Review: Vinegar Baths by Amanda Nell Eu @SeaShorts

Two feet soaking in a body of water held by a porcelain tub. Still and quiet, with the red nail polish glaring back at the viewers with a sort of defiance, an edge beyond the gentleness and melancholy of the scene's cool blue tones. Slow and with clarity, her voice is heard and drips of blood stain the water red. 

Every drop of blood echoes, living on for longer than their moment on screen; lingering on like a spirit you are able to feel but not touch nor grasp with your warm hands. The sound was magnified, flooding your senses until the sounds are all you hear — the cracking of bones, wheeling of hospital trolleys and rolling skin on a plastic portable pool. 

"When I showed the sound designer Luka Kuncevic the cut, he felt that there was something that sucked you right into the world of these women, and so we both decided to play with silence, to have a feeling that is more introspective. And in silence, that is when you hear things at a more heightened state. The bones cracking and lips smacking - I wanted the audience to have goosebumps on their skin. The film is essentially about the body and it was important for me to showcase something sensorial so that it travels from image, to sound, to feeling the hairs stand on the back of your neck," shared Amanda Nell Eu, the director of Vinegar Baths. 

Visceral and almost dreamlike, Vinegar Baths is a short film about a tired and overworked nurse who finds joy in late night moments of being alone and to satisfy her hunger. Exploring the myth of the Penanggalan, Amanda adds a new dimension to her exploration of the woman's body and identity within the Southeast Asia. 

On why she decided on Penanggalan instead of the better known Pontianak, she said, "The Pontianak is the queen bee, the hot girl in high school that every guy wants to date and every girl wants to be! But actually, I think more Southeast Asian cultures have a Penanggalan, they are just named differently so I'm not sure who is more famous then. In Sabah she is called Balan-balan, Bali she is Le-ak, Thailand she is Krasue and Philippines she is Manananggal. She has many names and therefore isn't necessarily recognised just as the Penanggalan."

The myth goes that the Penanggalan is able to detach her head from her body, leaving her entrails dangling and feeds on newborn infants, the mother's placenta and blood. Not a classical undead being, she is very much human in the day while the night is when she thrives and feeds. 

Although seemingly gory, the film seems more surreal and dreamlike than anything else. Hues of pink, purple and a pastel wash paint over the scenes that lend gentleness to every scene. Nothing was made frightful or typical of a film looking to portray our mythical women of the region. The femininity and I would say beauty really came through.

"The colours really came when we were looking for a location to shoot in. It was difficult to shoot in a working hospital, so we ended up finding the basement of an old clinic, which in reality looked like an actual horror film set. The production designer, Sharon Chin, and I definitely did not want to create this "horror" atmosphere so we had the place fixed and cleaned up as best we could, but somehow there was this distinct texture that still lingered. That was really what inspired the look of the film, we got lucky with the location. It gave us so much and all we had to do was enhance it, every choice we made just seemed organic to the location. Also massive thanks to the cinematographer, Mahen Bala and the colour grader, Setyo Wibowo. I made everyone listen to Nicki Minaj and Cardi B when making this film, so the colours of the film may or may not have been inspired by their music!" Amanda revealed. 

Featuring an all-women cast and placing our bodies as vessels of celebration instead of shame, I enjoyed the unapologetic nature of Vinegar Baths. The complete embracing of identities and self-assuredness of each woman cast a different light to women representation, stories and perspective especially in film and media today. A subversion of the male gaze and letting the characters come to life simply because they can and deserve to be. 

Amanda wrapped up the conversation with her thoughts on the film being women-centric and representation in general: "Vinegar Baths is women-centric because as a woman, it's my honest representation of the story I am trying to tell. I think it's always important for film to have a diverse representation of people behind and in front of the camera because that's really what creates diverse storytelling. It's not okay if we just kept seeing the same types of stories with the same types of characters on screen all the time. That's just storytelling from one side and the more this side is shown the more we feel uncomfortable about all the other wonderful sides that are present in this world."

And it is films like these that make me glad to be living as a woman today, to feel represented and to occupy a still very much patriarchal space without apology. To see pride and small joys reflected on screen makes me feel that one day, everyone will be able to live this way and no longer will anyone be a plot device for anybody else. 

Here's to Vinegar Baths, a film about women for women — no frills, no strings attached, no stereotypes.
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