Han Shwe can play three instruments at once. The children in the village come to sing with him in an ode to Comrade Aung San, and he knows when they are off-pitch. He has many things to do: there are the CDs of the Lady to distribute, the mangoes to dry, seeds to sow, chilis to pack, and a new well to be built for the mangoes. The well’s too small, Han Shwe’s wife complains.
The sole documentary in this year’s Southeast Asian Short Film Competition, A Man for All Seasons (Soe Moe Aung, Myanmar) is a portrait of Han Shwe – Han Shwe at work, Han Shwe with his wife, Han Shwe the artist – painted with a keen eye for anthropological detail.
We listen in to intimate conversations, familiar jibes, and quiet wisdom, but are removed from their place in that grander narrative which must certainly exist because, you know, people are characters and film is text.
Burmese films are hard to come by, and it’s tempting to want to read Myanmar in Han Shwe’s countenance, as a paragon of virtue, a harbinger of change! Except Soe opts for unobtrusive observation and gentle characterization, an eager camera on the one hand and a resistance to fascination on the other.
The result is a mildness that’s almost frustrating – so here’s a man you haven’t put into a category, what do we do with him? Han Shwe moves from frame to frame, always present, always active. His gait comes to be familiar, but his figure doesn’t get any bigger.
Issue: the camera anticipates on-screen action occasionally. Other times, those captured seem oblivious to the recording in a way that’s really suspicious if you’re looking out for documentary truth.
Enactments of the most ordinary routines make them less than normal. In performing what’s familiar, Han Shwe loses authenticity while I realise that I had cut in the spontaneous Han Shwe an authentic figure, or perhaps, the face of a nation in transition.