Les lèvres gercées: a tiny kitchen sink drama reveals a dysfunctional family

Fabien Corre, Kelsi Phung, “Les lèvres gercées” (2018)

In just five minutes, within the setting of a small kitchen and with just two characters – a mother and her son who is wrestling with gender dysphoria – a family crisis plays out through dialogue demonstrating inattention and lack of communication. The boy wants to tell Maman that he is transgender but Maman, shown throughout the film with her facial features cropped so that we never see what she really looks like until the very last shot, is too concerned with other things – like his truancy problem, the fights he has with classmates and finally his suspension from school – to listen to him.

The style of animation, looking as if someone was pressing down hard with an ink brush, is very detailed and shows characters and objects in close-up with lots of lines. We are treated to some interesting points of view: at one point, we have a bird’s-eye view of cereal being poured down the kitchen sink, being sucked into the drain. At other points in the film, soup starts to boil over in the saucepan and washing whirls around in the front-loader. The boy’s anguish and pain over what he is and what he feels himself to be are so clear that viewers can’t help but feel for him. The mother is often portrayed quite harshly with lines that emphasise her anger and narrow-minded stance.

As with other recent Gobelins graduates’ films, the voice acting and the script, entirely reliant on dialogue, are effective in establishing an intimate and private home scene in which a child faces an inner conflict that he needs parental help with, but which is not forthcoming. It’s only when he appears to be considering suicide that the mother finally begins to understand the depth of the boy’s despair. At this point, the film is done.

Viewers will want to know what happens next but this is an appropriate point to end the film. More is known about this particular family’s dysfunctional nature by the little that is revealed and what is deliberately left out, which may be a lot or not much at all. This animation is an excellent example of the “show, don’t tell” principle of telling a story and how dialogue is used to push that story along and embellish it.

Mehua: criticising the dogma and empty rituals of religion

Camille Aigloz, Simon Anding Malandin, Michiru Baudet, Margo Roquelaure, Diane Tran Duc, Lucy Vallin, “Mehua” (2017)

In real life, the Aztecs did not sacrifice their own women and girls en masse to their gods: they usually sacrificed prisoners of war in special ceremonies at certain times of the year and celebrated such ceremonies and the associated rituals with dignity and solemnity. The reason for human sacrifice lies in the Aztecs’ creation myths in which the gods sacrifice themselves for humanity and therefore require human offerings so that the sun can continue to bring day to the world. The stereotypes that mar this short film are regrettable as its message can be applied to any religion or ideology: dogmatism, complacency and perhaps ignorance of the original rationale for particular ceremonies and rituals (as time passes and generations are further removed from those traditions’ original context) can lead to ossified attitudes and resistance to change and compassion. Two women, one older than the other and who could be her older sister, prepare themselves for mass sacrifice at the top of a pyramid. When they climb to the top, the older woman lays herself down on the stone table, the masked priest raises his bloodied knife … and the younger woman picks up a flame-bearing pole and starts swiping and whacking the other priests in her attempts to save her friend.

As with other Gobelins animated shorts, the plot is vague and left open-ended. Viewers can assume a far worse fate awaits the two women for daring to disrupt a sacred tradition that keeps the sun rising every morning. The backgrounds and scenes in the film are beautifully done with an emphasis on blue and green shades. Particularly stunning is a sequence in which the older woman prays (in French-accented Nahuatl) to the snake gods who, arranged in a labyrinth that might resemble star charts consulted by Aztec priests to determine sowing and harvesting dates for farmers, arise from their slumber and watch the black background above their heads crack to reveal sunlight. Swathed in gorgeous tones of jade green and bright blue against the black backdrop, the scene looks computer-designed but displays bright imagination as the snake gods raise their heads and hiss and roar in fury.

No matter that they have broken their people’s most sacred customs and laws and must face their community’s wrath, the two women support and trust in each other, standing against the world as the guards and warriors climb the pyramid to discover they have killed the priests. What punishment awaits them – or perhaps what reward the women will receive for removing a parasitical class – we can only guess at.

