Singapore Short Film Awards - Brazil by Philothea Liau

"Doesn't the synopsis for Brazil give away the whole story?" asked a friend. Yes, it does, but that's not the point to the 5-min short. See, Brazil opens with a close-up on a boy's face as his tears well up and begin to fall, but the film doesn't use this arresting image to throw us into the thick of its plot. Rather, it cuts away to a huddle of schoolboys plowing their hands through a box of erasers at a stationery shop, leaving us wondering whether we've been flashed foward or back in the storyline, and wondering how this relates to whatever incident it was that could bring a boy to tears.

The erasers being fought over are the familiar rectangular ones with country flag designs; I felt a pang of nostalgia upon seeing them, recalling the flipping games my classmates used them to play back in primary school. The best moments of Brazil stick to this register, relying on our memories of what it felt to think like a schoolkid. Indeed, the boys aren't digging for just any eraser but for one design in particular, the one that gives the film its title. When one boy has found the prize, the rest stop searching and watch glumly as he pays for it and leaves. The film choreographs that the Brazil eraser is most valued, but it doesn't matter why; the point here is that our emotional investments as kids are quite overblown. The film's final shot loops back to its first, so that we discover the cosmic joke being played on the boy's feelings, and on our expectations for what that involves.

Since the time I last saw Brazil, I have become far more convinced that its basic strength lies in the intrigue and humour of these shots that bookend the film: a testament more to the writing than to actor Damus Lim, nominated for his expert crying performance at the S'pore Short Film Awards. The scenes in the film's middle don't demand much from Damus, though he acquits himself far better than his stilted schoolmates. This ungenerous label applies more to the throng of prospective buyers after his Brazil eraser, and less to the two chubby bullies that block his path. A single take alternates between the bullies' faces as they shout unmenacing threats in their kiddy voices ("You blind ah!"), and helps rather than harms this enjoyable lark of a schoolkid's world writ large.

This review was originally written in Dec '09; it has been edited and expanded for the Singapore Short Film Awards in Jan '10.
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