Short Film Review: California Dreaming (2019)

We hear the sound of waves crashing against the seashore before we see our protagonist, Sarita, walking purposelessly along a beach. The roaring cacophony of the waves gradually overwhelms us as she stops, the pale blue of her blouse blending into the ocean, closing her eyes and taking in a huge breath – a moment in solitary reflection and escape, giving oneself away to nature. 

This sense of escape is the essence of California Dreaming, a short film directed by Sreylin Meas. Sarita, a woman from Phnom Penh, has come to a seaside resort in Cambodia to escape from the responsibilities and problems in her urban life – indeed, calls from her mother keep her tethered to the reality that this tranquility is only a reprieve. Instead of enjoying herself or relaxing, Sarita gazes with a sombre fatigue that weighs her down.

That is until a chance encounter with Sak, a worker at the resort. After a few moments of hesitant conversation Sak invites her to a large house nearby, and through the rest of the day in-between subtle glances do they begin to reveal more about themselves to each other. They speak equivocally, and yet, it is the understanding of what is left unsaid about their problems that authentically connects the two. 

The film is heavily restrained, instead focusing the camera to treat each subject with the same languor, care and dedication like a portraitist. In this sense California Dreaming exists within the same paradigm as Portrait of a Lady on Fire (dir. CĂ©line Sciamma, 2019), which also paints the budding relationship of two women in delicate chiaroscuro and composition. The railings of the nature path where they first meet, for instance, forms leading lines to focus our attention to Sarita and Sak. The blocking presents an equal exchange of information that they provide about themselves, slowly opening each other. The result is an aesthetically pleasing, symmetrical image that reflects their compatibility for each other, even though they haven’t realised it yet. 

But the essence of the film lies in how these characters break free from the mold set on them. Sarita’s mother’s phone calls interrupt the peace of her mini-vacation; Sak confesses that her arranged marriage didn’t work out. It is in the framework of societal molds, with the disappointment and dread of the urban everyday, that they find kindred spirits within each other. We see this framework in the dense foliage of the trees, hiding even a bit of free sky; we see this in the constraining walls of the house that Sak invites Sarita to. And yet, despite the seeming restriction, the camera makes sure to shoot each of them in the center, balanced by architectural doorframes and lines and establishing eyelines beyond the camera to each other.  The effect is such that the camera appreciates the beauty of each individual, lingering with a precious kind of sensuality that refuses to lift its head beyond the overt. It is, essentially, the female gaze that both California Dreaming and Portrait do so well with technical mastery measured with careful restraint. 

Unlike Portrait, Meas never lets us see more than the barest interaction. Its vast ellipses in time hint at the developing relationship, instead of showing it. Day scenes cut to night scenes after barely a conversation; almost no time is wasted after their first kiss to cut to the following day, when Sak drives Sarita around on her motorcycle. The minimalist style of acting adopted by Monysak and Sarita never expresses anything more than subtle curiosity and desire either. In this sense, an audience without the patience to only witness snippets of a relationship that barely completes the whole might dismiss the film as disjointed, or perhaps even boring. 

But what is felt, more than anything, is the absence of such connections. If the rustling of trees and the sibilance of crickets do not backdrop each scene, the crashing of the waves do. The only time there is silent ambient sound is the hotel room Sarita stays in – it’s no coincidence that in the only time that she finds herself in an enclosed space in the film, the unnatural greenish lighting is accompanied with unnatural silence. Dialogue is offered, soft and gentle, that always seems to respect the sounds of nature. If anything, Meas invites us to experience the patient tranquility of the diegesis and the spaces left unbroached or unsaid in connecting to a stranger. It offers a reprieve from the fast-paced maximalism of the film landscape today – another escape from the status quo. 

In the end, Sarita looks beyond a pier, then turns back to us and walks. A whole horizon to her, and yet she is returning – a rejection of freedom? Or is it that she is returning to Sak, who has become Sarita’s freedom itself? That is for you to decide. But whatever it is – freedom, peace, or quietude, their connection is undeniable. 

Review by Ethan Kan
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