This article contains spoilers
Animals have always served as cultural and religious symbols in the Southeast Asian region, which is steeped in intriguing myth, folklore and tradition. From Asian elephants being revered as deities in Thailand to the sacredness of cows in Hinduism, animals in Southeast Asian culture have often occupied an elevated status in the company of gods.
But that is not to say they are completely detached from human concerns. In the films Puppy Love and Kampong Tapir from this year’s Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, animals hold a significant space in the banalities of everyday life. Here, animals are used to represent an identity in limbo, as well as the profound sense of displacement that accompanies the protagonists of each film when they find themselves caught between varying physical stages of transition.
The dog takes centre stage in Puppy Love, where a young girl wakes up one morning to find herself bleeding from a wound in her vagina and her pet dog missing. Throughout the film, she experiences a literal sense of discomfort in her own skin with the arrival of her period. Her persistent yet futile search for her dog symbolises her search for her own identity: she is seen constantly scratching herself, akin to a snake shedding its skin; in another scene she profusely washes off the bloodstain from her underwear, in an apparent rejection of her emerging womanhood. Her back-and-forth struggles in reconciling both female identities of girl and woman culminate when the girl finally laments to her mother: “He’s gone…I can’t remember his face anymore.” Her eventual decision to give up the search for her dog represents her all-or-nothing relinquishment of her foregone girlhood, and the subsequent acceptance of her new-found womanhood, because she believes both cannot exist in tandem.
The conflict that arises from straddling dual existences is also demonstrated in Kampong Tapir, where a female Malaysian worker desires to permanently move from Malaysia to Singapore with her husband and young daughter. The film explores the tension between encroaching modernity and tradition, with Singapore’s cosmopolitan, capitalistic city juxtaposed with the simple, rural kampong location of the family’s residence in Malaysia. A news report that the Singapore dollar has strengthened to an all-time high at 3.1 against the Malaysian Ringgit in the earlier scenes also establishes this disparity between the two locations. The film’s central motif — the slow, clumsy and lumbering wild Malayan tapir — is a metaphor for the implied stagnancy that will continue with staying on in their hometown.
The tapir has been driven out from its natural habitat due to deforestation and massive rural development, akin to the female worker who is motivated by her pursuit of economic development and progress to migrate. Similar to the wild Malaysian tapir who has been described to be “neither this nor that,” the female worker is neither here nor there, unable to fully identify with either Malaysia or Singapore. She is perpetually in transit between both destinations, listlessly wandering around like a lost tapir along the causeway still in search of a permanent home.
When do these states of transition end? While Kampong Tapir offers no resolute solution to the female worker’s dilemma, who clearly still holds a part of her national identity dear, the young girl in Puppy Love interestingly regresses back to her original girlhood identity by embodying the characteristics of a dog. In doing so she embraces a state of primordiality and a lack of inhibition, giving up the maturity she had so excitedly acquired before. Try as they might, perhaps the message is that one can never fully shake off their origins, even as they progress into the next stage of life.