Short Film Review: Southeast Asian Short Film Competition Programme 2

Meditations on positions of liminality are discussed here in Programme 2 of the Singapore International Film Festival's (SGIFF) Southeast Asian Short Film Competition. Encompassing a diverse range of geographies and cultural contexts, from migrant workers in Singapore to lovers in Cambodia, what stands out seems to be this central question: what does it mean to be a part of a community, of humanity?

Rafael Manuel situates Filipiñana in a perfectly manicured golf course that conceals its faultlines and ugliness – a microcosm of Filipino society.

Young Isabel, a fresh migrant from the Ilocos province, is situated within this manipulated landscape. Her new job as a ‘tee-girl’ involves her teeing up golf balls for the men who patronise the golf course, dressed in a sleeveless blouse, skirt, and knee-high socks that seem made for a scopophilic male gaze. Indeed, in one shot, she is framed from in-between a patron’s legs while he swings his club. The golf club as a phallic object could not be more obvious here, and constructs this golf course as part of a patriarchal society.

In expert blocking and framing within a 4:3 ratio, Manuel successfully encaptures Isabel’s innocence as she explores the landscape around her, humming a song from her hometown about a fisherman who earns just enough to buy himself a bottle of rum – a classic example of the working class’ exploitation. Indeed, the film is just as much about gender as it is about class – rigamarole and order is important here, where tee-girls line up and attach themselves to patrons, who themselves arrive in a procession of golf carts. Landscapes dominate individuals.

What is Isabel’s worth in this masculine environment? The answer lies in one of the sundaes the manager devours. It is saccharinely, sickeningly red and white. Yet, flies permeate it, a result of its maddening sweetness.

In Here is Not There by Nelson Yeo, a man discusses the migrant workers from South Asia in Singapore to his fellow low-wage labourer. “We are different from them,” the man says. “We have a choice, they don’t.”

Yet, it becomes obvious that these distinctions quickly become arbitrary. The man imagines splitting himself into two, like a jellyfish reproducing, for more hands to provide for his family. The woman describes a dream where she herself is split into two beings – a position of liminality that Yeo has explored in his previous film, Mary, Mary, So Contrary – while images of Singapore’s own low-wage labourers, mostly the elderly, intercut the scene. The implication is obvious – under the same capitalist system, all workers are exploited, drifting like jellyfish with no anchor.

Yeo expertly blocks his characters within the constricting mise-en-scène of an industrialised Singapore, where individuals defer to multitudinous skyscrapers. He creates a sense of turmoil when we discover that the woman has become pregnant, breaking their terms of contract. An ironic tragedy is evoked; in the commodity fetishism of Singapore’s capitalism where new buildings materialise every other day, the exploited are refused the opportunity to conceive – indeed, to ‘construct’ – themselves, beyond the labour that they provide.

Still, as is the issue with Parasite, one questions the intentions of the film, given that it is made for the neoliberal elite that the film supposedly critiques. The film is an important one in the discourse surrounding the plight of workers, especially in the midst of COVID-19, but, as always, to question a film text is to be aware of its ideological purposes.

In Bình (dir. Ostin Fam), an alien in human form finds himself somewhere in Vietnam, in its picturesque islands. A grand temple is being built ‘for the Gods’, and the alien hopes to find someone so attuned to the divine to help rebuild his home planet.

It is this alien’s outsider view that exposes the fallibility of humanity instead. In black-and-white and fairly awkward zoom-ins, Fam creates a voyeuristic gaze as the alien sees an old man travel to meet a medium at the temple who connects him with his dead wife, and then to the medium (who has been appearing in the alien’s dreams) and her partner who discuss her occupation. “Aren’t you scared playing with Gods?” he asks. “There’s nothing to be scared of except starvation,” she replies, bringing up the chickens that her clients bring to her as their source of sustenance.

The symbol of the chicken, then, has an important, if not half-baked, significance. In a seeming dream-like sequence, the alien follows a chicken to find it has left an egg. Philosophical ideas follow – the chicken and the egg, and eventually to the higher powers who have decided. But realities crash in: it will simply be food for the starving.

The film exposes the vulnerabilities of humanity and its humanism in a seemingly godless world. But if this conclusion seems far-fetched, it may also be because of the film’s ambiguity – not a fault in and of itself, but one that leaves me wanting.

In Sunrise in My Mind (dir. Sanech Fam), in her small beauty parlour where ideals of beauty reign and where nothing is secret from the conversation of a client and her hairstylist, young Pich tries to downplay her crush on a delivery driver.

Interiority conflicts with exteriority, as the silences of Pich and her beau are contrasted against the gossip of her fellow beauticians. The film drags in the first half in setting up Pich’s surroundings, but things get more interesting as he comes late at night to wash his hair.

“If we don’t use our bodies, how can we show love?” the star of a movie that one of the beauticians watch says to her director, who wants her to express love without touching. Such is the dynamic between Pich and her beau. Shy, awkward speech acts are made up for by the intimacy of washing hair. It transports them to a liminal, ethereal space where they are together; San chooses to shoot them in closeups of their bodies, some parts not immediately recognisable. A widescreen format abruptly shifts to a 4:3 ratio, heightening a sense of intimacy. They hold hands, but not much else. One senses a great feeling of romance. Touch, yes. But there’s also connection.

The shortest film in the programme, I still think it uses too many minutes to set up the plot and setting for a concept that can be seen as frivolous. But it cannot be denied that the film appeals to our own sense of desire – of intimacy.

In all of these films, we find characters who are different from their contexts – who find themselves in liminal positions. Critiques of gender and class move into more intimate, psychological aspects of the human condition: the fallibility of religion and humanity, and finally in-between ourselves. Back to the central question of what it means to be in a community – we are no closer to the answer, but through this programme, we understand that we are not alone.

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 Ethan Kan
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