Review: 14 Apples // 14顆蘋果 (2018)

An apple a day keeps the insomnia away

Taiwanese-Burmese director Midi-Z’s 14 Apples confronts an uneasy reality that Singapore is all too familiar with in her recent years- what happens when religion is used as a tool for self-enrichment over pure spirituality (if there even is such a thing). 14 Apples explores this rich irony; the documentary follows one Wang Shin-hong, a Mandalay business man who is losing sleep over the ailing health of his business. He visits a fortune-teller who advises him to spend 14 days at a specific monastery as a monk, eating an apple a day (which presumably would keep the insomnia away). When he arrives at the monastery, he is put through the ostensible paces of monkhood; his head is shaven, he dons red robes and begins collecting alms and donations. Here is where the film shows its disconcerting hand, though untrained (the monks from the monastery leave within a day of Wang’s arrival, leaving him unschooled in the ways of meditation), Wang manages to command an outsized amount of respect and veneration from the villagers simply by appearances alone. They offer alms that are clearly beyond their means in hopes of chants or prayers that might better their lot in life, unaware of the true background or intention of the monk that stands before them. Along the way, he is also joined by Burmese women who speak of the travails and indignities that they suffer in their search for work in mainland China.

Backed up by its unvarnished improvisational rawness, the film sheds lights on some bracingly human and all-too-understandable gripes that these monks face. That they might prefer to visit certain cities or villages because they receive more generous donations is an unsettling truth for some to countenance, but it is one that bears examining. It is a merit of the film that it addresses these unflattering realities with an impartial hand, choosing instead to listen earnestly to the subjects that director Midi-Z has uncovered. It is to his credit that the film elides much of any form of editorializing voice, leaving his subjects to speak for themselves. 

Though its deft hand and light touch is impressive for a film that director Midi-Z has admitted was “accidentally shot” upon his return to Burma for a holiday, the film struggles to sustain its already lean running time; its insights though powerful, are frustratingly and conspicuously fleeting, leaving me wanting. The film takes too long to get to the heart of its message and subjects and spends too much time in its lead up (in particular the oversustained shot of Wang getting his head shaved). It is in the potholes and unevenness beneath shaven heads and Buddhism’s austere trappings that the film truly finds its voice.   
Review by Koh Zhihao
14 Apples is part of Singular Screens, the film programme under the 2018 Singapore International Festival of Arts. Singular Screens showcases a line-up of 13 new films that seeks to respond to the general sentiment of the Festival programming, with ideas revolving around the notion of resistance and the experience of the individual. Curated by Asian Film Archive, SIFA 2018 invites film and arts lovers to embark on cinematic adventures that celebrate independent voices across the world and power of the individual. 
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