Youth Meets Film: Issue 1, 2014

4 December 2014

Isolation: SEA Short Films Programme 2

By Sharanya Pillai

Catch these shorts at Programme 2:

Xing (Bradley Liew, Malaysia)
Mars in The Well (Truong Minh-Quy & Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine, Vietnam)
Onomastika (Loeloe Hendra, Indonesia)
Heart of Stone (Pamela Miras, The Philippines)
May Dinadala (Giancarlo Abrahan, The Philippines)

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The world may be shrinking with technology, but isolation remains a reality for some people of Southeast Asia. This programme echoes this sentiment with its strong portrayal of characters escaping isolation, or sinking deeper into it.

Isolation can happen when people estrange themselves from family and friends to pursue forbidden love, a theme that is the focus of Xing (Bradley Liew, Malaysia).

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Stlll from Xing. Photo Credit: Bradley Liew / SGIFF

If forbidden love sounds like a well-worn theme that bores you, hear me out. I too have gotten tired of the “we love each other but oh no we can’t be together ” plot that worked wonderfully in classics like Casablanca but started to become a bit too predictable in later films; somehow losing its ability to move me.

Yet in under 20 minutes, Xing pleasantly surprised me by bringing new flavour to a story of forbidden love with an exploration of the ambivalent relationship between two people of vastly different backgrounds and tongues, and a deeply mysterious female protagonist. My bet is, you’d find yourself wanting to watch the film several times just trying to understand Xing, who sometimes seems like a femme fatale, sometimes more like a victim of circumstances and at others, a master of her destiny.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Truong Minh-Quy and Freddy Poustochkine’s Mars in the Well then immerses us in the study of another deeply complex protagonist. Set against the context of rising sea levels in the year 2053, an unnamed young man finds himself isolated on the red rocks of Mars, and simultaneously reflects on the fertile red soil of the beautiful Vietnamese town, Buon Ma.

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Still from Mars in the Well. Photo Credit: Truong Minh-Quy & Freddy Nadolny Poustochkine / SGIFF

If you’re a fan of non-linear narratives and time loops, this film is for you. The narrative jumps between the present and in the future; when Buon Ma is completely submerged and our protagonist is sent to live on Mars.

While I initially read the film as simply a commentary on climate change, watching it again got me thinking on the bigger picture of isolation; its disconnected scenes on begging a loved one not to leave, and finding oneself all alone on a new planet, with a new beginning that seems both promising and hopeless at the same time.

Yet isolation does not occur just when foreign worlds collide or when we are removed from this world – it can happen right at home, at the start of one’s life. Onomastika (Loeloe Hendra, Indonesia), depicts the intense loneliness a young boy feels when his sole guardian, his grandfather, refuses to give him a name.

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Still from Onomastika. Photo Credit: Loeloe Hendra / SGIFF

Right from the start, the music of the film captured my heart. The traditional music of Ranca Kalong Sumedang, West Java, magically spoke volumes of the boy’s loneliness when asked why he didn’t have a name. More than the dialogue, it is the visuals that reveal the greater political context behind the unusual predicament – an intelligent way to handle a sensitive topic.

Political undertones similarly abound in Heart of Stone (Pamela Miras, The Philippines), a black-and-white silent film that plays on the classic shipwreck narrative to weave in political messages that are somewhat delayed, but delivered with impact nonetheless.

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Still from Heart of Stone. Photo Credit: Pamela Miras / SGIFF

Heart of Stone sets itself apart by carrying the nostalgia of the silent film era. The incredibly grainy texture of the black-and-white footage, accompanied by tense music at the start, is also very disconcerting, and perhaps an audio- visual representation of the fear of being stranded alone on an island.

Aptly describing the bond between the male and female characters as an“unlikely alliance”, you can probably guess its narrative. In fact, the main appeal of this film for me was not its plot or ending, but the cinematographic elements and the quirky, surprising choice of music, making it an experiment in background music for film.

While Heart of Stone sees two people coming together, May Dinadala (Giancarlo Abrahan, The Philippines), closes the programme with the opposite – a loveless marriage- as well as an element of forbidden love, which we also saw earlier in Xing.

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Still from May Dinadala. Photo Credit: Giancarlo Abrahan / SGIFF

May Dinadala impressively combines mythical elements with the everyday marital quarrels to portray the loneliness and confusion of a man who seems to be in mid-life crisis. His illicit lover is a mysterious black figure, with the beauty of this character lying in how it is open to interpretation. Throughout the film, I found myself swinging between sympathy for the protagonist to despising for him being a complete jerk to fearing what would happen to him.

Perhaps carrying the most perplexing endings of all the shorts, I must say that May Dinadala seems to be a perfect choice in closing the hour’s screening of films that meditate on the ups, downs and in-betweens of isolation.