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SIFF Review: Hashi, by Sherman Ong

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The film Hashi by photographer/filmmaker Sherman Ong, which had its local premiere during SIFF, is the product of a residency programme at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan, and it betrays the conditions under which it came about.

hashi1.jpgThe 112 minute feature was made in just about two months, and is obviously an exercise in asset management. In any case, resources of everything that goes into the process of making a film and determine its final outcome were limited.

Since Hashi was shot in Japan, a country whose aesthetics are grounded in an appreciation of reduction, you can already guess the kind of complicity between place and idea, which lies at the basis of this movie.

Hashi tells multiple tales, or rather, fragments of tales through random successions of glimpses into the loosely connected lives of three women, Shino, Junko and Momo. The latter of the three main characters, Momo, gives coherence as she rollerblades the corridors of the office building in which the better half of the action takes place, delivering bento lunch boxes to the two older women who work there. Each time she visits, she entertains them by giving accounts of her various dreams – shrewd little episodes that pierce the everyday routine of the working and ordinary life setting that make up the film’s entire narrative domain.

hashi2.jpgMomo, a girl in her early twenties, is not overly effective in what she does, consequently loses her job and her place, and ends up staying with Shino. Good-humoured 50-year-old Shino, apart from offering refuge, is unexpectedly revisited by her former lover of 30 years past and sits through the almost comically strange encounter, while middle-aged Junko, her colleague, appears to be stuck in both her relationship and an affair, before being diagnosed with cancer on top of this.

For most of its duration, the film hovers among long, static shots and watching it feels like witnessing the peculiar movements of show-jumping at ground level, with its piecemeal story netting and undeniable low tension. The randomness and tenacity in how the characters interact or simply collide without touching (also the strictures and communication constraints that commonly surface between half-strangers in any social context) are elements of non-commitment and routine known to all of us. In this movie, they jointly generate an atmosphere of latent irritation close to something like suspense.

The characters exist in sketches rather than sharp outlines, and in the surface texture of their shared / respective narratives. It is important to note that the script originated with the casts’ own contributions, which they provided in interviews with the director and added to his initial scheme for the film. The themes addressed in the conversations revolve around major aspects of love and relationships, and are told from a decidedly female perspective while the male counterparts are confined to the fringes. Gradually, such sets of feelings and the many contradictions they imply and call forth coagulate on screen to form a realism that is actually quite touching – if you can endure it.

hashi3.jpgIt needs to be said here that Hashi is a film that is difficult to sit through at times, as there is quite a bit of inconclusive editing and little thrust or dynamics that point convincingly in any direction. This, of course, is because of the underlying concept: going along with what is available, even changing cast for one character if the actor’s time does not allow for consistency. This way Hashi arrives at a blending almost of documentary and fictional storytelling, which incorporates the work formation in the work’s foreground presentation, and thus becomes self-reflexive.

Leaving the template of Taiwanese New Wave cinema and others aside, the film includes jump cuts and deliberate breaches in continuity – technically that is what it is when one actress takes over from another in the same role (in Momo’s case it is four different actresses in all!) within a single scene ongoing. To the camera, even a human being acting is just another object after all. And this can in fact offer quite a bit of quirky joy to the trained cinephile’s eye.

So in effect, the film looks a bit random and kind of oblique at times, since there is no pointed breakthrough idea presented – only the fact that yes, you can do it this way. And then there are moments where it is quite intriguing to watch the undermining of framed logic, just as there are some well-arranged scenes in Hashi that have a toned down and quite convincingly Japanese beauty to them. It clearly takes advantage of the spatial quality to be found in its work place setting and architecture, which brings out an atmosphere of reduction not exactly refined, but nonetheless reminiscent of that particular brand of minimalism we’ve come to recognise as being Japanese. Also, the shiftiness and temporariness of traditional housing in Japan is alluded to and made functional in some frame compositions: the openness of missing walls.

hashi4.jpgThis film definitely poses a challenge in many respects and is bound to bring nothing but boredom to those who look for story-driven cinema entertainment or those who have never experienced the promiscuous pleasure of playing with fiction and fiction’s rules. At the same time it is also true that there is no must in the way you are to enjoy – this simple statement pretty much sums up all the ambivalent achievement that Hashi is. It is universal, but at times simply too close to being just pointless instead of fundamentally human. It is a strangely likable film, but more importantly still – it confirms Sherman Ong as an authentic and singular artistic voice in the not overly diverse landscape of contemporary Singapore filmmaking.

Finally, there is no getting around the fact that this is not so much a visual as an intellectual enjoyment, a little dragging and occasionally lacking in refinement. Simply put, it is one of those cases in which the story behind the film turns out to be more interesting than the thing itself.

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