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Staff Picks: SeaShorts Film Festival 2020

11 September 2020

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Staff Picks: SeaShorts Film Festival 2020

We are so, so close to the launch of the 2020 edition of the SeaShorts Film Festival. Running from 12 to 20 September, the week-long online festival will play host to a slew of exciting short films, forums, and masterclasses – all available for $10 USD. 

Now on its fourth edition, the festival, founded by award-winning filmmaker Tan Chui Mui, has steadily etched its mark on the regional calendar as a must-attend festival. The festival looks to showcase Southeast Asia’s stories while shining a spotlight on the region’s emerging filmmaking talents. This year’s theme, “Reimagining Short Films, Reinventing Southeast Asia”, sees the festival continue to position itself at the forefront of Southeast Asia cinema.

Having to bring the festival online has not deterred the festival team from their goal. Together with forums, masterclasses and workshops, SeaShorts 2020 will be offering a total of seven programmes each packed with films across its eight-day long celebration of Asian stories. You can check out the full schedule of activities here.

The festival’s curation of handpicked films is so extensive that it can be daunting to know where to start – but fret not! Here are a few highlights across each of the festival’s programmes to get you started.


Opening Film

MEKONG 2030

Dir. Kulikar Sotho, Anysay Keola, Sai Naw Kham, Anocha Suwichakornpong, Pham Ngoc Lan
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand / 2020 / 93′

Kicking off SeaShorts Film Festival 2020 on 12 September will be its opening film MEKONG 2030. The anthology film will consist of five short films directed by five filmmakers from across the region, all looking to envision the future of the Mekong River in 2030.

The food basin for generations, the Mekong River is now on the verge of an ecological crisis due to overexploitation and global climate change. The filmmaking process has led these five filmmakers to witness firsthand the damage wrought, channeling the urgency of the issues onto their works.

Through their lens, they present raw, compelling stories that not only channel the weight of the river’s destruction, but also illuminate insights into how each country’s culture and history informs their responses to the crisis.  

An exciting collaboration between emerging filmmakers in the region, MEKONG 2030 is an excellent introduction to the issues surrounding the Mekong River today.

The film will be screened from:
12 September 8:00PM – 13 September 8:00PM (GMT+8)
19 September 12:00AM – 19 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


SeaShorts Competition

This year saw over 500 entries to the SeaShorts Competition, which dedicates itself to spotlighting the very best of Southeast Asian short films. 30 nominees will be competing for the coveted SeaShorts Award, with the best Malaysian short bringing home the Next New Wave Award. In addition, prizes will also be awarded for the best in direction, screenwriting, cinematography, editing, sound, and acting.

These 30 films are grouped into seven programmes which will be screened across six days. Together, these programmes present an eclectic mix of genres and themes that responds to the festival’s theme and challenge of “Reimagining Short Films, Reinventing Southeast Asia”.

Stay Awake, be Ready (Hãy tỉnh thức và sẵn sàng)

Dir. Pham Thien An
Vietnam / 2020 / 14

The Illy Prize winner for Best Short Film at the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight 2019, Pham Thien An’s short Stay Awake, be Ready is perhaps this year’s favourite for the SeaShorts Award. 

Mostly anchored by a lone camera, Stay Awake is an intricate piece of arthouse cinema. With its naturalistic style and incredible attention to detail, the short etches out the everyday and elevates it into a thoughtful – almost cosmic – look on how the mundane blisters with life. 

Every action and dialogue feels choreographed yet it never divorces itself from reality. Another high point are the stunning visual layers, effortlessly crafted through minimal camera movements. What is perhaps most striking about the short is how it manages to be so evocative and tension-driven despite its brief runtime and lack of central conflict. Stay Awake is an incredible short film that should not be missed.  