Parfum Fraise: a short and terse film on the impossibility of escaping violence

Alix Arrault, Martin Hermane, Samuel Klughertz, Jules Rigolle, “Parfum Fraise” (2017)

You can renounce a lifetime of crime and violence, and try to live a quiet life away from trouble, but eventually your past creeps up on you, you lash out unthinkingly, and you end up having to live with long-lasting consequences of your impulsive actions. Moreover your descendants have to live with the consequences too. This is the premise of this surprisingly powerful little film noir “Parfum Fraise”. Former yakuza hit-man Makoto tries to turn over a new leaf after losing his wife in a gangland shoot-out, devoting his attention to bringing up their young son. Kazuki loves his superhero toy and the movie featuring it in action, and strawberry ice-creams. A visit to an ice-cream vendor late at night in a secluded neighbourhood (what?!) leads to an unexpected encounter with two strange men who appear to be menacing Kazuki by drawing out two suspicious objects from inside their jackets …

Habit overtakes Makoto and before you know it, the ice-cream vendor is calling the police straight away and Kazuki comes to realise that his father is not all that he seems. Father and son seem destined to be separated forever as the police siren in the distance increases in volume. As is often the case with Gobelins shorts, the film has an open ending and viewers are left to muse on what might happen to Kazuki.

The animation is well done, with three-dimensional urban backgrounds and lots of contrasts between electric light and city shadows, and the voice-acting establishes Makoto and Kazuki as having a close though sometimes fraught relationship. Kazuki learns there are some limits he cannot cross though he does not yet understand why (until the confrontation with the men). The plot is terse and moves quickly, with the result that the film seems longer (it features two distinct time periods with Kazuki as a baby and then as a kindergarten-age child) than its six minutes’ run.

The city is a major character in this film: during the day, it seems pleasant and fun enough; at night, it is brooding and not a little sinister. Its character mirrors Makoto’s character and the realisation that things are not always what they seem to be on the surface is the start of Kazuki’s growing-up and loss of childhood innocence.

J’attends la nuit: a little masterpiece full of ambiguity and stunning animation

Arthur Chaumay, “J’attends la nuit” (2018)

A delightfully ambiguous and dark short, with stunning animation that looks so realistic and which perfectly captures the atmosphere of a sultry afternoon that turns into an evening fraught with intense desire and inner turmoil at what may erupt: this is student animator Arthur Chaumay’s little masterpiece “J’attends la nuit”. Two young men spend the afternoon and evening together, first at a cafe and then by the side of a picturesque lake; one of the young men who remains nameless has a wound on his hand that attracts the attention of a fly. The nameless protagonist is caught between answering his mother’s texting on his mobile phone, of which said texts start to come more frequently and urgently as the evening progresses, and his own feelings for his friend Damien, who is equally attracted to him. As his sexual feelings become stronger, the wound on his hand breaks out afresh and the fly moves closer to the wound …

What makes this film so effective – apart from the voice acting which is intimate yet very casual and sounding very fresh in the way that French-language conversation often sounds casual, relaxed and fresh as if everyone involved had just got up ready and raring to go for fresh coffee, the minimal expressions of the characters with their sideways looks at each other, and the shots of a hand in shadow with the weeping wound and the fly crawling over to it inserted into shots of the two men about to kiss – is the way in which the simple plot is so minimally laid out that it invites at least two completely different yet valid interpretations. In one interpretation, the unnamed protagonist is secretly ashamed of his latent homosexuality or bisexuality, perhaps due to a conservative family upbringing that regards such sexuality as abhorrent or, on the contrary, being overly attached to his mother (as maybe implied by the constant messages she leaves on his phone), and the wound represents his self-loathing with the fly symbolising both his desire and sexual urges, and the fear of disease that might result from giving in to his desire and urges. This interpretation however does not account for Damien’s later disappearance and the protagonist deleting his social media link to Damien on his phone which suggests they will not see each other anymore. A second interpretation is that the protagonist is a cannibal monster that preys on human flesh or blood, and the fly represents his hidden monster subconscious id that assumes dominance over the protagonist when night falls; this interpretation explains Damien’s later disappearance, the protagonist’s retching and vomiting blood and his self-disgust and loathing, and his mother’s texting, as she may be aware of his double nature. Indeed the mother may have sent the son on a hunting mission that he abhors, to find a human for their whole family to feast on.

