Short Film Review: Juren // 巨人 (2019)

Still water runs deep. In a placid stop motion animated piece that transports the viewer into a somewhat surreal underwater world, complete with the quintessential ‘Nat Geo’ marine life soundtrack, our understanding of nature is disrupted, and our conventional wisdoms about life and its purpose challenged. One does not need to peer too deep into the film 巨人 (Juren) to understand its intent. The writing is all there, and in fact, the film is flooded with text, on newspaper print. The Zhuang brothers (real twin brothers Henry and Harry Zhuang), partners in animation with several prominent works over the years, invite us to literally read in between the lines, with the use of an evocative visual motif - newspaper cuttings. 

Newspapers form the visual bedrock, pardon the pun, of the marine-themed film. Some are crushed into shapes that complete an island or a seaside landscape, while the rest are cut into amorphous discs that form units of water or scales on the bodies of fishes. With an interplay of dramatic lighting, cinematographic variation and most integral of all, hypnotic sound design that meanders between the realistic and the phantasmagorical, the newspaper fragments gain dimension as the film’s visual currency. We could even add to that, emotional and intellectual currency. This is especially so when the camera trains in on cuttings that carry certain words. One particular cutting that had floated onshore had the phrase 人文学科 or humanities on it. This cutting sank into the ground and a tree emerged where it sank. While bordering on being slightly didactic, moments like these create a somewhat different headspace for understanding the film, one that relates more to the world inhabited by the poem which inspired the film, 巨人, written by artist-poet Tan Swie Hian, in the 60s.

The poem obviously evokes a world that is more complex than the film. There is evidently a message about taking the road less travelled and going where nobody has gone before, intertwined with thoughts about fatherhood and sacrifice. There is also the question of divine powers and where the forces of nature stand in relation to that. In the film, the makers have chosen not to chase the words of the poem, but instead plant the seeds of its wisdom on new soil, and craft an original fable out of it. Essentially, Juren the film tells the story of a brave fish who took the unbeaten path, breaking away from its tribe, and through its sacrifice, sowed the seeds of a new world, signified by the emergence of a dense new jungle that bore, too conveniently, an allegory to nation-building. But thankfully, the film avoids an absolutist grip on the narrative and this opens doors to the larger world of the poem’s themes and influences. This is also where understanding the filmmakers’ interpretations, the larger socio-political context of the poems and even knowing what the poet was thinking about in the 60s when penning this piece, enriches our appreciation of the film tremendously. Tan Swie Hian, who wrote the poems in the 60s, found himself in a certain crucial juncture of his life, having left behind turbulent adolescent years and broken his father’s hopes for him to takeover the family business. But 巨人 the poetry collection also marked the starting point for Tan as a pioneer of modernist Chinese literature in Singapore. 

Not to discredit the filmmaking brothers, but the film succeeds in bridging a dialogue between the audience and Tan, allowing us to swim into the deepest corners of his psyche and find a personal resonance to the story beyond the confines of a simple fish tale with all its familiar tropes of discovery and courage. In fact, the film’s ability to forge a connection with the original literature is adaptation at its best. One watching this piece by the Zhuang brothers is likely to experience the same journey of digging through multiple layers of consciousness only to realise more questions surface even as the field of vision expands. And the more we revisit, the more unsettling it becomes. 

Review by Jeremy Sing 

While the film was originally commissioned by the National Arts Council for Utter 2017, which is part of the Singapore Writers' Festival, the brothers reworked the film over the next 1.5 years and are proud to have the film selected for the Annecy International Animation Film Festival starting this week! You can watch the festival films online with a fee. Here is the link to the film screening section online.
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