Review: Sinema Showoff! Beyond Paradise

(Note: Part 1 and Part 2 have been combined into the same post.)

The recent Sinema Showoff! event was titled Beyond Paradise, and the four films screened that night were all shot overseas. But beyond the literal, the themes in some of the films were also meant to provoke questions as to what 'paradise' really means. The various protagonists of the films go about their own ways to search for some mystical Edenic world, but eventually wind up learning to find happiness by negotiating with the world around them. The standout film of the night was Anthony Chen's Lighthouse. Here's a quick review of the shorts.

1. Lembranca (Reminder)
Mauricio Osaki | Portugese | 18mins

Synopsis: Joana is a teenager that loves to see the world through her computer. She is forced to live with a “uncle” while her mother is away and must work out her problems without her virtual world.

Review: The film, which aims to show Joana's perspective of the world, is a conflicting mess. It employs cutesy animation to portray Joana's apparently optimistic worldview, or maybe to endear Joana to us or something, I dunno. I'm guessing it's just self indulgence on the part of the director. The sporadic episodes of animated texts end up confusing audiences. The entire film is shot in black and white - an attempt on director Osaki's part to articulate the idea that the world seen through a digital medium can never be as colourful as one experienced through life - and its dull colour palette lends the film a mildly morose quality. So then these bright, cheery animated interludes seem wildly incongruous to the entire feeling of the film.

We see a lot of Joana engaging with the wonders of modern technology: she uses Facebook; she chats on MSN; she toys with her iPod. Yet we don't really see how her affinity for the cyber world affects her worldview. The only thing that helps explore this is the choice of colours (as mentioned above): the black-and-white pallette is a commentary on real life always being richer and brighter than a digital one.

I was actually moved by the cinematography; some of the shots are absolutely beautiful and breathtaking, in particular the one with Joana pillion riding on a motorcycle. It's a pity that Osaki does not quite get a coherent message across with the film. And when the cheery music starts playing during the final scene, I was left scratching my head: was the film supposed to make me feel good?

2. Lighthouse
Anthony Chen | English| 23mins | PG

Synopsis: A mother takes her three children on a road trip but finds that home cannot easily be left behind.

Review: We start off seeing a woman - let's call her 'Mom' for convenience sake - coaxing her three kids into a roadtrip. One of the first scenes involve her bringing her children to a huge garbage dump where they proceed to dispose of some unwanted stuff. The rubbish here turns out to be possessions of her husband who, as we find out in a later scene, has left the family. Director Anthony Chen never quite explicitly explains the reasons for his disappearance; the film is also quite cryptic as to whether this man has passed away or simply abandoned the family.

It does not really matter, and in fact, this slightly murky backstory helps keep the film taut and focused. Lighthouse is not about this one man, but rather, it is about coping with loss, dealing with pain, and the journey towards self-healing.

Mom and her three kids, in ridding of her huband's possessions, hope to also dispose of the emotional baggage. After clearing the garbage, Mom proclaims, "Time for some breakfast. It's gonna be a great day. It's gonna be brilliant!" This opening scene seems simple enough, but it also serves as a sly commentary on the absurdity of new-age self-help wisdom. (Clear the clutter! Your heart and mind will be at peace afterwards!) Mom thinks the literal act of dumping the rubbish will ease her pain and wipe out the hurtful memories; she bellows out positive affirmation in the hope that her words could possibly shape the way her day turns out. She wants to believe that all is well. Alas, that will not be so. (An idea Chen is trying to elucidate is that all may not be well, but even so you can still be okay.)

Eventually, they decide to embark on a road trip. Actually, it is Mom who decides they will go to a Lighthouse, and the kids reluctantly brace themselves for it. Initially, we are led to believe these three kids are the problematic ones, and that Mom here is the one holding everything together, that she is the rock of the family, the source of strength. But it is only when her car breaks down that we truly realize her energy for what it is: desperation to escape. Her relentless drive to get to the lighthouse masks her need to flee from her painful memories of her home.

Her kids are surprisingly calm. Some are just as affected by their dad's departure and they nurse their own wounds, especially James, the oldest son, who has seen his first dad and now his second one simply disappear. But somehow, the children have learnt to deal with it, unlike Mom. I don't want to give away too much, but the final scene is a simple, understated but extremely poignant portrayal of how we can heal when we draw strength from one another. And it is also after this scene that the title credits scene at the beginning make sense: as the camera whizzes across the road, we see streaks of white light against the grainy gravel. It encapsulates the message of Lighthouse so well: that there is no magical fantasyland we can escape to, but that the joy is in the journey; that no matter how bumpy our life trajectory is, we can still find happiness if we look around us.

There is much more to be written about this film, but what impressed me most is Chen's skill with working with child actors. The young people in his films don't necessarily act way beyond their age, but they display an emotional richness and empathy that we so often do not think children or teenagers possess. I thought the casting was impeccable here, and the most impressive performance coming from the guy who played the 15 year old James (pity I couldn't get his name). At turns cynical, shy, furious and sensitive, his role called for a constant, fluid change in emotions throughout the film, a demand that the actor met without resorting to scene-chewing.

Mom was also brilliantly acted. A woman silently at war with herself, wanting to move on and yet clinging on to painful memory, there is a wounded ferocity in her demeanour that commands both your excitement and sympathy.

