Short Film Review: Stay Awake, Be Ready | Hãy Tỉnh Thức Và Sẵn Sàng (2019)

Phạm Thiên Ân’s Stay Awake, Be Ready is many things: a bold technical marvel composed of a single moving shot, a visceral glimpse at Vietnam’s nightlife, and a surprisingly affecting depiction of the chaotic nature of human life and the almost cosmic coincidences that happen everyday. The film, recently awarded the Illy prize for Best Short Film at Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 2019, features a striking sense of minimalism, depicting the single location of a busy street stall corner in Vietnam and the many distinct events occurring in them. By simply panning the camera the film moves from one narrative to another, that of a violent motorcycle accident to a child street performer and three friends grabbing drinks, all perfectly timed and choreographed. What sets Phạm Thiên Ân apart from other directors known for long takes, like Tsai Ming-Liang or Chantal Akerman, is that while their long takes are mainly used to create an isolating, almost monotonous effect through their minimalism, Ân instead uses them to capture the rapidly shifting kinetic energy of a single location. 

The film starts by showing the street corner, yet dialogue is kept completely offscreen. While observing the woks of stall owners blaze up, the audience is treated to a rambling philosophical discussion about the wisdom of an elderly woman, friends waxing poetic about how “human faith swells up big real quick when they’re sick or on their last breath”. The idea of death looms for a second before the scene is interrupted by an offscreen motorcycle crash, only indicated from the sight of onlookers rushing to the left of the frame and exclamation of “Shit! Crash, guys!” Through the juxtaposition between the idea of death and actual danger, one of the central ideas of the film becomes abundantly clear: through the microcosm of the street corner, the absurd interconnected nature of human existence can be observed. 

This holistic sense of unity is also explored through visual motifs within the physical space, particularly through the elemental connection of fire. When the film shifts focus and the camera zooms out, fire is always used to introduce a subject, moving from the fire in woks, the flaming torches the child performs with and the cigarette lit on a stovetop by a man. Many of the connections the film continuously makes are rather implicit, yet help add to a feeling of depth in its 14 minutes. One detail I particularly liked was a conversation about an elderly woman transitioning to the camera’s focus on a child, in a way that subtly captured the breadth of human experience. 

By locking the frame in a single take, the audience’s view may seem limited, but Ân playfully uses this to his advantage. Almost every instance or implication of violence and conflict in the film is purposefully kept offscreen—first from the inciting motorcycle accident, then later on, friends exchanging images of the accident on their phones over hotpot. The audience is never shown these images and yet are left with the vivid description of how the motorcyclist’s “spilled his brains out on the road”. The implication of violence creates perhaps a more visceral understanding of it for the audience than anything else, while also highlighting how casually conflict is embedded in the flow of life. 

However, this rigorous sense of restraint from Ân in withholding violent imagery and keeping the camera in a perpetual zoom out, as well as the previously established motif of fire, is completely dismantled in the final scene of the film. Offscreen, the character Bao chases after the child and cuts his foot. As he lumbers back the audience has the expectation of this restraint, yet he props his foot up on a table, leaving the wound in clear sight for everyone to see. The camera breaks its pattern and starts to zoom in, capturing every gnarly detail of the wound. Ironically it starts to rain, introducing an antithesis to fire, and the audience is forced to understand the nauseating outcome of such conflict. One last thing, however, that sticks out on the table in juxtaposition to Bao's bleeding leg is grilled chicken legs—one final visual prodding of the absurdity of life and all its coincidences. 

Written by Matthew Chan
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