SeaShorts Competition Shorts: Our TOP 10 Picks

The 2020 and fourth edition of SeaShorts has showcased yet another new crop of Southeast Asian voices from the region. From family feuds to family funerals, from urban tales to indigenous fables, from the personal to the political, the 28 in-competition short films run the gamut of genres and styles. We had the pleasure of watching them all and we have our own top 10 list of films. Here they are.

Here, Here (2019) Dir. Joanne Marian B. Cesario (Philippines)

Don’t stare too close into the screen if you are watching this from or you may be in for some skin-crawling surprises. This Filipino short film is relentless in its use of visual metaphors to tell its story. Centred around the motif of scars, physical, emotional and even geological, Here, Here follows a young man named Koi as he seeks to deal with the loss of his father who was buried in a collapsed mine. Instead of dwelling on the emotional, grief as felt by Koi is transposed into intermittent aural and visual flashes of a dark mine. Koi also develops a sensitivity to noise that seems like a side-effect to internalised grief. He even gets his mum to do what his dad does best in the mines, to his ear - dig. So in fact this cathartic process titillates more than it relates, which is a rather esoteric take on loss and love. To the extent that when Koi’s mother really sobs at the end, it felt like a stab in the heart. Part visual poetry, part film art, part epidermal science lesson, the film wins on concept and even more on execution. 

BURA (2019) Dir. Eden Junjung (Indonesia)

BURA is potentially the most violent short among the competition entries. Brace yourself for a scene Thaipusam devotees would be sharing notes about - village men or ‘mob’ putting their faith to the test when they offer their arms to the cutting test of the knife by the cell leader. But of course, no need to fear as the art department knew just how to evoke maximum fear without creating a bloody mess.  About indoctrinated village mobsters going on a witch hunt of ‘ninjas’ during the late-90s rioting period in Indonesia, the film, in an economical way, tells a tale of a forbidden friendship that finds a way to thrive in the midst of societal hostility. Bura essentially depicts how ideological radicalism builds up into a terrifying bush fire, but punctuated in between with a secret rendezvous between a teenage boy and girl. Director Eden Junjung makes the audience hold their breath at various points, including the above-mentioned knife point, but never overstaying those moments. 

Peon (2019) Dir. June Wong, Shaiful Yahya, and Syaz Zainal (Malaysia)

Malaysian entry Peon is an obvious standout for basing its film entirely on a delivery driver’s phone screen activity. Who would have thought icons, Google maps, SMSes and blurry FaceTime footage could tell such a riveting tale! Many filmmakers may have already shot movies using their iPhones. Park Chan-Wook even won a Golden Bear for his iPhone-shot short film Night Fishing. But this uses the phone on an entirely different level. In fact, the real time responses of the customers and friends the driver interacts with heighten the urgency of the plot, reminding us that so much of the tension we face these days are played out in text and recorded messages. In Peon, a group of migrant workers from Bangladesh offer money to the delivery driver to deliver their passports to them, something that offers a key to escaping some unknown predicament. They put the driver in a dilemma for requiring him to drive off the prescribed route. With both suspense, danger and a sense of moral urgency, the film stirs the adrenalin. And it even ends with a small cliffhanger.

Star (Tokwifi) (2019) Dir. Carla Pulido Ocampo (Philippines)

Filipino film Star or Tokwifi, deals with a clash between indigenous culture and the celebrity culture of the 1950s, in the most visually ingenious way. An indigenous farmer and a 50s screen star find themselves thrown into a too-close-for-comfort encounter. She was dropped right into his territory like a flaming asteroid and she is not exactly flesh and bones, more like light tubes - she appears as a character trapped in a show that is flashing on a vintage TV set. Speaking different languages, they are bound by the urgency of the encounter and her neediness as a prisoner of the supernatural circumstances. The film bravely takes on the risky venture of melding complex themes of indigenous identity, empowerment, social mores and even nostalgia together in a fantastical genre. While that’s a lot to take in, the film’s eloquence makes the length of the film (20min) pretty easy to bear. 

