So Close, Yet so Far

By Kwok Jia Yang

In this year’s edition of the Singapore International Film Festival, only three out of the 86 pieces on view are animated films. One might say this reflects a general inclination to associate film with live-action cinematography. Animations are held to a different standard, existing in their own separate world, apart from live-action films. Yet if one simply thinks of film as a sequence of moving images, the normalization of live-action films as the representation of film and the relegation of animated films to a subsidiary realm is a pity, masking how animated films can possess equally enthralling stories. Josef Gacutan’s short,  Wag Mo ‘Kong Kausapin (Please Stop Talking), is one of the three animated films part of the programming, tragically exploring an estranged father-son relationship in the aftermath of a mother’s death. The strength of the medium of animation lies in how it can be visually untethered to specific social, geographical and cultural contexts. If the success of live-action films is predicated upon the realistic and appropriate casting of actors and actresses, their physical appearances would likewise, naturally situate narratives within a particular context. The depicted character is no longer just a stock individual, being portrayed by someone of a particular ethnic look. A live-action film with an all-white cast might thus touch upon universal themes; but not be relatable to others due to the underlying identity politics that grounds such ideas. Hence, Gacutan’s use of animation decontextualizes human beings to their essential physical features. The characters can represent anyone, transcending ethnic appearances and associations to focus on the universal experience of a father-son relationship. Despite inhabiting the same physical spaces, father and son exist on different wavelengths, unable to connect with one another. If the family dinner is an occasion that can facilitate familial connection, the failure of father and son to have any meaningful conversation points at their fractured relationship. Seated directly across each other, both characters cannot even look into each other’s eyes for more than one second. Backs hunched, eyes turned downwards, the sounds of cutlery scraping across plates and faraway motorcycles riding off into the distance are accentuated amidst the deafening silence. The nervous glances of the father disintegrate upon meeting the steely, cold gaze of his son. Attempts by the father to make conversation are met with terse, matter-of-fact one-liners. In one sequence, the father proudly mistakes his son’s favourite dish as “kare-kare”, only to see his euphoria swiftly shot down by  his son with the single word, “bulalo”. Despite their blood relations, father and son are practically strangers. Dinner (in this household) is not a time to come together, but just a meal necessary for individual sustenance. What makes the fractured father-son relationship all the more heartbreaking stems from how both characters possess good but antithetical motivations, forming the crux of misunderstanding. While the father wants to help his son out, the son wishes to be self-sufficient, rejecting any form of external help. The good, but dissimilar interests of both characters thus clash, preventing them from seeing eye to eye. Hence if the father’s inexpressive persona, as expressed by the third person narrator, is a performed facade for the larger society and depersonalized, the failure of him to reach out to someone he genuinely desires to connect with thus heightens the sense of isolation and loneliness he experiences. Questions belaying fatherly love are reciprocated with tired sighs and elusive non-answers, as the son steadfastly rejects his father’s advances in an evocation of aurelian stoicism and distrust. Information about his son is only elicited through the furtive act of stalking as opposed to casual conversation. We tend to think that people will always remain the same, never changing across time. Past memory becomes a point of reference, shaping how one perceives another. Father and son never live in the present, viewing each other through the lens of their respective past identities. The father cannot connect with his son in the present day, needing to use found photographs and the memory of his favourite food as entry points to spark conversations. He troughs through boxes of old things and frequently spends his time reminiscing at the grave of his deceased wife. Likewise, the son perceives his father with certain pre-conceived notions, refusing to accept his help by virtue of never having done so prior.

Image courtesy of Wag Mo ‘Kong Kausapin, dir. Josef Gacutan (2018)