Whichever interpretation viewers prefer, whether complicated or outlandish, it at least acknowledges the subtle nature of the film itself: the protagonist is hiding a secret that causes him inner anguish, a secret that he feels he cannot reveal either to Damien or to his family yet which is an essential part of his being and which he cannot resist – to perhaps his and Damien’s tragedy.

Quand j’ai remplace Camille: a distinctive animated short with a bold style and straightforward plot

Nathan Otano, Remy Clarke, Leila Courtillon, “Quand j’ai remplace Camille” (2017)

A deftly made short animated film, notable for its use of bright red and shades of green to create and maintain tension in its terse plot, “Quand j’ai remplace Camille”, like some other films I have seen made by students of the Gobelins animation school in France, focuses on a character striving for perfection or control to an extreme obsessive extent so as to risk life and limb. Laure is a competitive freestyle swimmer aiming to break a former swimmer Camille’s record in the pool. Everyone in Laure’s training group knows Camille, knows her perfectionism and knows that she died during a swimming session. During training and even in her spare time, and when there is no-one else at the training pool, Laure pushes herself to reach Camille’s record, with the aim of surpassing it in competition and reaching the national team. This leads to a situation in which Laure ends up falling unconscious in the swimming pool; she is rescued but her health appears to have been seriously compromised.

The animation has a distinct bold style with an emphasis on bright reds that represent Death’s presence, and the greens of the water, the pool tiles and the general surroundings, even the shadows in dark green. When green and red are paired together, as in some scenes, the tension shoots up alarmingly as Laure confronts the apparent ghost of Camille in the pool. Camille’s red hair may signify that she is dead, not that she is a natural redhead. She seems to want to warn Laure of the consequences of pursuing the dangerous and risky path she took. Electronic beat-oriented music is used in some scenes in a way that stresses the intense urgency of Laure’s self-imposed mission.

The simple and straightforward plot sustains a running time of about five to six minutes but if the student animators had had more time, experience and money, they could have invested some effort into creating a backstory for Laure to explain something of her obsession with beating Camille’s record, and the relationship that may have existed between the two. Had they been friends or jealous rivals? Did Laure ever look up to Camille as a role model? Is there something in Laure’s past or family background that explains her fierce competitiveness? All this and more could have made Laure a character for viewers to identify and sympathise with, if not admire.

Caldeira: a short film of inner and outer volcanic turmoil

Julie Bousquet, Estelle Hocquet, Catherine Manesse, “Caldeira” (2018)

A short animated study of sibling rivalry and long-standing jealousy that can have dire consequences, this little film is beautifully made with a main character who, while not likeable, nevertheless will resonate with viewers and have them wishing that she’ll learn a lesson and survive. The plot is rather vague and revolves around Ines, who for some reason feels compelled to compete with her older sister Solene, a vulcanologist who died some time ago in an accident. During a climb up a volcano, Ines is continually lost in thought about her sister having teased her during childhood while they were walking up a hill; during that walk, Ines pretended to have an arm injury so as to avoid a serious accident. This memory challenges Ines to walk deep into a caldera overlooking hot magma. Although she has a gas mask, she throws it off and is overcome by fumes that cause her to hallucinate.

