This is Acting: Performance in Life and Performance in Art

Dan Tran discusses the utility of pretending within the confines of a film.

This is Acting: Performance in Life and Performance in Art

In a traditional sense, acting entails an actor pretending to be a character in a story. One often find this in theatre, film, television, or even radio – platforms that see performance as the primary mode of storytelling. But beyond these forms, we also engage in pretension in real life. How one pretends in real life may inform how one pretends on screen too.

No one is crazy in this town, dir. Wregas Bhanuteja, 2019. Pineapple Girl pretends to be a lunatic to satisfy the needs of the lonely and wanting. 

No One is Crazy in This Town, directed by Wregas Bhanuteja, provides a prime example of this, for pretension functions as a crucial plot device. Throughout the film, the viewer is led to believe in Marwan’s objectification of Pineapple Girl as a mentally ill person, only to realise that he is partly responsible in her portrayal of a mentally ill person. Marwan and Pineapple Girl capitalize on the demand of certain individuals to engage with and exploit the mentally ill. These individuals humiliate them, feed them, or use them as living dolls. For Pineapple Girl and Marwan, this gives them the money they need – spending for their wedding and providing for their daughter.

An opportunistic mindset informs Pineapple Girl’s decision, testified by her willingness to commit the aforementioned acts, even at the expense of distancing herself from her own identity. While Pineapple Girl acts like a lunatic, Marwan has to pretend that she is not his partner. She therefore retains her agency. But Marwan’s unease is apparent. One can infer his discomfort from an aloofness that is played to contrast with Pineapple Girls’s lightheartedness in the final scene of the film. His position as a subject gives him the capacity to comprehend the moral implications of her pretension – a dismissal of human dignity. In contrast, Pineapple Girl’s nonchalance can perhaps be attributed to the purported reduction of her being into an object; she is simply no longer self-aware. 

ADAM, dir. Shoki Lin, 2019. At his biological mother’s home, Adam pretends to have the courage to ask her “Can I stay with you?”.

Adam, in the short film of the same name by Shoki Lin, engages in acts of pretension too. At one instance, he pretends to be using the toilet after being caned and ordered to buy powder milk to replace his spillage. Pretending—acting—allows him to be by himself in the foreground of tumult. It signifies his refusal to acknowledge reality, or perhaps a momentary disengagement from it. This is taken a step further when he, through acting, expresses his desires. When at the home of his biological mother, he acted as if he has the courage to ask his mother “Can I stay with you, mama?”. One might read this as a rehearsal for the lines to be said to the mother in real life, but I disagree. That he covers his mouth when making the question to muffle the sound indicates his attempt to hide his desires from her. Acting, then, is an avenue for Adam to imagine himself in an ideal world, where the unwanted troubles dissolve to make place for the little delights of life. 

This element of casting fiction over the real world is also found in No One is Crazy in This Town, particularly when a man treats Pineapple Girl as a living doll that represents his mother. The man must suspend his disbelief so that he can indulge in an imaginative confrontation with her. Interestingly, when doing so, he is frank with his emotions and the facade of bravado breaks down. This brings to mind what Oscar Wilde has said about acting, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” Even without a physical mask, he has been acting for his whole life.

No one is crazy in this town, dir. Wregas Bhanuteja, 2019. The man breaks down when acting as if Pineapple Girl is his mother.

The previous case sees the crumbling of the thin demarcation between acting and the fictional backdrop. Sorayos Prapapan brings this backdrop to the foreground in Dossier of the Dossier. The film’s fictional quality, counterintuitively, is deliberately made known. This is evident in the comical reference to the life of the director: the satirical renaming of his previous film “Death of the Sound Man” to “Death of the Shaman’ in the film. Meta-reference is thus established, reinforced in two ways. Firstly, the names of actors remain the same, making explicit that they are pretending to take the roles of the director and producer of the film Dossier. Secondly, the black and white appearance mimics period films, highlighting the filmic qualities as dictated by technological constraints. An awareness of the constructedness of the film then, rather than undermining it, invites viewers to question what reality is. For one, the film is a comedic rendition of the life of the director. But more importantly, the hilarious situations that the actor-characters find themselves in signal a dismal reality of the filmmaking landscape in Thailand, where financial obstacles hinder young filmmakers from realising their projects. 

Dossier of the dossier, dir. Sorayos Prapapan, 2019. The two actor-characters are contemplating about the prospect of their film Dossier.

In all, these short films demonstrate that acting and being are not distinct but rather intertwined. In acting one is and in being one acts. What one can make of this is perhaps the complexities of the human psyche. We live life not in singularity, but rather in a plurality of possibilities that are subsumed by this reality we just happen to be in. 

– Dan Tran