Review: The Asian Three Fold Mirror: Journey (2018)

A few months ago, we received a media invite to the witness the production of a certain new local film headlined by the fact that it is the first local horror film to feature three stories based on three modes of transport. When the invite for omnibus film, The Asian Three Fold Mirror: Journey (Journey) landed in our emails, I prayed that modes of transport would not define the film. Thankfully, this three-chapter road trip, which cuts through more than just geography, is anything but linear.

Meandering through the serene woods, there is nothing serene about the conversation that is happening between a mother and her daughter within the confines of the car cabin, as they cruise towards their destination. In The Sea, director Degena Yun heightens the idea of chamber drama through encasing two hot-headed characters in a small space. While both are making a trip to the sea to give the ashes of the father figure a final resting place, the mother cannot tolerate her daughter’s lackadaisical ways while the daughter abhors her mother’s relentless materialism. This is essentially the tale of a Chinese Tiger Mum whose claws fail to get a firm grip on her rebellious teenage ‘only-child’ daughter whose silence and blank expressions are her weapons of defiance.

The film’s emotional trajectory resembles a slow-cooker, with tensions fed by the grating voice of the mother whose words have no filter. Somehow, one gets a feeling this would build up to an entirely recognisable strain of hysterics displayed in viral social media videos of ‘Chinese women rage’. And the film does not disappoint in that regard. We get a meltdown payoff in the middle when the daughter can no longer bottle up her feelings and the two women erupt into a shouting match. Thankfully, the director is more nuanced in her approach and offers the observers a more framed look at the bickering between the two women, through cutaways and the use of glass reflection in the bedroom. In addition, Degena’s choice of inserting an abrupt private moment of the mother crying, hidden from her daughter’s view, is enlightening and enrichens the emotional equation between them, especially when the daughter sobs openly at the disposing of the ashes. In the sea’s embrace, their differences seem to suddenly drown into the overture of the waves.

Seemingly not wanting to break the aurally immersive experience left off by The Sea, the second short film by Daishi Matsunaga, Hekishu, continues to offer a poetically framed palette for the senses. If trivialised, the film can be called a ‘Lonely Planet’ take on a sub-tropical romance. After all, the film will remind anyone of Myanmar’s spell on its visitors, perhaps not of the golden pagoda kind in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘Mandalay’, but more of the rustic, village kind. The film has no shortage of richly-coloured cutaways of village life in Myanmar, with the dizzying array of mechandise at the markets, garishly-coloured fabrics billowing in the wind and men in their longyis scuttling in and out of the train cabins. However, the film speaks beyond just the wanderlust in all of us, exploring the psyche of villagers trapped by circumstances.

A Japanese businessman finds himself in a sticky situation with one foot in the shoes of a modern development messiah and the other in the flimsy slippers villagers tread the earth in. Not to be confused with an equally moppy-haired Japanese visitor in the tropics played by Takumi Saitoh in Eric Khoo’s Ramen Teh, this moppy-haired Japanese is involved in a major infrastructure project in Yangon that will lead to the demolition of existing villages and cause many to be homeless. While occupationally an intruder, the film portrays him more an ally, as he very much does what the Romans do, take their trains, walk their streets, and eat their food.

A chance encounter with a young girl at the textile market brings him one step deeper into the lives of these villagers whose homes will be destroyed by his project. He was shopping to make a traditional Burmese dress for his girlfriend and settled for a young petite seamstress. In rushing the job for him, they strike an accidental friendship, that through a chance encounter with her mother, leads to a dinner experience in her humble home. Something serendipitous then happens in the middle of dinner - the power goes off, the dining space becomes pitch black and then suddenly everyone starts singing ‘Happy Birthday’ as they bring out a candle in a bizarre response to a power outage situation. It’s just tradition when the lights go out, they say. But in his vantage point, it speaks volumes of a bittersweetness of being caught between many roles, that of a friendly foreign guest in a ‘Lonely Planet’ situation, a potential catch-of-a-husband to her daughter and the village-destroying industrialist lurking inside. 

Hekishu is a beautifully-photographed film that gloriously captures an off-beaten track view of Myanmar, right into the intimate confines of a home. But none of this beauty stands without the film’s deep sense of irony, a feeling that time will eventually consume it all. 

Indonesian Edwin’s short Variable No. 3 dances to a completely different beat from The Sea and Hekishu. As an oddball comedy, it eschews the heavy notions that are commonly associated with a theme like ‘journey’, such as loss, regret, fate. It is instead a walk in the park, and more specifically, a park of sexual discovery. The film follows an Indonesian couple who are tourists in a Japanese town and searching for what seems like an AirBnB abode. There is a sense of relief between them being in a foreign country, relishing in the serenity of the suburban neighbourhood (a respite from the traffic jams in Jakarta!), but there is also a sense of awkwardness between them, not least accentuated by the neck brace the husband is wearing, which restricts his movement and interaction with his wife. When they finally arrive and the abode and meet Kenji the tour guide and host, who turns out to be a fellow Indonesian, things were about to take on an even stranger turn. Kenji recommends some off-the-beaten track excursions, imposes some behavioural rules on the couple and engineers a [SPOILER ALERT] ménage à trois between him and the couple, all packaged in a sort of radical therapy for marriage. 

With tropes of reverse psychology and the playing of mind games reminiscent of Eyes Wide Shut, director Edwin finds his moments of truth in the film through an artificial construct. The characters, particularly the couple, are guarded in their interactions, which makes the rare moments of honesty akin to quenching a thirst. Obviously, sex served as a moment of catharsis for the couple, a moment of truth, but in most other moments, Edwin preseved a layer of ambiguity on their relationships and how it would evolve after Kenji’s therapy. Perhaps this is where we say in the omnibus that certain journeys are life-long and there is never a final stop.

The screening of The Asian Three Fold Mirror: Journey in Singapore on 7 September was organised by the Singapore Film Society and Japan Creative Centre. It premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival last year and is the second omnibus after the inaugural piece was conceived in 2017.

Review by Jeremy Sing

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