Review - 'Animal Spirits' by Daniel Hui (10th Singapore Short Cuts)

The very irrational nature of the human mind is the bedrock of conflict and drama in an narrative medium. What Animal Spirits, a film by Daniel Hui, does differently is it tries to fit irrationality into a rational, logical train of thought. The term ‘Animal Spirits’ is a term coined by influential economist John Maynard Keynes which means human emotions and irrationality that could affect consumption behaviour. It is ironic how science attempts to structuralise feelings and moods but it is with the same sense of irony that the short film Animal Spirits is characterised – one that gives a refreshing take on the universal and familiar themes of longing, separation, love.

Animal Spirits puts two stories together side by side, examining their different situations, yet presenting them in almost similar fashions, like a clinical study of human behaviour. Story one features Maria, a Hispanic young lady who left her job and partner behind in Pennsylvannia to start a new life in Los Angeles as a student. Speaking in a monotone, she recounts how how she got to Los Angeles and how she settled down. In between the procedural, she injects the emotional, though still adopting a detached, restrained persona. The effect, which sounds like a confession in front of a shrink, is surreal and resonating. What the film seems to succeed in doing is presenting a kind of reverse-treatment of the human condition, straight-jacketing basic feelings, banishing animal spirits, which in fact, leaves you thinking about Maria even more.

Hyesung, the other half of this duet of monologues, is a Korean student who is still financially dependent on her mother. While being the weaker half of the duet in terms of the ‘voice’ of her character, she provides an interesting counterpoint to Maria’s fervently delivered narration. While her weaker voice meanders through what sounds like the same script as Maria, she goes through the same set of actions as Maria (though with Asian signatures) – making the film seem like a visual ballet of parallel actions. While the idea of two different characters going through a similar routine is not particularly ingenious, it’s Daniel’s thoughtful interplay of the words with the actions (mostly mundane chores) that adds tangible depth to what could otherwise end up as indulgent experimentation. One who reads the synopsis or programme notes may notice the heavy overtones of inaccessible academia, which is masking what is really a down-to-earth study of human behaviour and choices, making it easier for practical Singapore to identify with than one would expect.

Review by Jeremy Sing
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