Viewers will be impressed by the artistic animation of background scenes, the scenes in the volcano (and how they reflect Ines’ inner turmoil) and some of the characters. Ines’ inner obsession reveal a character struggling with an inferiority complex, guilt regarding Solene’s death and perhaps other unresolved family issues. The hazy plot suggests that Solene’s death was the result of her risk-taking unmitigated by Ines’ natural caution; perhaps either Ines was not present or she did not do enough (in Ines’ own eyes) to dissuade her sister from going too far into a volcano’s caldera in the past. As her past memories merge with her present reality, Ines is forced to confront what she did or did not do that failed to save her sister.

The film’s resolution suggests that Ines achieves some inner peace and has let go of some of her obsession, and the animation shows a peaceful landscape that mirrors her newfound tranquillity. I’d have liked the film to have been a little longer to demonstrate the nature of Ines and Solene’s rivalry a little more, how it might have begun and some detail of Solene’s death that added to Ines’ obsession with the rivalry.

The Farewell: thin plot, poor characterisation should have farewelled this film

Lulu Wang, “The Farewell” (2019)

As a character study of an individual torn between her parents’ Chinese culture and the Western culture she has grown up in, yet not fitting into either culture all that well, “The Farewell” just passes muster though not as well as it could have done given its running time of 100 minutes. Apart from this, which gives actor / musician Awkwafina an opportunity to prove her acting ability as that individual Billi, the film is very thin and uninteresting in its plot and most of its characterisation, with lots of irrelevant filler scenes, poor cinematography and humour that relies on so many cultural stereotypes that, had it been made by a non-Asian director, would have damned “The Farewell” as racist.

“The Farewell” is set during a crisis period in main character Billi’s life as an aspiring 30-year-old writer: unable to pay her rent, needing money and receiving news that her application for a Guggenheim Fellowship grant has been rejected, Billi has to move back in with her parents, Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin). The parents receive news from family in Changchun that Haiyan’s mother (Zhao Shuzhen), called Nai Nai / Grandma, has been diagnosed by hospital doctors as having terminal lung cancer and with only a few months left to live. Through an elaborate series of deceptions which involve manipulating the hospital test results, Nai Nai’s relatives have avoided telling her the bad news and instead have assured her that the “benign shadows” on her scans are nothing to worry about. The relatives have also arranged for Haiyan’s brother and his family, living in Japan, to come to Changchun and bring their son Haohao and his fiancee Aiko to marry in China: this subterfuge enables the entire extended family to see Nai Nai one last time before she dies. Fearing that Billi – who has always been close to Nai Nai – won’t be able to keep the grandmother’s illness secret, Haiyan and Jian fly to Changchun and leave Billi back home in New York. Furious, Billi flies out to Changchun herself not long after the parents leave.

The rest of the film follows Billi in her clashes with the relatives and even the hospital staff over their constant lying to Nai Nai about the real nature of her condition. During one fight, Billi’s uncle tells her that the lie is necessary to enable a dying person’s family to bear the emotional burden of the disease diagnosis, and that this is an example of the collectivist values of Chinese society that differentiates it from Western society with its emphasis on the individual: a rather pat and superficial explanation that at least tones down some of the conflict. In amongst the fighting, the melodrama and close-ups of family members in tears or biting back their anger, the film lingers over scenes of the family visiting a cemetery and paying its respects to dead relatives, and over Haohao and Aiko’s wedding celebrations. These scenes are mined rather excessively for slapstick kitsch humour that add very little to the film’s plot. The only time the film has any spirit at all is during scenes featuring Nai Nai: Zhao plays the spritely and mischievous nanna with such depth, feeling and humour that anyone with a heart would feel compelled also to lie to her about her illness, whether Chinese or not.

At the end of the film, viewers are left clueless about the family’s history and what Billi has learned from this final trip to see Nai Nai before returning to the US. (The end credits suggest that the woman on whom Nai Nai is based was still alive six years after her cancer diagnosis.) Whatever legacy Nai Nai leaves with Billi is also unclear. Even the city in which Billi’s relatives live remains unidentified until about halfway through the film; though Billi and her relatives from Japan stay in Changchun for about a week, they don’t appear to go sightseeing much and an opportunity for viewers to vicariously experience the sights of Changchun is lost.

