Wings, filmed in Tamil. It’s your typical cautionary tale about a boy and his handbag-snatching gang. Director Wickneswaren adopts a straightforward method, right down to the ‘hot’ music used to denote badass behaviour (which, thanks to the music, looks fun). The moral of the story comes with lines like: “The real consciousness you get is from your conscience, not from your jail term.” Being a sucker for melodrama, I thoroughly enjoyed it (but, hey, don’t robbers – even amateur ones – do it with masks anymore?). There is credible acting all around, with veteran actor Mano Maniam in a kind cameo.
Like in the Tamil dramas of yore, Broken Wings evokes vicarious satisfaction when the protagonist bertaubat and good triumphs over evil. In sophisticated eyes it is preachy, but if the director is projecting his hopes for Indian-Malaysian youths (who make up 14% of the nation’s juvenile delinquents) and thinks the message is better absorbed this way, he may be in the best position to know, being a member of the community himself. Even so, it is shortsighted to pin down juvenile delinquency among Indian-Malaysians on the influence of gangs alone. There is the political and economical context: they make up 8% of the population but have only 1.5% of the nation’s corporate wealth. They make up 20% of wife and child beaters and 41% of beggars, and have the highest rate of suicide and number of prisoners in proportion to population. Such negatives point to externalities in the problems besetting Indian-Malaysians, which in turn affect their youths.
A one-sided perspective is also offered in Justin Ong’s Anniversary Happy. It revolves around a newly-wed couple, one of them troubled about their relationship and the other oblivious. Like Broken Wings it does not explore the underlying causes (in this case, of insecurity in marital relationships) and is content to reinforce the hell-hath-no-fury and jumping-to-conclusions stereotype of women. Technique-wise, it was faultless; each scene was meticulously shot and sequenced in reverse flashback (a la Momento), effectively prolonging the mystery even as the picture became clearer. However, such thoughtful touches stopped at the transitions – mere fading out makes the suspense peter out too.
An unclear ending did not prevent Ng Ken Kin’s well-directed 28 Hours Later from being the crowd favourite. After a night of binging on alcohol with his buddy, a man wakes up to find himself completely alone in the city of KL. A similar predicament befalls someone in a parallel scene in London (with scenes taken from Danny Boyle’s horror flick 28 Days Later), hinting of a possible connection. Ng’s ingenuous adaptation may just let him off the hook for the ‘loan’. This short also proves that you can still find quiet places in KL; just wait till the credits roll to see how…
Kannan Thiagarajan’s Chitappa is a Tamil romcom about two Internet chatters courting offline. Second in the Audience Choice Awards and on my list, this flick had actors who were unaffected and at ease with each other. More than an acknowledgement of the modern phenomenon of Internet romance, Chitappa also make wry observations of dating behaviours and the six degrees of separation within the Indian community. Kannan later said he had inserted little barbs, such as a comment by the female protagonist that the guy probably brings girls regularly to that particular makeout spot. I could be wrong, but I think he was saying there was truth in the remark (these young flers… such sweet-talking rascals!). I liked the music and the attention paid to subtitling – a sheepish grin from the male protagonist in response to the rhetorical remark was subtitled as an ellipsis!
Aaron Chung’s Crook was my favourite (third for the audience) for its black humour and economical plot and shots: just two actors, playing villain and victim, at a well-scouted house with a layout that worked for the setup – especially a pan job that led to a humorous juxtaposition. Who faces graver danger: the person knocking on a stranger’s doorstep or the person who receives a stranger on her doorstep? A smooth-talking direct sales type with a glint in the eye vs. a blank-faced, gullible-looking girl – place your bets, people! A wrestling match on TV suggesting similar off-screen violence was priceless! And piercing studs never looked so painful.
Maverick filmmaker James Lee makes his Malay-language debut with Bernafas Dalam Lumpur. Surprisingly, it suffered from bad continuity in background noise and an inexplicably bad frame job in the beginning. Long uninterrupted takes and minimalist filmic techniques allow the audience to focus on the dialogue and acting, which are top of the class (the actors were graduates of Akademi Seni Kebangsaan – not to be confused with Akademi Fantasia). It’s a brief window into the world of a woman whose jailbird lover returns, bringing more uncertainties into her life as he renews his underworld connections. The last scene is probably one for the Malaysia Book of Records for the longest ever take (It is nowhere near James’s longest takes. – ed.) However, when I gradually stopped squirming in my seat and resigned myself to the moment, the calmness of the man leaving behind his car on a deserted road and walking into the distance, out of the frame, actually got to me. An unsettling moment becomes settling, and back again, because it’s still a “uh?” ending.
Well-paced and crisply edited, Woo Ming Jin’s Three Lives was the first to be screened (there were technical problems with converting it into the required format). It set a high standard for the rest to follow in terms of technique. If it had indeed set out as a live action video game, as described in the synopsis, it certainly succeeded in getting the audience engrossed in the plot twists. But it quickly left the audience cold as soon as the game was over. Another markedly different feature about it was that it was shot on foreign soil (USA), with a foreign crew – yes indeed, it was a novel experience to watch an all-Mat Salleh ‘local’ production.
Kit Ong’s second and third entry, Linda and The girl who cannot cry, are less baffling. The former is premised on that old parental warning about accepting lifts from strangers, but the twist at the end guarantees a chuckle. In the latter, a girl decides to rent out a room in her flat, with dire consequences. There is no physical violence shown, just hinted. Yet Ong manages to evoke the poignancy of an abused survivor’s trauma, taking snapshots of the living room, the balcony, and the girl as she sits alone watching TV.
The only animated short, Mak Joan Keat’s I dream of the Fat Man is “a surreal odyssey with a self-explanatory title,” so, uh… what can I say beyond that the animation is really cool?
In Siti Nuraishah Baharum’s Living Dead Dolls, a well-endowed girl quarrels with a boy. The sound is muted but some light is shed by Barbie and Ken – the “living dead dolls” that every sugar-and-spice girl dream of emulating because of heterosexist values promoted and encouraged by society. Barbie and Ken get their come-uppance in this flick. I would have done more evil to Barbie, though.
All in, it was a good mix of thoughts and style, though personally I would have liked to see more Malaysian reality out there, in there. Are shorts an artistic communication tool or a communication tool for artists? Perhaps this is my bias, but there are so many suppressed real-life stories that really need telling, and shorts, a sexy format that allows plenty of room for creativity, have tremendous potential as an effective medium to bring them across to audiences everywhere.
Chuah Siew Eng proudly grapples with “huh?” endings. A former journalist frustrated with the lack of media freedom in the country, she now wants to be a videomaker.
First Published: 15.04.2005 on Kakiseni