Catch Stay Awake, be Ready as part of the SeaShorts Competition 1 programme, available from:
13 September 10:00AM – 14 September 10:00AM (GMT+8)
19 September 12:00AM – 19 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)

A Remembering of Disremembering (Ang Pag-alaala sa Sadyang Paglimot)

Dir. Cris A. Bringas
Philippines / 2019 / 19′

In our interview with Lim Wei Jie, the festival’s Programming Director, he reveals that part of his initial to this year’s theme was through exploring the history of film watching in Southeast Asia. These plans, however, had to be scrapped due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Still, this approach of celebrating the past can be felt with films from this year’s SeaShorts competition films, such as with Grace Song’s Last Time I was an Actress and Cris Bringas’s A Remembering of Disremembering

As part of the commemoration of the Centennial Year of Philippines Cinema, Bringas’s documentary lovingly details how Times, Manila’s oldest stand-alone movie theatre, has changed the lives of a Naido, retiring film projectionist, and Bridge, a late-blooming actress. Reminiscent of the beloved Scala theatre in Bangkok, Times faces the threat of closure due to obsolescence. 

Perhaps, the most memorable moment from the piece is with Bridge’s innocuous shrug, with her hands locked with her husband, as she says her last goodbye to the theatre where their love story began. This small moment captures the overall bittersweet approach to its theme. Instead of lamentations of a long-gone golden age, the documentary opts to be a celebration of the memories the theatre has brought, while poignantly highlighting the transformative power of film. 

Catch A Remembering of Disremembering as part of the SeaShorts Competition 4 programme, available from:
15 September 8:00PM – 16 September 8:00PM (GMT+8)
19 September 12:00AM – 19 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


Moving Panorama

Curated by guest programmer Yow Chong Lee, the Moving Panorama programme features seven shorts from the emerging generation of Malaysian filmmakers. These films will look to explore the space between life and what lies ahead.

Blue Light (幻影机)

Dir. Cheah Kah Sing
Malaysia / 2020 /15′

Winner of the Best Short Film at this year’s Mini Film Festival, Blue Light is a quirky escapade following a day in the life of a cameraman as he embarks on another job. The directorial debut of Malaysian filmmaker Cheah Kah Sing, Blue Light was inspired by his experience as a film crew and feature film writer. 

This leads to his short feeling autobiographical at parts – albeit expressed in exaggeration – with barbed wit and unsubtle jabs at the industry. Blue Light does heavily rely on crude humour for laughs but it never becomes a crutch. By the end of the short, all its comedy transforms into an entertaining cover for a surprisingly thought-provoking story. 

Catch Blue Light as part of the Moving Panorama programme, available from:
13 September 1:45PM – 20 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


Migrating Forms

Presented in collaboration with Kaohsiung Film Festival, the Migrating Forms programme will present a curation of Taiwanese short films focusing on Southeast Asian migrant workers living and working in Taiwan. Together, they unearth their fears, hopes and dreams. 

Nine Shots (九發子彈)

Dir. Su Che Hsien
Taiwan / 2019 / 15’

A key component of most Taiwanese films about migrant workers is with the language barrier becoming a key catalyst for misunderstanding. Nine Shots uncomfortably furthers this source of conflict, boiling it over into a matter of life and death.

Based on a real-life tragedy, the short begins with an interrogation. Ah Fei, a Vietnamese migrant worker in Taiwan, is forced to smile for the camera and declare in Mandarin that he will not be a runaway; one language is forced over the other. The language barrier between Ah Fei and the locals will grow ever insurmountable as the short progresses, only to be finally shattered by nine gunshots.

The short’s criticism of Taiwan’s stigmatisation of migrant workers – particularly from Southeast Asia – is damning, with one character unsubtly remarking that the Ah Fei wouldn’t have been killed by the police if he was a blonde foreigner. Not only is Nine Shots bold with its handling of its themes, this same spirit reverberates with the short’s cinematography as well, particularly with its excellent use of distance.

From start to its heartbreaking end, Nine Shots will undoubtedly leave an emotional mark.

Catch Nine Shots as part of the Migrating Forms programme, available from:
13 September 12:00PM – 20 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


Best of Golden Harvest

This year’s SeaShorts Film Festival will present a curation of short films from Taiwan’s longest-running short film festival, the Golden Harvest Awards.