Yours truly believes that a potentially good film about connection between generations separated by time, culture, language and distance, and the existential plight of individuals who are of two cultures yet can fit into neither comfortably, is buried beneath a very superficial film milking cultural differences and traditions for cheap laughs. Were it not for Awkwafina, Zhao Shuzhen and the rapport these two actors have, “The Farewell” deserves to be farewelled rather than welcomed by movie critics.

Ne Zha: noisy overblown blockbuster film with a message about changing one’s destiny

Jiaozi, “Ne Zha” (2019)

A loud, noisy and overblown blockbuster animation fantasy made to please most people, this film is loosely based on a legend about the birth of a divine hero in Chinese folk religion. Essentially the film portrays the origin story of Ne Zha, the son of Li Jing, a military commander in charge of a fortress at Chentang Pass, and Lady Yin. Before his birth, Ne Zha was supposed to receive the essence of the Spirit Pearl, created as one half of a Heavenly Pearl given by the Lord of Heaven; the other half, known as the Demon Pearl, would be used to create elsewhere a demon whose life-span will be only three years, during which period the demon brings havoc and destruction to humanity, and after which the evil being is destroyed by lightning. (Talk about having your life already mapped out for you before you’re born!) Evil forces however conspire to dupe the Taoist immortal Taiyi Zhenren, portrayed in the film as a drunken fatso with little self-control, in order to steal the Spirit Pearl from him and infuse the Demon Pearl into Lady Yin’s unborn child. The result is that Ne Zha is born with the spirit and hot-headed temperament of a demon and ends up being hated and persecuted by the village folk living around the fortress. Li Jing, Lady Yin and Taiyi Zhenren, grieving that the boy will only live three years, resolve to train him so that he may be able to control his demonic nature and powers (which keep the village’s construction and waste recycling industries extremely busy) and perhaps use them for good.

In the meantime, the Spirit Pearl is used by Taiyi Zhenren’s rival Shen Gongbao to infuse its essence into the son of the Dragon King, imprisoned along with his fellow dragons deep in the ocean and yearning to escape and reimpose their rule on Earth. The son, Ao Bing, later meets Ne Zha during a tussle with a sea demon who nearly kills Ao Bing. Ne Zha saves Ao Bing’s life and the two boys, unaware that they are supposed to be mortal enemies, become friends.

The film plays very hard and fast with the characters and plot of the original legend, setting the cast and the story in a template of goodies-versus-baddies and the story itself being fairly simple and easy to follow so it has to be padded out with a nearly endless series of fights involving as many explosions, impossible feats of magic that break the laws of physics, and martial arts derring-do, all performed at insane ear-shattering levels of noise. The characters look as if they’re straight out of a Disney or Pixar film and are for the most part very one-dimensional. There is little to indicate that both Ne Zha and Ao Bing experience much inner conflict wrestling with their essential natures and vowing to overcome or change what Fate decreed for them. Li Jing and Lady Yin are little more than father and mother stereotypes and Taiyi Zhenren plays his buffoon role for cheap laughs.

The film’s message that one does not need to accept one’s destiny and nature as given and can change for the better is strong throughout the film. There are also other messages about how discrimination and prejudice can persuade victims to be resentful and vengeful, and how simple acts of kindness can help people change for the better. Above all, viewers not familiar with traditional Chinese culture can see an emphasis on balance and harmony: the water nature of Ao Bing (dragons being essentially water creatures in Chinese mythology) balances the fiery nature of Ne Zha in their encounters; and this emphasis is also at the heart of Ne Zha’s training to be a well-rounded human, Ne Zha having to learn to balance his demon nature with self-control, awareness of his powers, and using knowledge and thinking to deploy his powers to protect, defend and save others less powerful than he.

The best part of the film is its backgrounds and special effects. What a pity though that the cast of characters, the story-line and the pyrotechnics fail to do the technical design justice.

