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Seen at the ICA as part of the Pan-Asia Film Festival. A special Thank you! goes to the Coventry University East Asia Film Society (CUEAFS) for two free tickets.

Although I watch quite a lot of films, there are generally few shorts among them. I like to be entertained for an hour or two because it’s a length that allows a decent amount of development in a story and characters. When there is a film festival, it is for this reason that when I have to choose between seeing a feature film or multiple 5-, 10-, 20-minute clips, I’ll habitually always go for the former and leave the latter as an afterthought – as also happened when the Pan-Asia Film Festival rolled around. Then CUEAFS had a ticket competition for the HK Fresh Wave Shorts screening on Twitter and somehow I got lucky (and I didn’t even mean to… only retweeted to spread the news about the competition).

“Fresh Wave” is a Hong Kong-based festival for short films that was first organised in 2005 and originally part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. In 2010 it went independent, becoming an event in its own right to showcase the best of young, local talent by making grants of 40,000 HK$ available to filmmakers aged 18-35 and pairing them up with mentors from the industry – Mabel Cheung and the fabulous Herman Yau having been among them. The best shorts receive awards and younger directors can compete in the special student category. The festival also screens a selection of international shorts each year.

On the programme at Pan-Asia were four of the best films from the 2012 round of Fresh Wave, all award winners: 《野犬與貓咪》 (Yěquǎn yǔ māomī/The Little One), 《忘語花》(Wàng yǔ huā/Flowers with Aphasia), 《無眠夜行》(Wú mián yèxíng/On Sleepless Roads, the Sleepless Goes) and《冬去》(Dong/Dong).

《野犬與貓咪》 (Yěquǎn yǔ māomī/The Little One), dir. by Tam Wai-ching, 28 mins

Award: Fresh Wave Best Creativity Award (Student Division) 2012

Synopsis: Yěquǎn yǔ māomī is about a teenage boy and his stepsister. Their life is a deeply unhappy one as the boy’s father is abusive and the girl’s mother pays no attention to them, leaving them only one place to find solace: with each other. When the boy’s father discovers their relationship, the situation escalates.

It’s not a story we haven’t seen before in some way, but it is one that is worth telling again and again as it gives voice to the victims of domestic and sexual abuse. Tam’s film opens with black-and-white shots and carefully chosen angles that convey the suffering of a small child hauntingly through images, immediately signalling a home that is not normal. Then colours flood in and take us into the present, the child now a teenage boy. More jumps back and forth in time follow, some lasting no longer than a few seconds. It’s an effective approach to fill in some details for the characters and their backstory, but also one that can make the film feel rather choppy at times. There is too much material covered in too little time – Yěquǎn yǔ māomī is an example of a short that really should have been a feature length film.

《忘語花》(Wàng yǔ huā/Flowers with Aphasia), dir. by Li Sum-yiet, 29 mins

Awards: Fresh Wave Award 2012; Fresh Wave Best Film Award (Open Division) 2012

Synopsis: One character is a gruff, middle-aged florist, the other a persistent little boy who wants a wreath made in the shape of a teddy bear. Not being the sort of customer that usually appears in his shop, the florist initially ignores the boy but as the child returns day after day, it gets harder to disregard him.

Fancy cinematography, powerful sound or other film trickery of sorts are not what makes Wàng yǔ huā the gem that it is: it is its story. Although simple – no more than an anecdote really – the narrative that unfolds is precious and unexpectedly moving. Dare I say that not one eye was left dry in the cinema by the time the credits rolled? Not surprisingly, Wàng yǔ huā was a double award winner at the 2012 Fresh Wave Festival and the audience at the Pan-Asia Film Festival too voted for it as “Best Short” of the selection screened.

《無眠夜行》(Wú mián yèxíng/On Sleepless Roads, the Sleepless Goes)dir. by Isabella Candice Lam, 20 mins

Award: Fresh Wave Best Creativity Award (Open Division) 2012

Synopsis: One night a minivan driver observes a crime and intervenes, ending up in a bloody fight with a robber. The police however is not quite willing to believe his story.

In terms of soundscore and cinematography Wú mián yèxíng scores high, indeed, particularly in terms of the former it was probably the most accomplished one in this selection for Fresh Wave shorts. Sounds and visuals however aren’t enough to make a good film – an interesting story is needed as well. Using a non-chronological narrative that commences with the minivan driver – his face bloodied, his eyes downcast – being harshly interrogated by a police man, the potential for that story is there but somehow deflates like a balloon slowly losing air as the plot progresses. What seems like a great, dark mystery at first just becomes a bunch of policemen distrustful of a young lad, lacking a twist that something that could enliven the tale and turn it into something fresh.

《冬去》(Dong/Dong), dir. by Li Yushan, 23 mins

Awards: Fresh Wave Best Film Award (Student Division) 2012; Fresh Wave Best Script (Student Division) 2012

Synopsis: Dong and Nuannuan are two 12-year olds that live somewhere in the Chinese countryside. Every day they train hard at their local performance arts school, hoping to stand on the stage of the Beijing Opera in the future.

When the organisers of the Pan-Asia Festival asked viewers to choose their favourite short, I didn’t quite play by the rules and voted for two: the lovely《忘語花》(Wàng yǔ huā/Flowers with Aphasia) and this creation by Li Yushan. I wasn’t surprised that Wàng yǔ huā beat out Dong, for it is certainly the more accessible film of the two. With a meta-narrative of traditional performance arts set within the story, Li’s work is not only the most ‘Chinese’ contribution among the Fresh Wave quartet of shorts, but also more complex: On the surface it is a tale of two ambitious students who are approaching the cusp of adulthood, their emotions stirring. Nuannuan likes Dong, whose attention however lies elsewhere – with the girl’s young aunt. It’s not quite love, but rather a “nameless affection” (quote), somewhere in between an innocent boyhood crush on a beautiful woman and a longing for a maternal figure in place of his dead mother. The auntie, fortunately, is sensitive enough to understand Dong’s confused feelings, perhaps in part because of her own situation. A relationship has fallen apart and her family wishes to set her up with someone else. Nuannuan, who currently lives with her, is openly dismissive, making faces and criticising her – within earshot of the aunt – when talking to her mother on the phone. A sad reject the woman may seem, but in her interactions with the children, particularly Dong, we see that she is a much more interesting character, delicately attuned to the people around her and sufficiently confident in her sense of self, even if never raising her voice in defense against personal criticism.


Childhood memories.

To convey all this within 23 minutes is quite an achievement, but Li Yushan manages even more as Dong is further infused with metaphors and symbolism. Some of these – the story told within the opera practice sessions – are largely lost in translation, as the songs are not subtitled, though we discern unrequited love there too, the female character tugging at the clothes of the male one, who fails to respond. There are also the characters’ names (Dong means ‘winter’, Nuannuan ‘warmth), diametrically opposed, and an ominous black balloon in the flashback to Dong’s otherwise happy childhood memories of his mother, all adding their bit to the tale. Li Yushang furthermore demonstrates an eye for compelling cinematography, working with Chen Shufan, Luo Yuanhao and additional support from Diogo Martins behind the camera. Flashbacks are visually distinct and scenes such as the children practicing their scales outdoors are ingenious, making an ordinary routine an extraordinary moment.

Dong is a film full of promise of a talented director that I can’t wait to see more of. With such emotional and intellectually engaging fare offered in less than half an hour, I simply have to wonder what Li would create at feature-length and keep my fingers crossed for such a project to become a reality sooner rather than later.

Bonus Bits