Short Film Review: An Act of Affection (2020)

Viet Vu’s An Act of Affection (2020), premiered at the 2020 Locarno Film Festival, and follows Vu as he captures the life of a single gay man from Lisbon, credited as Mr Ghislain. The film, a whole 16 minutes in length, follows a rigid structure that Vu likens to a haiku: still shots of an exterior environment, shots of the interior of Ghislain’s home and ending off with shots of nature in the exterior once again. This structural choice, while grafting a meditative nature to the flow of the film, seems at odds with what the film initially presents itself to be, a clear cut documentary on the life of Mr Ghislain. However, as we watch the film unfold, it becomes clear that Vu has much loftier ideas on his mind, namely the thin line between filmic fiction and reality and the nature of digital formats. 

The first lines of dialogue uttered in the film come after a prolonged scene of Ghislain wandering through a forest. As he enters a door frame, off screen we hear Vu say “Could you walk away?”. Intentionally we see the subjectivity of the previous images shattered and become aware of the performative aspect of the film, that what we are seeing has been heavily staged and manicured by Vu whose presence becomes tangible throughout. As the film transitions into Ghislain’s home, the camera movement switches from fixed static shots to a first person perspective. We can hear Vu’s footsteps and breathing as he follows Ghislain, and as the camera careens on miscellaneous spaces, such as a haphazard supply closet, Vu and his personal fixations and directorial presence continue to sharpen and take precedence as much as the film’s focus on Ghislain. 

Vu’s camera places a priority on capturing the slow, mundane moments in Ghislain’s life as a single man: with shots of Ghislain chopping up multiple onions while being asked questions pertaining to his love life. In placing so much focus on the act of cooking, Vu unearthes a sense of melancholy in it, with food being a conduit for fellowship between loved ones and cooking an act of affection itself. Yet Ghislain only cooks for himself, and despite Vu’s presence he still remains off-screen, somewhat feeling like a non-entity, something he reinforces in a later shot taken from afar of Ghislain eating alone. 

It must be noted how digital the film feels, starting with shots of trees that feel incredibly sharp in high definition, mirroring a common feeling associated with digital filmmaking, an implicit eeriness in how simultaneously lifelike and unreal the images feel, befitting for a film like this. Another intentional choice comes in colour grading as Vu decides to throw on a, at times garish, yellow and red tint to the film, making you consistently aware that you are always viewing an image tampered by an outside force, dictated under Vu’s vision. Digital filmmaking also serves as an aesthetic tool as Vu captures Ghislain cooking with a ghosting effect applied, his figure seemingly overlapping within itself, emphasising his isolation as Ghislain goes on a tangent about his lack of motivation without a boyfriend. 

The feeling of directorial control Vu exerts over the film reaches its apex in a scene where he directly dictates Ghislain’s actions, telling him to imagine if he had someone to love and if someone loved him, telling him to enjoy the affection he has with them, a bittersweet moment for Ghislain as he simmers, eyes closed, with his internal thoughts. Yet something extraordinary happens in the next shot, as if Ghislain’s thoughts are being externalised we see Vu himself finally make a physical appearance, gently stroking Ghislain’s head as he lies on him for a whole 3 minutes. The previously established boundaries between Vu and Ghislain, as director and subject, are finally dismantled as it feels like Vu’s immense compassion for his subject grows to break through the rigid structure of the hands off approach he created for himself. The length of time devoted to this shot corresponds to the growing concern Vu has for Ghislain that builds throughout the film, finally extending the titular “Act of Affection”. In a sense the constant questioning of what is genuine and what is not in Vu’s film becomes superseded by the heartfelt tenderness of this display. 

However, in viewing the film through the lens of its digital format, it becomes clear that the “Act of Affection” is not simply physical touch but the act of filmmaking in of itself. With the proliferation of digital technology in the 21st century and its increasing accessibility to the masses, image-making has become democratised, with more and more people being given the opportunity to preserve their memories and the images of their loved ones. Vu effectively creates a touching display of how affection has evolved, not just through physical action but through digital preservation, in giving a single man, who would otherwise be unremarked upon, the intangible gift of permanence through film.

Review by Matthew Chan

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