Tea Land (高山上的茶園)

Dir. Tseng Ying-ting
Taiwan / 2018 / 27′

The lush and tranquil backdrops betray the emotional intensity of Tea Land. The short follows a makeshift family of runaway migrant workers from across Southeast Asia. Together, they share joy and companionship, but their bond is soon threatened by a death in the family From the respite that comes with the end of a backbreaking day to the tension between separated lovers, Tea Land is an emotional rollercoaster.

The short’s serene backdrop is never forgotten despite the narrative’s highs and lows. Visually, the contrast is arresting, with the family hiding amidst the greenery from both the police and the viewer. The calming greenery infiltrates the film’s tonal approach as well, never letting itself reach a fever pitch of emotional release.

Taken together, Tea Land’s striking visual elements paired with a humanistic approach to its characters creates a necessarily frustrating call for action.

Catch Tea Land and the rest of the programme available from:
13 September 4:15PM – 20 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


Space In Between

With films from Japan’s Image Forum Festival, the world’s largest festival dedicated to experimental film, the Space in Between programme will feature some of the most forward-thinking art films from around the world.

Night Horse clip 1 from Jeroen Van der Stock on Vimeo.

Night Horse

Dir. Jeroen Van Der Stock 
Japan, Belgium / 2019 / 19′

The grand-prize winner of Image Forum Festival 2019’s East Asian Competition Section, Night Horse is a supremely unsettling experience. Weaved from live surveillance footage, nothing seems to be going on throughout its 19 minutes. Yet, that might be the entire point.

Shadows populate empty corridors and closed gates, creating a paranoia that jump scares are right around the corner. Adding onto the disturbance is the general sense that what is shown isn’t supposed to be seen. 

There is no purpose in the footage; nobody would have any reason to watch them. Life is sprinkled into the footage but peering in feels like an invasion. Yet despite all these visual distress, the white noise that permeates Night Horse only grows ever more entrancing, drawing audiences deeper and deeper into its bizarre and startling world.

Catch Night Horse as part of the Space In Between programme from:
12 September 9:45PM – 20 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


Singapore National Youth Film Awards by *SCAPE

Singapore’s National Youth Film Awards (NYFA), presented by non-profit organisation *SCAPE, is an annual event created to recognise emerging Singaporean filmmakers under 35. Five shorts from the 2020 edition will be screened as a programme for this year’s SeaShorts Film Festival.

Still Standing

Dir. Tan Wei Ting
Singapore / 2020 / 20’

Fascinating and endlessly engaging, Still Standing is an excellent drama that will leave you wanting more of the same. Dedicated to the Singapore Heritage Society, the short bounces between the past and present to retell Singaporean architect Tan Cheng Siong’s journey with local landmark Pearl Bank Apartments.

The greatest strength of Still Standing is with how it never feels heavy-handed in convincing its audience to care about the high-rise buildings or Tan’s story. Performances throughout, particularly of a young Tan, sparkle with earnesty and passion, while grounded yet understandable pragmatism acts as their foil. 

Director Tan Wei Ting’s handling of the story feels natural and approachable by allowing raw emotions to take centre-stage, employing suitable cinematic techniques to drive home its mood. All of the short’s elements brilliantly lends weight to its narrative, making Tan’s journey to realise his vision – and to see it all demolished in his old age – unbearably bittersweet.

Catch Still Standing as part of the Singapore National Youth Film Awards by *SCAPE programme from:
13 September 6:45PM – 14 September 6:45PM (GMT+8)
19 September 12:00AM – 19 September 11:59PM (GMT+8)


Read more:
An Interview with Lim Wei Jie, Programming Director of SeaShorts Film Festival 2020
Bringing a Film Festival Online in the Pandemic Era – An Interview With Nicholas Chee, Festival Co-Director of SeaShorts Film Festival 2020
Setting The Scene: The Urgent Issues Of The Mekong River Region Today