Mary, Mary, So Contrary (2019) Dir. Nelson Yeo (Singapore)

Who knew that a short film based on a few what ifs and whimsical cultural transplant can be so captivating? Mary, Mary, So Contrary blends together two cultural bastions of the mid-20th century, tragic female figures of vintage Chinese movies and old Hollywood. Ma Li lives in two alternate universes for no rhyme or reason other than SIngapore director Nelson Yeo’s irreverent experimentation with form. Ma Li is the tragic Chinese bride-to-be who pines for her little lamb. After she kills herself in a boiling hot spring pool to escape an arranged marriage, she wakes up as Mary on a train in an Alfred Hitchcock movie (The Lady Vanishes). Even the groom-to-be who died with Ma Li had a Western equivalent - Alfred. It gets more bizarre than this but the glue that keeps this Frankenstein of a piece together is Nelson’s curatorial work of finding snippets from two movies that would sync with each other and with the parlour game narrative. Nelson is so invested in the story that one would really wish Ma Li would meet Mary in the end.

A Remembering of Disremembering (Ang Pag-alaala sa Sadyang Paglimot (2019) Dir. Cris A. Bringas (Philippines)

Cris A. Bringa’s documentary is a sweet look at the life of a classic cinema hall, the Times Theatre in Manila, told through the lens of a film projectionist who maintains the place on the inside, as well as an aging actress reminiscing about her time there, looking in from the outside. The film draws us into an understanding of a country’s past cinematic history amongst the mass commercialisation of the moviegoing experience, the theatre being a remaining beacon of tradition. The film is all the more moving at a time where physical cinemas seem to be in a state of limbo, reminding us of the importance we assign places, the sentimental power they hold and the memories we share in them.

Hush, tonight the dead are dreaming loudly (2019) Dir. Kong Pahurak (Thailand)

Kong Pahurak’s suspenseful, cleanly shot and ultimately moving tribute to those lost to civil unrest and political protest in Thailand. Through focusing on the survivors, Pahurak palpably traces the intangible feeling of loss and the human desire to justify our actions and sacrifices based on larger causes. The seemingly permanent scars we gain from losing loved ones and the ghostly presence they leave behind are made literal as a woman encounters her seemingly dead husband at an anniversary ceremony. Deeply haunting and poignant in equal measure.

The Cloud Is Still Here (2020) Dir. Mickey Lai Loke Yee (Malaysia)

An emotionally taut exploration of the clashing religious and cultural beliefs at the heart of a family, between members and generations, as a Taoist mother and Christian daughter plea to their Gods to heal their terminally ill grandfather. Mickey Lai holds a stunning sense of emotional maturity for her debut short film, while also having a strong eye for composition, crafting beautiful images and through shots of scenery, capturing a sense of atmosphere that speaks to the inner stirring of the soul. Moments of calm are intruded by fantastic explosive scenes between actors, and the lack of proper resolution between family members leaves the viewer with a knot in their stomach, being left to ponder our modern understanding of pride, respect and familial duty.

Shitpost (2019) Dir. Wimar Herdanto (Indonesia)

Named after what Wikipedia defines as “posting aggressively, ironically and of trollishly poor quality content to an online forum or social network”, is Wimar Herdanto’s ode to our current extremely online cultural climate and all its strange rules and complexities. Seen through the eyes of the elderly (comparative to his high school girlfriend) Zakaria, who has a rude awakening in his realisation that kids no longer find motorcycle tricks cool, as he scrambles to embrace the now of YouTube vape reviews and VR goggles. Herdanto crafts a deluge of sharp jokes and observations, while loading the film with absurd imagery, featuring one of the oddest intimate scenes you’ll see at the festival or possibly any corner of our weird internet for that matter.

Stay Awake Be Ready (2019) Dir. Pham Thien An (Vietnam)

Pham Thien An’s astounding single shot film, that was recently awarded the Illy Prize for Best Short Film at Cannes Directors ’Fortnight 2019, capturing a visceral glimpse at nighttime street corner in Vietnam. From this single location, An creates an almost cosmic tapestry of philosophical musings, elemental connections and an ever present sense of conflict. A must see that leaves the viewer in awe at life and all it’s strange connections and absurdities.

Written by Matthew Chan and Jeremy Sing

The SeaShorts Film Festival Awards Ceremony will be held tomorrow 20th September at 7pm online. You can watch it from the SeaShorts Facebook page.

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