Short Film Review: Squish! (2020)

Style and substance exist on two ends of a see saw. With every film I watch, almost always will I notice one triumphing over the other. Some filmmakers cast a hard light on social issues, while others sacrifice depth in pursuit of aesthetics. And a film that’s purely defined by substance risks alienating its audience, while over-relying on style to grip viewers can undercut the issues the film is trying to examine.

Case in point, you don’t see anyone describing Wes Anderson films as “meditative” or “political”, just as Lav Diaz films are anything but “lurid”.

You will, however, find all of these words in the vocabulary of Tulapop Saenjaroen. In fact, you can find these very descriptors in the synopsis for Tulapop’s latest short, Squish!

The first time I encountered Tulapop’s work was as a youth juror at the Singapore International Film Festival in 2018. His latest work at the time, A Room with a Coconut View, was one of the films we watched. I was immediately struck by its surrealistic presentation. Tulapop’s deliberate use of amateurish visual effects was singular. Yet, the style never took away from the content. If anything, it highlighted issues more succinctly than it would have had it been a documentary.

Three years later, I am still in awe at the way Tulapop marries style with substance in Squish! Don’t get me wrong, it’s not as though the film strikes a perfect balance between the two. The lurid colour palette and dark humour scream Tulapop’s signature style. It’s safe to assume that those are the main features viewers will take away. However, to dismiss Squish! as an exercise of style over substance would be unfair. The film does offer valuable insight amid the pretty imagery.

One highlight is the examination of lost history, specifically in Thai animation. The film dedicates a good portion of its runtime to discuss Sanae Klaikleun, a pioneer of the field. Out of curiosity, I googled his name, and was surprised to find zero results. I interpreted this as Tulapop’s attempt to immortalise Klaikleun’s legacy, or an attempt to feed into every artist’s fear of being forgotten.

That said, this narrative can get lost among the other topics peppered throughout the film. Squish! is not as focused as A Room with a Coconut View. Perhaps it’s unfair to make comparisons, but with a film this stylistic, I imagine most viewers wouldn’t give a second thought to its content unless a specific issue is being highlighted. A Room with a Coconut View was clear in this regard. It explored the sanitisation of Thai tourism through the eyes of an Artificial Intelligence. With Squish! it’s hard to pinpoint an exact issue it’s trying to highlight. It flitters between Klaikleun’s narrative and the motif of suicide. 

Speaking of which, the issue of depression is ultimately accessorised. At most it’s played off for humour. Most notably, there’s one point where characters read their reviews for a fictional app that helps its users cope with depression. One review humorously reads, “so addictive, I can’t live without it”. 

Going back to Klaikleun’s narrative, the narrator mentions that the Thai government ultimately rejected Klaikleun’s animation proposal, reasoning that “people prefer live action movies”. People are more easily captivated by what is most tangible. Perhaps this speaks of Tulapop’s own fear in pursuing a field that is becoming increasingly niche. A lot of the narration feels like his own rumination on the matter. The narrator is framed as a liminal being who has “never been real but does exist”, and no longer cares if they are “becoming junk, weapon, or merchandise”. 

It seems impossible to create a work with little care for where it will end up or who sees it, especially when film was built around the concept of projection and expression.

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