'Stay Awake, Be Ready': An Interview with Pham Thien An

The story behind the newly crowned Illy Prize winner for best short film at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 2019 began as it does in the film—with a motorcycle crash, a fire breathing boy, a night of drinking and ruminations on human destiny.

It was at a street food stall that Vietnamese writer-director Pham Thien An recognised the vast canvas of humanity on display. Between the street hawkers, the fire breathers and the alcohol promoters, he saw a motley crew united in their quest to survive—an unseen cosmic thread that runs through humanity.

Stay Awake, Be Ready is spiritual cinema at its most naturalistic. No grand miracles occur over its 14-minute runtime, yet I left the film feeling smaller than ever and more aware that the universe is more than what we see.

“Human faith swells up real quick when they’re on their last breath,” observes our protagonist. An is interested in what we fall back on when life spirals out of hand. He bookends his musings with two accidents that shatter any semblance of self-determination we might have. These disruptions bring together a pseudo-prophet and his would-be disciples. Naturally, he preaches a short sermon over hotpot and beer, and it’s as memorable as any you’d find in a church.

Equally memorable is An's very deliberate direction. He stages the entire film in a single take on a busy street corner, orchestrating a ballet with a dozen extras and motorcycles, not to mention some prominent usage of fire and rain. Camera movement is minimal but meaningful. In an inspired move, he pulls the camera out to a wide shot for the film’s centrepiece conversation and it’s enough to suggest the presence of a higher power. No special effects needed. The thoughtful choreography of camera and cast is well worth the watch, even if you care not for its message.

SINdie conducted an email interview with writer-director Pham Thien An on his short film Stay Awake, Be Ready.

SINdie: Congratulations on taking home the Illy Prize at Directors’ Fortnight! What was the inspiration behind Stay Awake, Be Ready?

Pham Thien An: Thank you so much! The story emerged after I witnessed a young boy fire breathing by a street stall in Vietnam. After his performance, he went from table to table selling candy. I observed many shades of humanity in that one night, many people focused on earning a living.

Society makes people rush from day to day and we often think of ourselves as the centre of the universe, until we’re not. I added in the motorbike accident as it’s a common occurrence over here, and interwove it with the fire breather boy to spark a conversation between three young men about human destiny.

I was struck by how you approached spiritual themes with a very naturalistic style. Can you share about how you approached this film, and why you chose to approach it in this naturalistic manner?

I wanted to combine the tremendous and the trivial without putting too much stress on the audience. Adopting a naturalistic approach was a way to create an opportunity for contemporary viewers to perceive themselves before the universe in the simplest way, in a manner that was familiar to real life.

Your film plays out in an unbroken 14-minute long take. Tell me more about the process of shooting it. Why did you choose to shoot it in a long take, and did you feel it was a crucial element of your film?

I chose to use the long take to immerse viewers in the spiritual world of the film. The goal was to get them to forget the camera’s presence and to create a real-time authenticity that relates back to the naturalistic approach to the film.

We rehearsed for four days with the main cast, one day with the camera movement and five hours with the extras before rolling the camera. This single shot took more than 100 people to pull off!

SINdie: What was the biggest challenge in making this film, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge was finding the location and getting the permit to block the street for the shoot. We had a laundry list of criteria and scouted for many days before chancing upon this beautiful street corner. We secured the permit with the support of CJ Short Film Making Project.

I found your direction to be very assured and precise. It was a very complex shot, but it never felt out of control. How did you hone such stylistic clarity? Tell us about your background and the influences that shaped you into the director you are today.

Directors that have influenced me include Michael Haneke, Theo Angelopoulos, Béla Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky. Inspired by their slow filmmaking, I had experimented with static and long shots in my previous short film. I found it really effective in integrating the viewer with the world in the film, by giving them the space to breathe.

So for this film, I envisioned the camera movement and frame composition while I was still sketching out the initial script idea. Connecting the composition with the actions of the characters provided greater clarity and the one full day of camera rehearsal gave me the confidence to make the film.

What can we expect from you next?

I am working on my debut feature film Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell, based on Stay Awake, Be Ready.

Interview answers have been edited for clarity.

Written by Joshua Ng
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