By Alfonse Chiu
(1216 words, five-minute read)
The SeaShorts Film Festival ran for its second edition as the official pre-festival to the annual George Town Festival from 1st to 5th August in a radical geographical shift away from the Kuala Lumpur home of its parent organisation, Next New Wave. It showcased more than 120 short films scattered over 22 programmes in two different venues, with two competitive segments and country-by-country best-of selections by noted film programmers of each nation. In the wake of major scandals, administrative upheavals, and reshuffling of the global film programming deck, the festival is in many ways a sort of ideal respite in all its pastoral charm and regional celebration – right in the middle of a sunny Penang getting ready for month-long festivities no less.
Not to say it is without its own edges of course—the programming itself is a conscientious blend of an awareness of the sort of regional syncretism that comes with an art as definitively collaborative as filmmaking (Love Letters to/from Japan; FLY Workshop), the regional history riddled with trauma and ongoing re-calibrations (Return of the Salt Boy 1,2,3; Mahakarya Pertama), and of course the renegotiation of a new visual language for the stories of these times and spaces (SeaShorts Competition; Next New Wave Competition; The Window is Closed, Partially).
What caught my attention the most, however, would be an absence of programmes that focus on distinct minority experiences in the region one might expect an affair as discreetly indie and communal as SeaShorts to feature. Particularly those of women (a common point of contention for #MeToo remained its western-centric coverage in the media, while the exploitation of women in the Asian filmmaking landscape remains a perennial, though elusive in name-dropping, issue) or the LGBT community, which remains a hot-button topic in the region. While a section on women does exist, its framing (Me and Me: Female Japanese Artists Now) is not as contextualised as it could be—being more like a showcase of new and established talents than as a conscious curatorial voice on the position of the aforementioned female Japanese artists. Amongst the entire festival lineup though, three films about women, their place in the society, and their anxieties stand out for their sensitivities and textures.
Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month is the Cannes-premiering short film of Filipino filmmaker Carlo Francisco Manatad, who also cut A Gentle Night, the Short Film Palme d’Or winner of his year. Gas station employee Jodilerks Dela Cruz, one of two lone attendants who have been the Employee of the Month for consecutive periods, tends to her work for the last time alongside her co-worker, trying to sell the last bit of fuel left in their care. Indignant but powerless, Jodilerks spends her last night engaging in some increasingly questionable activities such as selling the leftover petrol in glass bottles and engaging in a water fight with bottled fuel. Things come to a head when a robbery leaves her co-worker severely injured and Jodilerks is left alone in the decrepit station.
No stranger to the social conditions that underscores the premises of his works, Manatad’s portrayal of the urban downtrodden is gutsy, vicious, and reactionary, though not losing one bit of dark humour, particularly where it concerns the issue of unemployment in the Philippines. Professing that his own aesthetic “comes from stories grounded on reality and that everything around is concrete but treated in an unconventional approach”, the wry absurdity of his craft juxtaposes the mundanity of the struggle to survive with the inanity of a futile effort, particularly in his homeland with its alarmingly escalating status of police brutality and slowing economy. Dubbed as “punk” in the official Cannes collateral, Manatad’s staunch, though subtle, subversion of a public moral code highlights the urgency of the issues that need to be ameliorated—but rarely are. By aiming the critique inwards rather than at powers-that-be, Manatad succeeds on a nudge-nudge-wink-wink basis that provides a context to questions that do not need to be asked to be understood.
Meanwhile in See Wee Aw’s Kampung Tapir, the issue of employment is similarly tackled with its focus on a Malaysian woman’s long journey to work in neighbouring Singapore. We witness a young woman and her husband preparing to leave their house in rural Malaysia to go to Singapore to work on the fringe in manufacturing industries. En route, their bus knocks down a stray tapir, which dies an alien and unfamiliar existent before their curious eyes as they continue their way.
Aw’s deployment of the tapir is totemic and reflective on the forced daily migration of those seeking to provide a better life for their families, particularly those living on the margins, who are filled with a middling resignation over their ceaseless labours. Aw, who made three other short films before Kampung Tapir, is interested in the depiction of mundane Malaysian lives, and ruminating on the shifting identities of contemporary Malaysian youths caused by an unstable economic terrain at home. From his research on the local media’s perception of the tapir, Aw observed that “most of the stories revolving around tapir are about how they are caught in a trap or getting hit by cars, crossing the highways,” and that “the young people in Malaysia do not know what a tapir is.”—this anxiety translates onscreen as a drifting acquiescence of those displaced by no choice of their own.
This theme of displacement is revisited in Nicole Midori Woodford’s Permanent Resident, which features a woman’s mounting obsession with Xiao Guilin, a quarry she stays close to. Posing as a prospective buyer to gain entry into luxury homes from where she steals miscellaneous trinkets, a pawnshop worker faces an existential crisis as she detaches psychologically from her overbearing mother and young son to fixate on the quarry.
Woodford’s character study of a quietly desperate woman on the brink of acute mental breakdown is a sombre mood piece that delves more deeply into the labour of womanhood as constrained by familial expectations. In focusing on the collection of ephemera, the film ponders the escapism inherent to the performance of identities, and thus the delicacy of those whose lives are entrenched so deeply in their obligations to others that to don a fantasy is to be simultaneously one’s most truthful and false self. While somewhat more removed from the situations of acute survival woes in developing economies demonstrated in the previous two shorts, Woodford’s microscopic point-of-view into a post-survivalist psychology is fascinating in the ways that it is deployed to tackle the big questions that persist even after fundamental needs are satisfied.
While by no means having the final say on what womanhood or even what Asian womanhood constitutes, the three short films are interesting flashes of meditations on how women live out their daily lives in honest sketches of their trials and tribulations, especially in a region when the narrative of the woman is still so commonly and staunchly relegated as a sidebar feature to the latest crime, scandal, or tragedy; by anchoring the story of a woman to a social condition that is not gender-specific, the character of the woman in each of these films avoids the pitfall of becoming the subordinate clause to a narrow qualifier of how women may live their lives, and receives the rightful recognition for her complexities and agency.
“Interview with Carlo Francisco Manatad” By Andrea Flavia William (SGIFF YJP)
“About Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month” By Marie-Pauline Mollaret (La Semaine de la Critique)
“Fine Cuts – Carlo Francisco Manatad” By Elise Schick (Thoughts on Films)
“東南亞新銳聚焦勢不可擋” (Taipei International Film Festival)
“Meet the young filmmaker who’s representing the Philippines at the Cannes Film Festival” By Don Jaucian (The Philippine Star)
“Aw See Wee’s short film ‘Kampung Tapir’ heads to France” By Mumtaj Begum (Star2.com)
“Dinner with Permanent Resident” By Abla Mydylarama (La brasserie du court)
Jodilerks Dela Cruz, Employee of the Month is the seventh short film directed by Filipino film editor Carlo Francisco Manatad. A veteran of the film festival circuit, he is currently working on his debut feature A Wrong Season.
Kampung Tapir is Malaysian filmmaker See Wee Aw’s fourth work.
Permanent Resident is the third short film by Singaporean filmmaker Nicole Midori Woodford. She is currently a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University, and is working on her debut feature.
Guest Contributor Alfonse Chiu is a culture journalist, photographer, and editor of independent film magazine SINdie. He is an alumni of the Singapore International Film Festival’s inaugural Youth Jury and Critic Programme, the Udine Far East Film Festival Campus, and the Points of View Performance Writing Programme organised by Centre 42 under the Singapore International Festival of Arts.