Short Film Review: Southeast Asia Short Film Competition Programme 4

Unspoken tensions in the family, in particular across inter-generational relationships seem to feature frequently in the fourth selection of shorts under the 31st Singapore International Film Festival Competition Shorts Programme 4. This is our final installment of the competition shorts review.

Estate by Lin Thet Aung

In honour of darkness, silence and nothingness. Just like its opening line, most of Lin Thet Aung’s Estate is visually obscured by either blackness or monochromatic lines, leaving much of the burden of plugging the narrative gaps to both the imagination and the audio track. A creaking gate swings open. The heaviness of the plod. A lighter flicks. We later feel the narrator’s frustration and acute helplessness through the very few lines in the short. “I have arms and legs, Dad. But my legs keep coming back to you,” he cries. We learn of a child who longs to break free from a father that is causing the suffering, a parent who is as good as absent. The home, a supposed safe space, now imprisons.

In one of the final scenes, he leaves us with a vivid memory of him watching his father from behind the curtains, a presence that he cannot see, but one that he instinctivey knows. Whatever we know about the narrator’s experience is but a mere fragment of our imagination. But for him, living in the shadows of his consciousness can be a gateway to his freedom.

How to Die Young in Manila by Petersen Vargas

The Latin root of the word desire, "desidus", is to be "away from the star". Our desires show us how we feel far from our destiny, our awareness, all that make up the essence of who we are. To desire, then, is to feel incomplete. We follow the teenage boy as he roams Manila in the dark of the night to meet an anonymous hookup, and see the struggle between the faces he shows the world: one to conform to regular expectations, and another betraying his innermost desire - the weight of the truth concealed behind social etiquette and tradition. Through the alleyways that are riddled with dumpsters and graffiti, flittering past the stench, the noise, and eventually under the blinding fluorescent lights of the underpass, he meets someone, only for the person to die.

The contrast is made even more prominent as passersby walk without a care, for his queerness, for the absurdity of that entire unsettling situation. He is in another world that they cannot access. The film ends before I thought it barely started. Does he end up with anyone? Will his search be rewarded? But if it is of any consolation, he doesn’t know either. This is his journey, which we will never have the answers to.

Pulang by Kin Wai Yam

In 1989, Cantopop darlings Priscilla Chan and Anita Mui each covered a song by Japanese pop star Masahiko Kondo. Mui’s cover won the best song in a music award ceremony that same year. But unlike the rivalry between the two, what Pulang shows us how there is no clear winner in this parent-child conflict, nor any competition between family. Subtle in its play, there is no dramatic outburst when Wei breaks the news to his parents on his engagement decision, and the confrontation scene between him and his father while they are both changing the car tyre does not escalate into hysterics. With mellowness, the family of four laughs away in the car, an ending that leaves us with hope of a first step towards acceptance.

The Cup by Mark Chua, Lam Li Shuen

What does it take to make a cup of coffee? A lot of suffering, as evident in that one good cup for the main character. At the beginning of the film, the being is dissatisfied, and later proceeds to go through various monumental tasks, hurting himself on a couple of occasions. At one point, he lies down and does nothing while the clouds pass by. Thinking about how lives have been upended in this current pandemic, we would all have been through lockdowns in one way or another. Sometimes even the most mundane and the easiest of tasks - making coffee - could be a difficult chore, and especially more so for those battling with mental illness. It is still a cup of coffee at the end of the day, and we are all fighting our own battles in one way or another, just to live to see another day.

A Trip to Heaven by Duong Dieu Linh

“One waiting, two expecting, three longing.” So goes the lyrics, with a pensive look on Mdm Tam’s face as she looks at her high school sweetheart sitting at the back of the bus, long dozing off. A trip to heaven brings us through a bus to the Mekong Delta, but it is really the beginning of an end.

Poignant though, is really the exchange at the start of the film between the two women, boasting about their grandsons’ love for them, a short silence shared as thoughts of leaving their loved ones behind leaving a tinge of regret.

How should we understand our mortality? A Trip to Heaven brings us through a mini adventure, and we see them having a fulfilling afterlife in an environment that is far from Hellish. For this, their grandchildren will be reassured, only if they knew.

This programme was part of the 31st edition of the Singapore International Festival (SGIFF).

Written by Jeslyn Bong
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