SeaShorts 2020 Film Festival: Best of Golden Harvest

Finding a common thread amongst the short films in this year's “Best of Golden Harvest” programme within the SeaShorts festival has taken me longer than anticipated. Aside from the fact that each of the short films were made by Taiwanese and Chinese directors, they are all incredibly different from one another. All of the short films truly show the breadth at which the art of short film can be used to highlight different themes and ideas in under thirty minutes.

Honestly, that’s the reason why these programmes are so interesting: to really understand the way the same art form can be used by different people to tell such polar opposite stories, each one more interesting and compelling than the other.

The Calling (令) 

The short film that spoke to me the most was Chia Hsien Chou’s 25 minute short The Calling (令). Centering around a recent high school graduate, Chin Yu Pan as Ding You, grappling between the expectations of his god, his father and himself, the short focuses on his need to decide between going to art school and becoming a civil messenger for his god. Chou casts himself as Ding You’s supportive friend, Jun Cheng, who seems to have gone through all this before and is constantly encouraging Ding You to follow his dreams.

While Chou’s realism is compelling enough, it is really when The Calling divulges into abstract territory when the short film begins to shine. Starting within a dream-like sequence during a religious ceremony where Ding You has already taken over the role of civil messenger, there is a constant ringing of a bell and his mind seems to be elsewhere. Immediately his preoccupation with his future is being foreshadowed. This feeling of tension is further emphasized in the film’s climax when Chou lets the short enter back into abstract territory and floods the shots with colorful lights as Ding You races back to the temple.

Once in the temple, the camera turns to reveal his half-painted face. The difference between his plain skin and the painted face is stark: one is a representation of his personal ambition and the other of his faith and the traditions surrounding him. It is an obvious struggle, the duality of his choice clearly being spelled out for the audience. Ding You performs the civil messenger dance, this time with intense passion and focus. He is physically all alone, but as you watch him move around the space, you can almost see his mind becoming filled to the brim with thoughts on what decision he is supposed to make next.

Chou doesn’t resolve the story. It is not exactly clear on what Ding You chooses to do tomorrow, whether he decides to go for his art school interview or his civil messenger confirmation ceremony. The audience gets to feel his uncertainty for themselves, walking a similar tightrope of expectations. While The Calling has a few pacing issues and there is a general discordant feeling between the middle and the ending of the short, it is still an incredibly compelling story about the struggles of deciding what to do in the future. Director Chia Hsien Chou does a great job capturing the uncertainty of youth and the feeling of being stuck between your own hopes and dreams and what is expected of you by the world around you.

(Just a slight tangent: I suppose The Calling spoke to me so much because I am in the process of applying to universities as well and the threat that I will make the wrong decision looms large. There’s a deeply ingrained, but probably misguided, feeling that this choice will have enormous, irreversible impacts on my life. This sentiment is perfectly echoed in Chou’s film, with Ding You’s passivity being the thing I related to the most. It was only at Jun Cheng’s urging when he started taking his application seriously, which seems to have been the case for me as well.)

Be Shit or Not To Be (洛西‧布拉西)

Taiwanese director Chen Kuan-Chung’s short film falls apart in thirty minutes in the best way possible. If art is about telling what you know, then as a director Chen accomplishes this with incredible wit. Telling the story of a first time director-writer navigating the trials and tribulations of an ordinary film set, constant changes to the script, demanding actors, stressed out producers and a constant lack of enough time hang over the production, Be Shit or Not To Be is a hilarious insight into what an unruly film set is like.

Be Shit or Not To Be is oversaturated with chaos. Every minute the problems and conflicts pile up higher and higher and the “director’s” sanity quickly begins to disintegrate. He keeps returning to the idea of ‘utopia’ and the perfect metaphorical ending, but Chen seems to suggest that there is no such thing as ‘utopia’ and that the most important thing to remember when directing is to go with what’s thrown at you. Throughout the short film, Chen uses overly dramatic musical cues to highlight the different stages of despair. In another film this could be incredibly tedious, but it fits the tone of the short superbly. As the electric guitar parts start to become increasingly distorted, so does the mind of our ill-fated director. The repeated use of the ‘walk and talk’ technique rings of Aaron Sorkin’s work, and the choppy dialogue barely gives the audience a chance to take a breath.

Similarly adding to the atmosphere of madness, the short film repeatedly returns to the film-within-a-film, with each revision reflecting the changes that are being made off-screen and the voice over becoming increasingly exacerbated. The film inside the story, also called 洛西‧布拉西 after it’s detective protagonist, veers further and further off the rails, as the detective’s weapon keeps changing, characters become one another, and somehow zombies show up.

As the pandemonium of the set begins to build up, so does the audiences’ enjoyment. There’s just something so compelling about watching something so intricate fall apart so spectacularly. In the end, each of the crew members become the detective, essentially having each of their visions mashed together into some sort of story rojak.

And, best of all, Be Shit or Not To Be is funny. It made me, a notoriously stoic person when it comes to laughing at movies, wake up my family with laughing. Which is indicative of how inventive Chen’s vision really is.

Tea Land (高山上的茶園)

Taiwanese director Tseng Ying-ting is a bit more established than the others in this programme. He strays further from cinematic conventions, and allows himself to be more playful with his compositions than the rest.

