Short Film Review: Southeast Asian Short Film Competition Programme 1

Programme 1 of the Singapore International Film Festival's (SGIFF) Southeast Asian Short Film Competition this year offers a diverse selection of shorts discussing melancholia and self-discovery. From a love story ruined by politics, to heartrending tales of loss and letdown in relationships, the films reflect the many flaws, disappointments and surprises that life harbours for all of us.

Given the latest ongoing political crisis in Thailand, the message in Red Aninsri hits close to home for the average Thai cinemagoer. The quirkiest film of this selection, Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke's camera follows a transgender woman, Ang, who leads a double life as a sex worker and a secret government agent. Assigned a mission to seduce a student activist who has been deemed “a threat” to the state, she instead ends up falling for him.

It shows the state’s attempts to manipulate, control, and brainwash its people. Even how all actors’ voices were dubbed with a “perfect” voice suitable for their roles – a trans woman, a heroic stateman, a villainous opposition – before starting to reveal their “imperfect” but real voice later on, could resonate with those frustrated with the political turmoil. This moment is also a turning point for Ang to be “awaken” and rethink the value of her action.

The title seems to be a nod to Thai superhero story Red Insri, written during the Cold War. The ambience, colour palette, framing and camera angles are also meant to embody the style of Thai cinema in those decades. On the other hand, it steers refreshingly off the male-dominated narrative of that age and this genre by featuring a trans woman in the lead role. Being a societal outcast further complicates her journey of self-discovery. Alas, we are not afforded the happy ending we desire: in spite of an elevated sense of self-awareness, Ang still can’t help but be swallowed into the flow of new norms, unable to break free.

One of SGIFF’s grant recipients, Judy Free tells a warm but somewhat heartbreaking story of family dynamics through the eyes of a child of a migrant worker family in the Philippines. The youngest of the family, Judy often looks for an airplane in order to feel just a bit closer to her father who lives and works on the opposite side of the world. Six years later, he comes home, and almost immediately, both appear to realise that they barely know each other.

The figure of the father is silhouetted over in pastel colours throughout the story, emphasising how little his daughter knows about him. Bits of him are revealed little by little as he spends more time with his family. Still, his face remains concealed from the audience, mirroring the opacity his children must have felt around him, unable to read and understand this father figure. Judy yearns to be connected with her father, but when the opportunity comes, it feels more like a failure.

Within a short amount of time, the film manages to brilliantly capture and portray the complex feelings of families caught in such a situation. In the ending scene, the family calmly moves on with life despite their sadness. The father is left behind, washed away in the sea of people—a shadow, a stranger to his family.

Death is nature, but remains a subject many wish they could avoid facing. In The Smell of Coffee, a young boy named Raga naively asks questions about the absence of his grandfather as he accompanies his grandmother. She holds her tongue, keeping her composure as if wanting to spare the feelings of the young boy, or perhaps being unable to accept her loss. However, her grief unveils itself as the film progress and her grandson picks up on it, albeit with confusion.

The apartment is small and homely, but manages to exude a vibe of a boundlessly empty void overwhelmed with loneliness. The two carry out their daily routine, and their emotions unfold as the apartment continues to fade. Things are disappearing and the light is dimming. Although photographs showcase themselves as being part of a big family, both are left alone to deal with feelings stirring from the passing of an important figure in their lives. The simplicity of it lays bare on how ordinarily devastating this fact of life can be for all of us.

Tranquil and touching on a spiritual level, The Unseen River explores the lives of people existing along the Mekong River in Vietnam. Seemingly disconnected narratives at the beginning, the film follows a woman reuniting with her fisherman ex-lover from decades ago at a hydroelectric power station, as well as a young couple travelling downstream to see a monk to cure the guy’s insomnia. With the great river in the background, the former reminisce their past affairs with tenderness, while the latter disclose their anguish about their unsettling future.

“The river has no return” is commonly used to refer to how time goes by with no turn back. Water is vital, and inseparable from our lives. The film emphasises and exhibits the natural ebb and flow of life with wide, gorgeous shots of the grand landscape and architecture that simultaneously expose how vulnerable and small everyone is. Life is all about uncertainty, but one thing's for sure: All will fade with time, for it remains loyal only to itself.

The 31st edition of the Singapore International Festival (SGIFF) is happening from 26 Nov to 6 Dec 2020 both online and in cinemas. Visit their website for the programme lineup and to purchase tickets.

Written by Jintamas Saksornchai
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