Youth Meets Film: Issue 5, 2016

4 December 2016

On Crying: Local Feelings in Foreign Lands

By Kathy Poh

How does a film touch our hearts and bring us to tears? Most often, it is when we find personal connections between its story and our lives. These links we draw may not always be at the top of our heads – which was the case for me while watching the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition Programmes shortlisted for the Silver Screen Awards. It is intriguing how although most of these films were specific to a place foreign from my own, I found my own local emotions in many of them. Let’s talk about two of the short films that made me cry: Rina B Tsou’s Arnie and PR Patindol’s Still.

Still from Arnie, Dir. Rina B Tsou

Still from Arnie, Dir. Rina B Tsou

In Arnie, we follow the story of Arnie, one of the many migrant Filipino seamen working in a Taiwanese fish port. These people are alienated from the society and space they occupy, but have established a support network amongst themselves.

The bleakness of these men’s prospects juxtaposed with their ever-sincere efforts at work moved me to tears because I felt trapped and helpless. This situation is set up through the men’s inability to have their voices heard, for example, because of language barriers between the Filipino seamen and Taiwanese people they interact with. When the ship’s captain speaks to them in Mandarin, a translator is engaged to disseminate information in English, a language that Arnie and his friends only have a simple grasp of. With the hierarchy of power (the translator and captain both have higher authority than these seamen) and English as the translator and seamen’s only common language, is doubly difficult for the seamen to speak up. In another situation, when Arnie tries to buy a wedding ring from a Taiwanese-speaking goods peddler, the same problem ensues – except in this case, he is completely unable to negotiate a deal for the ring by his terms because both parties do not share any common languages.

Watching these scenes reminded me of a time when I travelled to Liverpool, where I struggled to understand the local accent and the locals had an equally hard time understanding mine. I found it incredibly stressful to speak to people there whenever I had to buy anything or ask for directions – and that was already despite our shared common language. I could only imagine how much worse these Filipino seamen’s experiences were in the Taiwanese fish port, what more with their position as outsiders to Taiwanese society. Given how my home country also has a significant migrant worker community, this film also served as an uncomfortably poignant reminder of the indifference and apathy that we can sometimes have towards them.

Still from Still, Dir. PR Patindol

Still from Still, Dir. PR Patindol

Still, set in a surreally beautiful unnamed seaside village, tells about the journey of a pair of brothers as they experience emotional hurt from their community and go through a healing process.

As the credits to this short film rolled, I found myself crying for very different reasons from why I cried for Arnie. Still was a heart-warming experience that reminded me of my childhood – days of freedom before social rules trickled into our awareness. To be honest, although I consider this to be my favourite short film, I often struggle to explain its narrative to other people. How should I be describing the relationship that the brothers, Andres and Gael, have, and the relationship between Andres and another boy from the village? I felt that in trying to define these, and in trying to explain reasons for how the narrative progressed, I was imposing my own social judgement on the children – which is precisely the cause of emotional hurt in this film.

It is in this struggle that I found myself a way to grasp this film without a reading that involved such social judgement, as well as an emotional resonance. In the absence of adult figures, young children explore and construct their own worlds – extending the care they have for those closest to them to a wider circle. It is, perhaps, something we forget as we grow up, as we reduce human relationships to binaries within our social structures. Practically speaking, these binaries have their functional and bureaucratic uses, but Still illustrates damaging effects that social judgements can have on people – especially those who do not conform to the majority’s norm. The beauty of a child’s world lies in freedom and innocence, which we lose in the process of negotiating ourselves a place in worlds of the growing-up and grown-ups. This is a universal experience that we can relate to regardless of our cultural backgrounds, and Still is a nostalgic reminder of what we once had.

These two films, while being representatives of specific communities and cultures that opened my eyes to the experiences of other people within Southeast Asia, also resonated with my own experiences. By being able to touch their audiences’ hearts, these films not only bring catharsis, but also a closer connection between them and the film’s subject matter through realisations of shared experiences through memory.