Review: Cannonball (2018)

The proliferation of music-based films and documentaries in today’s film scene makes it hard to imagine something aside from cult song and plot-driven crowd pleasers, some of the most recent being A Star Is Born featuring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, and Bohemian Rhapsody with Rami Malek. Both cater to the masses with headlining stars and popular tracks. Yet who dares to document the neglected, grungy side of the experimental music scene?

Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen are co-founders of Emoumie Sounds, an independent, Singapore-based sound project that produces compositions for film, theatre and exhibitions. Their first feature film, Cannonball, transports us into the psychedelic realm of underground beats and unpredictable destinations. We get a glimpse into the realm of experimental music through this docu-film which follows their self-proclaimed alter egos--Frank and Lily in the sound project ARE--on the hunt through Australia for the mysterious Sunbathing Dog.

Frank and Lily, two strangers turned partners, begin their journey hitchhiking their way through Australia, stopping at a myriad of unknown locations and meeting an array of eclectic people. Without introductions to places or people, the dynamic duo oscillates between both bizarre and mundane interactions with strangers and extended shots producing their experimental sound, all while pursuing the mystical Sunbathing Dog. 

With a run time of only sixty-five minutes, the film falls short in assuming a narrative plot, leaving the viewer just as lost as the protagonists are and leaving us with the question: What is the point? 

Between close-up shots, quick cutaways, and home video-like footage, there is a sense of sporadic incompleteness that permeates the entire film. The viewer is denied the fundamental elements of a film; the who of Frank and Lily, the where of Australia as the setting, and the why we should care about what they are searching for are never presented. Despite (or because of) its experimental aim, the film digresses into an amalgamation of loosely connected footage presenting obscure visuals and no content, ultimately devoid of the expected emotional investment latent within storytelling.

Cutting between Frank and Lily’s travels, various musical acts, and baffling, incomprehensible dialogue, there was nothing for the viewer to feel and everything left to elucidate. There was no chemistry between partners, merely snipped interactions through perfunctory dialogue. The various cameos and side characters felt extraneous due to the awkwardly inserted interviews and unexplained dialogues between Frank and another character meant to drive the non-existent plot.  

Moreover, for a film based on experimental music, I expected the premise to be heavily grounded in and driven by sound, yet the attention was fleeting. When ARE crossed paths with another experimental musician Shoeb Ahmad and her band Agency, their tour received support from her label hellosQuare, leading them to be introduced to other musical acts from Australia’s experimental music scene. Aside from extended scenes of the duo producing sound in a hotel room and some dark, grainy footage, there’s no direct addressing of the sound or bands and the impact they have in the film. Scenes are merely grounded by the alternative and experimental sound woven throughout, and yet without context there exists no appreciation or understanding – an instrumental element for a music-based film.

Chua and Lam told SINdie that their film is about “the desire for meaning to sequences and reflections of/on Truth and Fiction. An absurd chase through clarity that found ambiguous twists training the eye back on the point where it all started.” This leaves me more perplexed. Swapping between fiction and reality, the impetus and meaning behind the film appear to be banking on ambiguity and viewers’ interpretations in place of substantive profundity. This confounding whirlwind of a film leaves us to interpret each element thrown at us. The apparent entropy thus begs the question of what this film is truly about, rather than the expected: what is the Sunbathing Dog? This is something utterly lost in translation.

Cannonball was screened as part of the 29th Singapore International Film Festival. SINdie's interview with the directors, Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, is appended below.

Written by Lana Allen

SINdie: What is Cannonball about and what inspired it?

Chua and Lam: Cannonball is a film about the desire for meaning to sequences and reflections of/on Truth and Fiction. An absurd chase through clarity that found ambiguous twists training the eye back on the point where it all started.

What spurred us on this endeavour was the joy of the subconscious elucidations - opening new ground and perspective - that we found in

conversation and engagement with people in unreality. (Allowing for the reimagination and reimaging of frontiers, limits, possibilities, something we have been thinking of as an Arerusean pursuit!) This idea inevitably made it so that the piece had to be created spontaneously to allow the capturing of the scenes, the cast - everyone involved, including ourselves producing the film, in a subconscious relationality shared between us.

Why the Sunbathing Dog? Does it hold any special significance?

The Sunbathing Dog… for us, its special significance is in its plain simplicity. A simple enough object seeming, that is clarified in the happenings come about from the search for it, to reveal something less  certain in reality as compared to the idea. The dog as idea or object can, we find, sometimes turn out to be wildly different to different points of view. It could be Anubis, Big Mama Thornton, a corndog!

What effect did you intend the eclectic demeanor and dynamic of Frank and Lily to have?

Our intention was to tease out a certain improvisation creation, to concoct the rhythm of the scene in the moment of production together with our cast. To have the real responses to the creation of an illusory narrative be the captured act. Or the movie acting be the revelation of perhaps the act of doing so only being some presentation of self.

How did you become acquainted with the experimental music scene and why did you choose ARE as a sound project to feature?

We worked with the sound project ARE on this film because the idea of their concept album and their tour was something that resonates a lot with the possibilities of films we hope to encounter at Emoumie!

When we aren’t making films, we turn to music and have worked with some film and installation art projects, composing music for these projects. By chance we crossed paths with the musicians in the experimental music scene when musician/label owner Shoeb Ahmad was in Singapore with her band Agency. ARE’s tour through Australia was organized by her label hellosQuare recordings and her support of our idea of making this film with everyone on the tour is something we’re very grateful for. During the filming, it struck us how delightful making a film together with the experimental artists from Japan, Australia and Singapore was. Their spirit, their personalities, opened up so many new possibilities with creating subconscious scenes.

Was there a certain dynamic you sought to achieve in the contrast countries of Australia and Singapore? Why choose these as backdrops to the larger plot?

The film takes place in Australia and Singapore primarily because ARE’s tour was already planned and situated in the 2 countries and the conceptual approach to this film fit greatly with us creating the films with the set conditions.

Was the decision not to have any professional actors in the film inspired by Renaldo and Clara or were there other considerations?

Films like Renaldo and Clara, Au Hasard Balthazar, Chelsea Girls and The Trip were films that left impressions on us that surfaced in our minds while conceptualizing this film.

The idea with this film was to document a narrative fiction in the sense that the recording of the images documents the constructing relation between the cast/subject and us, the condition that would allow this possibility would have had to be one that accepted the premise borne out of the actual being, movements and projections of our cast/subjects. Allowing us to create between fiction and non-fiction, with the dynamic of the cast as subject and the subject as cast.

What was the process like of making a feature and what were some challenges (planning, budget, etc)?

Making this film was like a joyous ecstasy leading a body trying to shake off a fear of the unknown - much of the plan was to create the conditions for subconscious action on a moment in reality.

Serendipitously, the idea of the film worked out nicely regarding the usual challenges of making films. Approaching this film through the normal practice would have diminished the possibilities for the conditions that would allow the subconscious, immediate happenings of production to be documented. Using our own equipment, made it very flexible for us to work and also was a fitting exploration of image (re)production.
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