Tea Land tells the story of five runaway workers from Thailand and Vietnam who have come to Taiwan to work illegally on a mountain high tea farm. The setting makes for some breathtaking shots of the rice farm almost floating in the sky. Its serenity is the perfect juxtaposing backdrop for the tension that builds within the story.

After the death of one of the workers, the already strained relationship between the four remaining workers begins to snap. With his unexplained death, he leaves all of his money behind. Money that each of the characters could easily use of their own gain. With each person out to fend for themselves, the trust between them quickly begins to burn down, ending in a damaging act of destruction.

Tea Land seems to be in its very own world. Both physically and metaphorically it is extremely removed from the rest of the world, with the very real threat of being found by the Taiwanese government slowly taking a backseat to the conflict between the characters as the film progresses. In the end, the characters become each other’s greatest dangers. Their motives are understandable: if they are able to find the dead man’s money, they can get out of there faster.

If Tea Land had to have a protagonist, it would probably be An, the dead man’s girlfriend who actually does know where the money is hidden. She becomes the target of the other worker’s threats, with one of them trying to bribe her into sharing half of the savings and another using more destructive methods to get to the money. She’s a mostly passive character, reacting to the other characters’ actions instead of initiating anything herself. Tseng uses her almost as just a plot device and the object of the others’ torment.

Tseng Ying-ting builds up to conflict extremely effectively. In a particular scene, instead of showing an altercation between two characters and slowly building up to some inevitable violence, he cuts from one character interrogating An about where the money is straight to her strangulation. Tseng lets the audience fill in the blanks

Tea Land is intriguing because of how inevitable the story feels. No matter how destructive the characters become, none of it is too far fetched to be believable. However, this might also be the reason it left me with the weakest impression. The film contains a few too many scenes which just leave the audience confused. A sex scene between An and the soon-to-be-dead man, with another worker watching them from inside the house, is a clear contender for this. The scene feels misplaced and does little to enhance the viewing experience.

Overall, Tea Land overcomes its shortcomings by being incredibly beautiful and an interesting insight into what extents people go to in dire situations, with particular praise going towards the performances of the actors, which never seem to veer too far from reality.

Fire at Forest (以啟山林)

Fire at Forest makes you watch the world burn. Directed by Burmese-Taiwanese director Myo Aung, it focuses on Yung-heung, a Burmese university student studying in Taiwan and returning to Myanmar to take advantage of the increasingly lucrative businesses attempting to turn Myanmar into farmland.

In 2010, Myanmar opened its borders. This was met with an incursion of foreign capital being placed into turning unclaimed land into farmland. Chinese businesses were the most aggressive in this, and Yung-heung and his friends are taking full advantage of this developing economy.

In order to make space for the farmland, the vegetation already growing needs to be cut off and burnt down. In his narration, Yung-heung repeatedly reiterates the fact that he knows what he is doing is harmful to the environment and incredibly destructive, but emphasizes the economic advantage this technique has. It’s fast, it’s cheap, and it’s what almost all developed countries did years ago before we realized how truly damaging burning down forests really is.

Myo Aung presents Yung-heung’s story with as much honesty as possible. Fire at Forest is objective and visually mesmerizing. No matter what you think of their actions, there’s a strange cataclysmic sense of peace that comes from watching a forest burn. It is heavily oxymoronic. Myo Aung forces his viewers to grapple with the ideas of environmental harm and doing anything to get out of the poverty cycle. To Yung-heung and his friends, this is their way out. And Yung-heung knows how powerful that statement is. He is willing to sacrifice his environmental impact in favor of his own personal gain.

It could very well be easy to judge Yung-heung for his actions, but Myo Aung makes this a very difficult task. Watching him work on the rice farm and interacting with his mother, he seems just like any other person trying to make a living for themselves. In the end, the audience can’t really blame him or his friends for what they are doing. All development requires some form of sacrifice. The destruction of the environment for economic benefit is nothing new.

What you really end up getting from Fire at Forest is a sense that no matter how hard we try, there will always be a disparity between the human desire to protect the world and to improve their own lives. As one of the songs Yung-hueng sings with his friends 《给朋友》suggests, we are all just trying to survive to live another day and pass a better future on to the people around us.

In the end, what really joins the programme together is the quality of the performances in each of the films.

Chin Yu Pan’s Ding You has a constantly conflicted energy to him throughout the entirety of The Calling, with really only half of his focus being on the story at hand and the other half contemplating the next steps he is meant to take with his life.

Each character in Chen Kuan-chung’s Be Shit or Not To Be is a perfect subversion of their archetypes, with everyone from the director and lead actress to the script supervisor and stunt coordinator being hilarious and believable characters with desires of their own.

In Tea Land, each actor’s performance of the migrant workers reflect the adversity that they inhabit and their actions are never unmotivated by their attempt at personal gain. It’s entirely believable that this group of people would turn against each other in the blink of an eye.

And lastly there is Fire at Forest’s Yung-heung, who is less of a character and more of a messenger for the idea that economic and social development require sacrifice and people will always, understandably so, be willing to do destructive things for the opportunity to improve their lives.

There’s a real beauty at the breadth of themes and ideas that the four short films in the Best of Golden Harvest programme are able to cover. Out of these four small stories, there is something that will be compelling for everyone.

Written by Valerie Tan
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