Programme 3: Strictly for those with an identity crisis, so basically everyone

Addressing issues of identity through Programme 3 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition.

Programme 3: Strictly for those with an identity crisis, so basically everyone

Image Credit: ‘A Million Years’, dir. Danech San, 2018

Growing up in a melting pot that is Singapore, the question of who I am as an individual has taken on immense importance. Am I the entitled and ignorant millennial that society perceives my generation to be? Or could I be more than that – entitled and ignorant, but also making a living off my film writing ability? I explore this identity crisis in the article below.

With Southeast Asia rapidly evolving, the debate between the principles of Asian values and individualism has become more urgent than ever. In the pursuit of economic growth and social stability over the past few decades, the region has been promoting an ideology that emphasises collectivism over the expression of individual identities. Codified in the Bangkok Declaration of 1993, some of its principles included a preference for social harmony, concern with the collective well-being, and loyalty towards family and nation. The people mostly looked at themselves as part of a greater, shared group identity. These values are still imbued and prevalent in many of the films that come from the region. With today’s thriving cultural diversity and increased consciousness, there is a greater need for individual freedoms. The call for greater expression of personal identities can be heard louder than ever. Amidst this contention, the five Southeast Asian short films of Programme 3 hope to explore the challenges of finding one’s true self in these confusing times.

Image Credit: ‘Please Stop Talking’, dir. Josef Gacutan, 2018

The programme starts off with perhaps its most abstract film. In Cambodian director Danech San’s debut, A Million Years, a young woman, while relaxing at a riverside restaurant, grapples with painful memories of her past, coming to terms with it as she moves into adulthood. The project is part of Echoes of Tomorrow, Cambodian production company Anti-Archive’s program to support local female filmmakers in making their first short films. More an expression of the director’s inner thoughts than a conventional narrative, this highly-personal film has a raw quality that explores concepts of fear, relationship and attraction. Coupled with surreal elements, this hypnotic film is a quiet contemplation on how one’s identity can be can be shaped by one’s past, greatly affecting who we become later on in life.

For those looking for something more straightforward, Please Stop Talking by Filipino director Josef Gacutan is up next on the programme. Centered on an elderly man’s attempts to repair his broken relationship with his son, the animated film tackles issues of regret and isolation. It looks at elders in their twilight years, whose identities are often greatly dependent on their relationships with their children. The animation is hand-drawn, adding a more intimate quality which balances its at times, sinister tone. Especially in Southeast Asia, where there is a tendency to conceal emotions, this poignant film is a timely reminder for us to treasure the relationships we have with the people in our lives, and to be more tolerant with everyone fighting their own personal demons.

Image Credit: ‘A Time For Us, dir. Alvin Lee, 2018

A Time For Us, while not to be confused with popular Taiwanese romance movie, Our Times, is in fact Our Times with a twist. Singaporean director, Alvin Lee is a past winner of Best New Director at the China Short Film Golden Hummingbird Awards and his latest short explores the identities of people struggling in society. Through a sham marriage, the disparate needs of two people have brought their lives together. It shows us how a moment of real personal connection, no matter how brief the interaction, could redefine someone on the fringes of society. On one hand, a woman, unsure and afraid as she begins a daunting new phase of her life, finds comfort in the most unlikely of places. Similarly, a man, who has trouble creating meaningful relationships and is shunned by society, can now see himself as part of it. What’s more impressive is that this is a feel-good film, a trait that’s not too common within the competition.

Image Credit: ‘A Gift’, dir. Aditya Ahmad, 2018

As the winner of the Best Short Film at the 2018 Venice Film Festival, A Gift tackles gender identity and friendships through a snapshot of an androgynous teenager’s life. Directed by Aditya Ahmad, the Indonesian coming-of-age film follows parallel stories of her birthday surprise preparations for two different friends. Despite the the well-trodden topic, the film subverts expectations by avoiding huge declarations and revealing details in ways that feel organic to the protagonist’s mundane life. Peeking into her daily interactions, we not only witness the happy moments of her life, but also experience the internal conflict that comes with self-discovery, as she is forced to face the grave realities of her situation. Taking place in a conservative country, the film also touches on the differences in perception of gender roles between two generations. With naturalistic camerawork and colourful details, the film balances a lighthearted tone with bittersweet moments, just like how our protagonist slips in and out of her various identities.

Image Credit: ‘Bo Hai’, dir. Duzan Duong, 2017

The programme closes with Bo Hai, already a winner of many film festival awards. Based on the true story of director Duzan Duong’s relationship with his father, the short delves into the relationship between first and second-generation Vietnamese migrants in Czech Republic. Put in a situation where the values of the East meet those of the West, the idea of one’s identity as a migrant becomes even more significant. These second-generation Vietnamese are not only treated differently by locals, they also have completely different upbringings and ambitions from their parents. Their struggles to connect with each other on one hand, and the locals on the other have further raised questions over their place in a foreign land. One way the film cleverly highlights this point is by using the character’s contrasting proficiencies in Vietnamese and Czech. Due to the autobiographical nature of the short, instead of being plot-driven, its real strength lies in the intimate moments between father and son. The former learns to express his concern, while the latter tries his best to help with the family business, straddling the midpoint between his Asian heritage and Western upbringing.
Perhaps, not all millennials are entitled and ignorant.
Catch Programme 3 of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition on 8 December, 2.00pm at National Gallery Singapore.