Personal Stories and Reflections on Death

in 13rd Vladivostok International Film Festival of Asian-Pacific Countries

by Nicole Santé

The 13th Vladivostok Pacific Meridian International Film Festival saw a strong competition of short films. Almost all of them were accomplished films, but one stood out because of its originality and sheer beauty. The standard of all nine films in the shorts competition was high. As is almost always the case with short films, most of them told short stories with a twist at the end. The limitations in length typically ensure very precise, purposeful work; obsolete scenes or dialogues are rare.

An effectively told story is that of Ross and Beth by New Zealand director Hamish Bennett, a sweet tale about a grumpy old man who loses his wife, but gains an unlikely friend. The film is beautifully shot, with great atmosphere and touching scenes, but with a predictable storyline and ending.

Also professionally crafted and well constructed is The Guests by Australian director Shane Danielsen. In little over ten minutes he creates a surprising thriller, filled with black humour, about a woman alone with her baby in her new house as she loses, together with the audience, the sense of reality.

Also struggling with reality is Setsuko, the main character in Oh Lucy! by the Japanese director Atsuko Hirayanagi, displaying characteristics of Japanese society – working hard, doing karaoke, being polite – that the elderly woman tries to break loose from. Funny and tragic at the same time, the film is shot with poise and confidence.

Erkin, the protagonist in the Russian short The Return of Erkin by Maria Guskova, also has troubles with society after being discharged from prison. He returns to a very unwelcoming hometown and has to deal with the results of the actions that landed him in prison. The film is shot in pale colours, adding to the desperation and emptiness of Erkin’s life. The film contains a very memorable scene, where the protagonist starts to dance at a wedding – forced to it, but expressing in his dance all his frustration, contempt and his undefeated will to live (a proper life this time). Very impressive is also the strong performance of the young Russian protagonist in Vladlena Sandu’s Kira. The girl hides her vulnerability and desperate longing for a warm home, or indeed any home, behind a mask of aggression and arrogance, which the harsh reality has forced upon her.

In Nam’s World, from French-Canadian director Pauline Chabatuy, reality is a relative notion – as we celebrate the birthday of a young boy in what seem to be familiar and warm surroundings. But as the story develops, it emerges that something is not quite right. The film is cleverly scripted and shot, and is touching without being sentimental.

Also from Canada is Blue Thunder by Philippe David Gagné and Jean Marc E. Roy. The story might not be the most original – a man gets thrown out of the house and tries to rekindle his musical career – but it stands out because of its execution: the dialogues are sung almost like in an opera, which works really well with the otherwise downplayed characters and un-glamorous surroundings.

All of these short films are very well made and of high quality, but also quite conventional in form and content: they are personal stories around a single protagonist. That is definitely not the case with White Death by Chilean director Roberto Collío. He chose a historic and dramatic topic: the death of 44 soldiers in the Chilean mountains. Collío composes a non-narrative, impressionistic “painting” of the place and the events. Shot in black and white on location, he also uses photographs, animation and radio-sequences reporting on what happened back then. The haunting score beautifully supports and extends the grim story.

This is also true for The Tide Keeper, which received the FIPRESCI Award. The jury chose it because it stood out, like White Death, in form and craftsmanship. There is not much of a story in this surrealistic, symbolic dream that you are watching –a dream that starts quietly, with a man sleeping in a bed. At first the objects surrounding him slowly come alive, creating alternative worlds. As remarked in the jury report, the film demonstrates the very original and creative mind of director Alyx Duncan, and stands out because of the impressive stop-motion animation, as well as great technical abilities. Seemingly innocent objects turn into forces of nature: the sheets become a wild and unforgiving ocean and lethal weapons, but this is done in such a smooth way that it almost feels natural. The film might be seen as immaculately executed animation, but it is also a poetic reflection on the tide of life and the times of dying – the fears and struggles that accompany the process, and the longing for redemption in the form of an afterlife. Worth noting is also the musical score by Nervous Doll Dancing, which lends the already sensory experience an even more moving touch.

Edited by Birgit Beumers