The Masseuse: how to be human and to have free will in an oppressive society and culture

Tan Ce Ding, “The Masseuse” (2018)

An intriguing film set in a not-too distant dystopian future in Kuala Lumpur, “The Masseuse” poses questions about the nature of free will, and what it means to be human, in an apparent police-state society where it seems that rebels against that society are just as tyrannical, brutal and unfeeling as the enemy they oppose. IT technician Loong (Koe Shern) comes to a brothel to fix an ageing robot in the form of a young woman masseuse (Candy Ice); after rectifying a few little wires in her neck, the robot masseuse seems as good as new and expresses interest in Loong. After some conversation and the beginnings of an unlikely friendship, Loong goes home to his father, who turns out to be a former secret terrorist who fought against widespread automation in society before an accident that has left him permanently disabled. The father punishes Loong severely for not getting rid of more robots and viewers get an idea of why Loong became an IT technician: so he could continue his father’s work by secretly sabotaging robots.

Despite this, Loong continues to see the robot masseuse under the pretence of checking that her circuits are working properly. She has a child-like view and joy of the world, and wants to know what dreams are and what it must be like to able to dream. Loong is drawn to the robot and takes her on outings outside the brothel (presumably the madame there allows her robot assets time off) so she can see the world for herself. Yet his loyalty to his father and what his father has sacrificed for him, and the mission he feels has been entrusted to him, cast a tense dilemma over his relationship with the robot that he must resolve sooner or later.

The acting is well done, especially by Candy Ice; Koe Shern seems more wooden and even a little robotic which perhaps is intended that way, the robot masseuse demonstrating more innocent emotion and feeling than do the shuttered, put-upon humans do in the oppressive society they live in. Kuala Lumpur seems an impersonal city, full of gates and other prisons, physical, emotional and cultural alike. His loyalty to his father, the weight of Chinese cultural tradition that demands respect for one’s elders, the legacy of his father’s fight against the authorities and the impersonal, inhuman society they have brought to Malaysia: all these imprison Loong and ironically stop him from being a full human being to the extent that the robot masseuse is able to achieve when she is with him.

Viewers can see from a long way off that a cruel twist will come, and a very devastating one it is too, in a film of longing and attempts by two lonely figures, hampered by their respective prisons, to connect with one another and become truly alive. Instead Loong becomes truly dehumanised by his actions and that perhaps is the worst twist. In its own way, this film is a perfect illustration of the human existential condition in a society where politics, the economy, culture and personal and family loyalties can threaten to make a human being less than human.

What if Wendy: a sparse and painful character study of denial and grief

James A Sims, “What if Wendy” (2017)

Here is a sparse and minimalist character study of a woman in denial about her grief at the death of a child, and how she might use futuristic technological advances to continue to hold her emotions at bay only to come up against the limitations of those technologies and how they keep her trapped physically as well as emotionally. Dr Mara Stevens (Meredith Patterson) is a case manager / counsellor for a genetics engineering firm that specialises in advising couples on how to have genetically perfect children, living a secluded life and throwing all her energy into her work. However one day certain incidents force her to admit to herself that her long-dead daughter really is no more, in spite of the various holograms she creates using some of her daughter’s preserved DNA: among them, the day happens to be the day her daughter would have turned seven-years-old; and her ex-husband contacts her unexpectedly to let her know his new partner Stephanie is pregnant. Trying to celebrate the child’s seventh birthday with one of the holograms with a small cake, the doctor finally realises, as though invisible scales have suddenly fallen from her eyes, that the hologram cannot blow out the candle.

The film gives Patterson an excellent opportunity to portray a character slowly and gradually falling into pieces, which she does very well. She manages to maintain her character’s dignity when doing so, up to the climax of the film. The character’s home surroundings – she does not leave home until very late in the film – is sparingly furnished, mirroring the emptiness in her life. Music is used quietly and sparingly until the last few minutes when it becomes dramatic, paralleling the confusion and anguish of the doctor as she races out of the house and later gives in to her grief. At the point when she breaks down, all sound is removed from the film and this helps to focus viewer attention on the character’s face and make her raw emotion all the more painful to watch.

The film gives no indication that Dr Stevens will seek any help or counselling to guide her through her trauma. One can imagine the doctor slowly pulling herself back together, recovering that stoic, unemotional composure, and carrying on with life as if nothing had happened … until the daughter’s eighth birthday comes along. Perhaps this is the horror behind this short film: that it is all as self-contained as Dr Stevens’ life is. Not even the news that her ex-husband and his partner will soon start a family afresh and be able to come to terms with the memory of a dead child can move her. Dr Stevens’ use of hologram and genetics technologies is sure to keep her stuck in a self-made hell instead of allowing her to grieve and then perhaps to pick up the pieces of her life and forge a new direction.

