“Films and film-making offer me a space to freely and deeply contemplate over the way the world expresses itself via myself and my inner voice, over the happenings in my life and in some way, they help me understand myself, the people around me and the universe better. It brings me the joy of the creative process, and at the same time plays the role of a great source of consolation – I think they are the reasons films and film-making are great to me.”
– Nguyen Phuong Anh, Filmmaker of As I Lay Dying
As I Lay Dying was Phuong Anh’s first attempt at playing and working with moving images. Standing as an interesting pastiche of spontaneously collected footage, it is interwoven with a narrated essay ruminating on ideas of death, time, and loneliness. She even candidly called it the “one man band” in which she shouldered the burden of filming, recording, editing, and sound making all by herself, and yet, she admits that she prefers working alone. This film stood out as in the collection of Southeast Asian shorts as highly personal – indeed, it was made by Phuong Anh and Phuong Anh alone. And I should pause and note here that she goes by the name Mai.K when she writes and makes films.
I found the use of the essay film genre intriguing and quite a bold selection by the programmers; oft a generic audience tends towards films driven by digestible narratives rather than meta-thematic and slightly more ponderous philosophical monologues juxtaposed against quotidian imagery. In her film we encounter interesting ethereal shots of floating goldfish, drifting traffic, a whispered musing of the loneliest whale, and a solitary and mesmerising chant of a Tibetan monk. Think along the lines of Koyaanisqatsi, Samsara and Sans Soleil. Mai.K’s short articulates its musings in a similar vein, except the personal moves to the forefront.
I asked her to share about her thoughts on the symbolism of various imageries in her film. There was nary a compliance on her part to reveal much; she said, “I am very hesistant when it comes to explaining my film, but the goldfish is the gateway in my film: they connect the living and the dead worlds, the real and the dream worlds, they swim through streams of life and at times they can be larger than life.” Of course, while watching her film, I too wrote out a whole list of my personal responses to each of the symbols and themes.
Yet, I hesitate to share them with you here, for I wish for you to immerse yourself in the experience itself. The avant-garde composer John Cage was once asked why he didn’t bother asking the rather enigmatic Dada artist Marcel Duchamp what his sometimes baffling artworks meant. He answered wisely, “because then I have his mind rather than my own to deal with”. So let a personal film resonate with the personal. May your thoughts go forth and meander beautifully.
But perhaps I’m being too sympathetic with the genre, having tried making essay films myself. It’s easy to get lost in something too personal, perhaps even indulgent. But indulge us still, for we don’t promise easy moviegoing experiences either. Criticise us, but we have already lain ourselves out, vulnerable yet bold. Mai.K quipped, ““Essay” put between images can be suffocating, or can be spacious to different audiences. While mainstream narrative cinema brings out stories to follow, essay films offer a room for musing and reflecting, which I found rare and precious in this age of information consuming.” Perhaps we may be frustrated with the slow unfolding of her visual and aural reverie, but we can also be grateful for the meditative space it carves out for us amidst fast food Hollywood we gorge ourselves with ever so often.
Mai.K struck me as a very self-conscious, interior filmmaker; film for her came naturally to “satisfy her contemplative and creative thirst…to dig deeper into [her] inner world”. And as our film tastes evolve, we expect the filmmakers to develop as well. For future works, Mai.K hopes to continue “babbling and dreaming alone”, but I’ll be looking out for the changes in the way she thinks and shapes herself as a filmmaker and thinker.