Short Film Reviews: SHINIUMA & Beyond The Bridge @ Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections (2016)

Popularised in the mid-twentieth century, the appeal of the omnibus film sub-genre is self-evident: a successful omnibus series synthesises its constitutive short films together to produce a larger filmic vision, one that often contains a diverse variety of aesthetic sensibilities and directorial styles.

The Asian Three-Fold Mirror omnibus collection is a contemporary example of this type of “episodic cinema”. In view of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Japan Foundation Asia Center has made the 2016 edition, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections, available for screening online until 30 June 2020. Co-produced by The Japan Foundation Asia Center and the Tokyo International Film Festival, Asian Three-Fold Mirror 2016: Reflections connects three short films together under the theme “Living Together in Asia”. This theme thus highlights the greater objective of the films: to share the beauty of Asia’s cultural and humanistic bonds with the global community.

SHINIUMA (Dead Horse), directed by Brillante Ma Mendoza

The topic of the noncitizen migrant is a perennial issue that remains especially relevant in the age of globalisation. Where does a person turn to, when they are essentially disqualified from being a part of any social community? What, in fact, actually constitutes a home? And what happens if this conception of home is taken away from you? SHINIUMA delves into these questions through the figure of Marcial, or “Manny” (Lou Veloso), a Filipino-born illegal migrant who works at a Hokkaido ranch as a stable hand. Despite having lived in Japan for 30 years, however, Manny is suddenly deported by immigration officers and forced to return to the Philippines. Upon return, he discovers that his home village is no longer there; his family has been dispersed all over the country.

The film effectively captures the harsh reality of Manny’s social alienation with an impressive degree of verisimilitude. As we trace Manny’s deportation journey from Japan to the Philippines, we observe how the despondent figure of Manny is evidently disoriented by the abruptness of his deportation and how his world is turned upside down. Often, he has nobody to turn to for help in either country. Indeed, when the Japanese immigration officers interrogate the ranch owner, the ranch owner simply lets Manny go. In the Philippines, despite receiving some temporary aid from his brother, Manny ultimately moves out once he recognises the financial burden he poses on his brother by staying. It is revealed that Manny’s decision to leave the Philippines for Japan thirty years ago has left his relationship with his son, Julio, deeply sour to the point Julio despises Manny. We further discover that when Manny's wife and other son died years ago, Manny did not even bother to send anything from Japan to Julio.

The parallel between Manny and the race horse is a recurring motif. Manny and the race horse—which he so admires—are both trapped by the confinement of their respective institutions. The race horses' are trapped in their stables, with their sole purpose being reduced to racing against other horses; even in their races, we see that the horses are literally trapped in heavy mechanical harnesses whichare attached to their bodies, evidently hinting that the stifling nature of such horse-races. Similarly, Manny is socially displaced and unable to reach out for help and find familial kinship despite his efforts. More literally, Manny suffers from a physical injury that prevents him from proper movement. All of these are additionally compounded by the ostensible purposelessness of his existence as well. This symbolic relationship between the horses and Manny carries through to the end of the film, where Manny eventually escapes into the Santa Ana racetrack and finds a means of living there. Some solace is seemingly found as Manny’s journey comes full circle: he is back at a ranch, just as he was at the beginning of the film. But this semblance of hope is quickly destroyed as Manny witnesses the execution of an injured horse. Just as we realise that the horse owners killed it because it has lost its only purpose—to be able to race—the film cuts to black. We find a tragic parallel between the dead horse and Manny, for in a somewhat utilitarian view, both of them have lost their value to society.

SHINIUMA is a short film that packs an emotional punch in its depiction of the struggles of the illegal migrant displaced from both their “host” country and “original” country. Stylistically saturated in a melancholic atmosphere and surrounded by profound themes, SHINIUMA is a tragic tale of the loss of one’s sense of home and identity. Indeed, similar to how his former home village has become a ghost town, Manny himself is like a ghost: haunted by the vestiges of his past, yet denied any social inclusion in the present nor future.

Beyond The Bridge, directed by Sotho Kulikar

Beyond The Bridge presents viewers with a fictional love story set in a historical context. When the Khmer Rouge rises in power, the socio-political pressures of civil war force Fukuda (Masaya Kato) to abandon his lover, Mealea (Chumvan Sodhachivy), and flee from Cambodia back to Japan. Decades later, Fukuda returns to Cambodia to oversee the reconstruction of the Japanese Bridge in Phnom Penh. Using the motif of the bridge, we retrace Fuduka’s relationship with Mealea in the past and how it was abruptly halted when the country was thrown into civil strife. As Fuduka rebuilds the bridge, he ruminates on whether Mealea is still alive.

The opening sequences of Beyond The Bridge are cinematographically impressive. The highly aesthetic dynamic between the dark colours, the interplay of lights, and the opening monologue of Fukuda all construct a rather convincing neo-noir atmosphere in the film. However, this stylistic strength of the film wanes as the story progresses. The narrative seems to infuse these neo-noir influences with the trope of a forbidden romance; while the two are not mutually exclusive in style, the latter eventually seems to overshadow and even drive the former out of the entirety of the film’s narrative.

The narrative of Beyond The Bridge reminded me of Eileen Chang’s Love in a Fallen City due to the similar thematic concerns of a romance unfolding amidst civil disorder, despite a reversal in the outcome of the romance in Beyond The Bridge. However, the film ultimately lacks the enchanting allure and emotional engagement of Chang’s story. The forbidden love trope at the core of the film remains strangely unconvincing and not engaging. I attribute this loss of emotional engagement largely due to the way the story is framed: in this case, the development of the characters are stifled and dulled—rather than accentuated—through the use of real-world circumstances which may otherwise help to establish a great degree of realism.

I did find that the use of English does come off as an impediment at times for the multi-linguistic dialogue. For instance, any sense of romance between Fuduka and Mealea tends to break down whenever either of them speaks in English. Rather than being a common language that bridges them together romantically, the English lines instead come off as awkward and somewhat contrived. Still, it is a commendable feat to include the use of English, Cambodian, and Japanese in the film’s dialogue, as such a diverse range of languages embodies the film’s transnational boundaries.

One noteworthy point about the film is its intriguing storytelling method that weaves in the micro-histories of individuals (such as Fuduka and Mealea) with the “larger” moments in history (like the Cambodian civil war). This presented an interesting avenue of perspectives on the history of very real and important issues, while making audiences root for the individual protagonists instead of some abstract collective mass or ideology. Nonetheless, much of the film’s potential to capitalise on this storytelling feature is lost, as it seems to skim past the larger questions of what is at stake in the film.

As a whole, the narrative leaves us with uncertain questions and unsatisfactory answers, both of which ultimately culminate in an unresolved denouement. Perhaps a greater emotional focus on the nature of human relationships during the catastrophe of civil war could have enabled the film to deliver greater emotional significance by its end. Indeed, emotional engagement is a bridge that this film had failed to go across, or, in other words, beyond.

The films can be accessed on The Japan Foundation Asia Center website:

Written by Bryson Ng
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