Shadow Thief: a critique of social and cultural pressure on individuals to conform to other standards

Kim Heeyae, “Shadow Thief” (2018)

Done entirely in black and white and shades of grey with no dialogue, this animated short is a brilliant critique of the pressure on individuals to conform to dominant social standards and values even if these turn people into mindless clones tied to (and to be eventually crushed by) the corporate state capitalist machine. An unnamed man observes the shadows of other apparent physical clones of himself as very similar while his own shadow resembles a Henry Moore sculpture. After being rejected by one set of prospective employers after another and another because his shadow just doesn’t look the same as everyone else’s shadows, our man tries to mould his shadow (and thus himself) into what he believes is required of him. The jobs still evade him so in desperation he attempts to steal a perfect shadow to wear. This requires him to murder someone …

With no monologue or dialogue to speak of, the film must rely on its anti-hero’s facial expressions and body language to convey his disappointment, anguish and panic at being rejected for not being a square peg to fit into a round hole, and on the body language of other people and their shadows to show rejection and mocking. The irony in the film comes when our anti-hero, in doing what he does to steal a shadow, expresses his individuality in full (because what other person would do what he does, in that clone society?) and on doing so, runs away from the consequences and the ownership of his action. He becomes a true individual but cannot cope with that reality.

The animation may be simple and the backgrounds a little cartoonish in appearance but its story is powerful. The ambiguous ending is appropriate for the plot: we are left wondering whether the anti-hero will ever own up to his crime willingly or by force.

Perfectly Natural: science fiction horror film about demonic possession of the for-profit corporate kind

Victor Alonso-Berbel, “Perfectly Natural” (2018)

No aliens, monsters, paranormal events or denizens of Hell or the 25th dimension abound here but this 12-minute short is as horrifying in its own apparently innocent, everyday-life-looking way as films about people being possessed by demons. In “Perfectly Natural”, the demon of possession exists in virtual technology, summoned by the corporate owners who employ Wanda as one of their company’s many IT workers. Wanda is encouraged to use the company’s babysitting service by her boss: the fees for the babysitting service come out of her pay packet and the service, using holograms and AI, supposedly streams knowledge, cognitive awareness and skills like knowing a second language into baby Max’s mind through a microchip attached to the side of his brow. Wanda discovers this service comes with many strings attached: it continually prompts her with emails sent to her computer to enroll Max into yet more programs that will stimulate his mind and intelligence, yet if she clicks on a tab in the emails to enroll him, she is hit with demands to cough up money. Gradually the realisation dawns on Wanda and her partner Zach that their baby has been captured by the corporation which has substituted virtual versions of Wanda and Zach not only to entertain and guide Max through the various cyber-territories he must navigate but to replace the real flesh-and-blood Wanda and Zach altogether. The child has become a real-life Snow White, dead to the world, while his parents face social censure and Wanda getting the sack if they withdraw Max from the company program.

The film proceeds in a straightforward way at a steady pace through the plot, the cast of three actors playing Wanda, her boss and Zach capably in the short time they have, which makes the film’s climax (when Wanda and Zach discover they have lost Max to the corporation) all the more despairing. They can rescue him physically but the program warns them he might suffer neurological damage if they pull him out too early – well, of course the program would say that, playing on the fear and guilt the parents will suffer if at some later time Max ends up being behind the other kids at school work.

The presentation is excellent with great cinematography and editing. The plot is a bit rough around the edges: the nature of Wanda’s work is not too clear and we have no idea how she came to be employed by the corporation. Why Wanda’s boss manages to raise her own children without subjecting them to the babysitting service is not explained: one would have thought such a service would be compulsory for all employees. Because the film has been made as a short, there is no explanation for the corporate agenda behind the babysitting service – a full-length film would be needed to show and tell, as well as detail how Wanda and Zach discover what their roles in the corporation are, what the corporation has in mind in using Max as a guinea pig, and how the parents manage (or not) to wrest Max and his mind away from permanent enslavement.