Yet, such fixations with their respective past selves mean that both characters are always grasping at thin air, being unable to reconcile with the present in their isolation from each other. In fact, the only other form of communication the father has is with a figment of his imagination and past regret. Voices appear in the father’s head, assaulting him with self-doubt. Taking on the form of a shape-shifting demon-like figure, this figure is only visible to the father. Throughout the story, the spectre mockingly goads the father for his past failures, deriding his sincere desire to connect with his son as attempts that will never make up for past wrongs. Black lines swirl in and around the father’s past memories as his flashbacks are tainted by the constantly looming spectre.And it is with this particular backdrop that the father’s descent into blindness is made all the more tragic. If the voice inside the father’s head is a reproduction of nostalgia, past memory and regret, the external world thus acts as a stimulus that provides the space to create new memories, or in a sense, right his past wrongs. The subjugation of the father to the dark vortex of blind netherness thus sees him being left with only the visuality of past memories –  memories that are the very foundation of his regrets that will forever live on in his headspace. The boundless white space of the father’s memories (as seen in the animation) is overpowered by the dark spectre of past guilt, clouding his memory and ability to see. Left in a debilitating state, the father is now absolutely reliant on the figure he initially set out to help.Gacutan’s animated short ultimately reminds us of how powerful simple acts of human connection and reaching out can be. In privileging the spectacle, we forget that the little things matter too. Basic questions are scoffed at, being deemed self-evident.  We hide our inner turmoils behind external facades, refusing to accept any help. And perhaps therein lies Gacutain’s message: It’s ok to be helpless and vulnerable. It’s ok to not be ok.Wag Mo ‘Kong Kausapin is showing on 8 December, Saturday at 2pm as part of Programme 3 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.

A Room with a Coconut View, dir. Tulapop Saenjaroen, 2018

Visually, the medium starts to make increasingly less sense as Alex wanders further off-course. We witness everything from an educational video about waves, footage of a man on a water slide and a biopic, to more hallucinatory images featuring colourful lights reminiscent of the Star Gate sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even when Kanya is switched off in the second half of the video, we remain in the style of the hotel device. Unlike its predecessors in the genre, the video does not stick to the intuitive rules of its chosen software, challenging the strict perimeters of what we come to expect. Similar to Alex trying to go against common tourist behaviour when exploring outside the attractions fed to him by Kanya, Saenjaroen breaks the “rules” of the medium and takes it into unrealistic territory. By adopting the genre and transcending its conventions, this allows audiences to enter into the mind of Alex as we navigate both the technology and his experiences almost like it’s first-hand.

A Room with a Coconut View, dir. Tulapop Saenjaroen, 2018

Room is also sprinkled with elements of vapourwave in its visual design. Known mainly as a musical genre or simply brushed off as an internet meme, vapourwave can actually be considered more than that. It is an entire subculture and its visual language, or as purveyors of the movement like to call it, aesthetic (stylised A E S T H E T I C), plays as big a part in its creation. Emerging in the early 2010s, vapourwave came about as a satire on consumerism, popular culture and nostalgia, issues and trends that are still very much part of the zeitgeist today.

A Room with a Coconut View, dir. Tulapop Saenjaroen, 2018

Some of its elements, which include glitch art, tropical imagery, 3D objects, symbols of consumerism, automated voices, elevator music and the overwhelming use of bright colours, are very much present in the video. Room is a satirical take on mass tourism and Southeast Asia’s positioning as a popular tourist destination. The aesthetics of vapourwave as part of its visual language then plays a big role in not just its look, but also its themes, complementing the desktop genre as symbols of consumerism. The ironic nature of vapourwave also brings to the video a certain millennial humour that helps elevate it from pure commentary to an entertaining piece of work.It would also be interesting to ponder whether the vapourwave aesthetic can usher a new wave in the cinematic language or is just the latest fad in today’s popular culture, like mere vapour in the air. Vapourwave, as a niche subculture popular among irony-loving millennials riding on the nostalgia trend, has not quite conquered the mass consciousness. Mention vapourwave to your parents and chances are, they would have little to no clue about what it is. However, it is fascinating to see many of its fans already declaring the movement dead, its popularity already outgrowing the very nature of the movement. As a parody of capitalism, the possibility of attaining mass appeal would invalidate its very purpose. Vapourwave has to remain a niche for it to develop and grow, which is quite an irony in itself. In that case, in order for vapourwave to take hold in film language and for it to be more than mere aesthetics, it may have to remain an underground movement, seen prevalently in more obscure or experimental pieces of cinema.Then again, to quote Alex, despite these interpretations, they “may have nothing to do with me or you directly, only weak links can be made”. As Tessa, another automated voice in the video warns us, we should “not try to force so much rationality on what’s going on