There was only one sore point for me. The young daughter (again, I didn't get the name of the character nor the actress) actually sniggers when James yells out to his mother to "stop being such a fucking bitch" (when Mom tells his crush that he is a virgin), and then moments later walks out to comfort her brother and talk to him. I find that really bewildering and the small gesture of making the young daughter laugh at the crude remark really destroyed her innocent image in my eyes.

Overall though, I was amazed with this film. Lighthouse rolled out with a purposeful pace, every scene was beautifully shot and every little detail in the film gave a proper payoff later on. By turns funny and poignant, but always compelling, Lighthouse is a true gem.

3. Yours Truly
Kevin Chan | 12mins| PG

Synopsis: Through serendipity, Rachel, a bubbly florist, meets and falls in love with Chris, an introverted photographer. However, Rachel soon discovers she has an eye disease that requires a cornea transplant. In a twisted act of fate, Rachel, who was involved in a near-accident, receives a pair of corneas from the person who saved her. But upon regaining her sight, Rachel soon reaizes that she has lost more than she actually gained.

Shot on location in Melbourne, Australia.

Review: My fellow SINdie writer Walter has already covered this before when it was screened as part of the SSFA (read his review here) although I'm doing another writeup myself because I differ from him in opinion.

I really, really hated this short. Director Kevin Chan was influenced by Korean melodrama when he made this; the film plays out as a homage to the myriad Korean weepy television serials that have inundated our television screens over the past years. He should have known better than to cramp a typical narrative that spans twenty episodes down to twelve minutes.

Chan stays very reverent to his source of inspiration: there is the obligatory love at first sight set-up; there is the fortuitous reunion of the leads; there is the ominous game fate plays on our female lead, Rachel; and there is the tragedy that calls for sacrifice. The cinematography here is absolutely stunning, from the shots of Rachel in the studio to the shots of the lakeside. The softness of the visuals actually allow you to almost luxuriate in it and to be enraptured by its beauty. I wished that Chan could have tweaked the colours to look more bleak as the film progressed so that the gravity of Rachel's malaise - inevitable blindness - would come through.

Chan doesn't go down that route. He is so singularly focused on romanticizing the erm... romance and so relentless in forcing out the melodrama that he doesn't stop for a second to develop the characters and let us know a little bit more about them. All we know is that they both love each other very much, and for what reasons exactly elude us. And therein lies the biggest problem with the film: you can effect a melodramatic climax and ending with basic plot devices, but it is almost impossible to get people to care about the relationship or the sacrifice that Chris makes towards the end without getting us to care about the characters.

In contriving of a soppy weep fest of a film, Chan evokes all the inanities of the (Korean) melodrama without capturing any of its heart, and the result is a film that has no real emotional weight. At the end of the movie it wasn't Rachel, but me, who was at real risk of losing my sight - from rolling my eyes incessantly at the cringe-worthy plot banalities.

4. Bani Ibrahim (Children of Abraham) (Curator's Pick)
Raihan Harun| English | 15mins | PG

Synopsis: A Palestine Muslim doctor is confronted with the choice on whether he should save the life of his brother who plans to carry out a suicide bombing.

Shot on location in Melbourne, Australia.

Review: Bani Ibrahim opens with a shot of a one lane road, direction unspecified. As the film comes to a close, it'll eventually return back to that locale, and we start to see the significance of the shot. The road lacks a stated direction, and is only a one-way road; it serves as a metaphor for jihad - either you flee from such heinous activities or you plunge yourself full throttle into the chaos of killing innocents. There is no compromise, no middle ground.

As a meditation on the insanity of war, director Raihan Harun is careful not to demonize any party. Instead he shows how cyclical the perpetuation of hate really is: the Jews hurt the Muslims and the fundamentalists retaliate by hurting the Jews, causing the Jews to hate them even more. But more than its unequivocal stand against jihad, the film is also about the horrors of racism and xenophobia. Hafiz, unlike his brother, looks racially ambiguous - he looks somewhat middle-eastern but he also looks white enough to pass off as Caucasian. As a result, he is able to easily integrate himself into Australian society, coupled by the fact that he has a family and is gainfully employed as a doctor. His brother, on the other hand, has a distinctive middle-eastern look, and that might have led to his alienation, and subsequent resentment towards Australian society. Through the social statuses and appearances of the lead characters, the film hints at racial bias at work.

I do feel a little puzzled at one small detail: that one of the police after Hafiz's brother is an Asian. With all its 'us-versus-them' rhetoric thrown out, the film conflates Australian-ness with white-ness. That one of the policemen (who gets killed) is Asian only blunts the film's commentary because it is so much about cultural identity. (It is also well known that there is much racism towards Asians in certain parts of Australia.) But ultimately, I feel Harun has done a good job capturing the senselessness of war and the cyclical nature of hate.

The film does resort to some clunky and cliched dialogue to get things explained, but for most of its course it is a gripping and engaging thriller that kept me on the edge of my seat.The final sequence is cleanly executed and offers up a nice twist, delivers the film's strong stand against not just jihad. Overall, a tight and suspenseful thriller that offers up some interesting commentary on pressing social issues.
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