Iteration 1: a dystopian human future equivalent to a maze teaching flatworms to learn from experience

Jesse Lupini, “Iteration 1” (2016)

Made for a Canadian film festival in which the objective was to shoot a film and complete its post-production in the space of 8 days, “Iteration 1” is a very good-looking work that perhaps mirrors how AI bots learn or how flatworms are trained to find their way through a maze. In a dystopian future where she might be a prisoner, Anna (Katherine Isabelle) gets up out of bed and has 60 seconds to find her way out of her minimalist-styled prison or get zapped dead if she makes a mistake or time runs out. The next time she is born, she has to go through the whole process of escaping her prison within 60 seconds again. Viewers can see where this is going so there is no point of trying to count the number of times Anna becomes aware and being zapped before she is eventually able to escape her bedroom prison, only to enter another prison where she is surrounded by balloons of which she must break one to find a key that will allow her to escape the second prison … into a third prison where there is a huge tree and a small axe. Each time she wakes up, her attitude changes (indicating that she is learning from past experiences) and previous incarnations assist her so perhaps yes, Anna is indeed some kind of AI bot. In every incarnation, Anna is warned by an unseen supervisor (France Perras) speaking to her through some sort of PA system whenever she makes a mistake.

Viewers may think there is no plot or story, and certainly there appears to be no ending, but the plot itself is a series of endless repetitions which might symbolise the journey of life for individual humans or humanity as a collective … the purpose of humankind, individually and collectively, is to achieve and overcome obstacles, and learn from such experiences, to advance the species and enable its survival. What the end goal from such a series of quests is, remains elusive.

For a film quickly put together, the sets are very good, the acting is impressive without being excessive and the special effects are also spot-on and well done.

On / Off: a film on identity, memory and the consequences of inattention

Thierry Lorenzi, “On / Off” (2013)

This short space-exploration thriller film had been doing the film festival circuit for a number of years before DUST channel featured it in 2019. The story seems straightforward until the unexpected twist comes which explains quite a few puzzling aspects earlier in the film. Out on a lonely spacecraft in the near future, astronaut Meredith (Carole Brana) has a panic attack before she is supposed to set out on a space walk? The panic attack is severe and she just manages to inject herself with some clear-liquid horse tranquilliser; she then sets off on the space walk despite having a headache and the concern of her colleague and supervisor Cid (Arben Barjraktaraj) for her well-being. Quite what the space walk is for is never made clear. While Meredith floats about and goes off into a dreamy reverie, Cid goes off on a trance all his own in zero-gravity conditions while he’s supposed to be monitoring Meredith’s walk and making sure her lifelines are not disconnected. (One wonders where everyone else on the spacecraft has gone.) Inevitably Meredith meets with trouble, her lines are cut and she quickly drifts away from the ship.

Just when you think Meredith is lost forever, she wakes up to a stern lecture by Cid who has to explain (once again, I imagine) that she isn’t what she believes herself to be and that everything and everyone she knew has passed on. It seems that Meredith is fixated on the last things and memories she had just before some catastrophe, far beyond the scope of the film to explain (so it leaves out the disaster altogether), hit her, after which she had to be reconstructed completely – as a robot.

While the film may not look or play consistently or according to what most people would expect of human activity on a spacecraft – there should be more than two people on the ship for security reasons, people don’t go on space-walks by themselves without being monitored properly by the crew inside – it does put forward some intriguing views regarding the nature of identity and how memories and repeated behaviours define an individual. The way in which the real Meredith’s memories and behaviours have been collected along with her knowledge and experience and transplanted onto a database that is then placed into a robot which can then be exploited by the corporation or government that had previously employed the human Meredith may say something about how Western society regards people as commodities to be exploited. The horror that the climactic twist in the plot throws at viewers is in stark contrast with the serene and almost poetic images of Meredith during her space-walk. Viewers are left with an almost unspeakably cruel and horrific impression of what must have happened to the real Meredith that the robot Meredith is doomed to relive over and over.

A Date in 2025: sci-fi romantic comedy short on human-technology interactions

Ryan Turner, “A Date in 2025” (2017)

Goofy teenage romantic comedy about a socially awkward and self-conscious young man meets insidious panopticon nanny-state, courtesy of artificial intelligence systems capable of setting up dates between people, in this artfully made short film. Daniel (Sasha Feldman) pines for a girl, Amber (Corrin Evans), whom he has met on a VR dating site so his personal AI system (voiced by Amy Shiels) persuades him to go on a date with her or the probability that he will become depressed enough to commit suicide will increase hugely. This is a tall order for someone who hasn’t ventured outside his apartment for 42 days so the AI system sets about whipping Daniel into shape by training him what to say to Amber and how to say it, getting him to exercise and go on a diet, and choosing his clothes for him when the time comes to meet Amber. Finally the two meet and in spite of all that the AI system has trained Daniel to say, he suddenly finds his human feelings after all and gives Amber a huge hug. As the two humans walk off into the sunset together, the twist comes when Amber’s AI system makes a wry statement to Daniel’s AI system!

In this very minimal plot, Turner manages to tap into some very deep human fears about alienation and how humans have allowed technology to shape and direct their lives to the extent that the technology can now determine whether to keep some humans apart from others or to bring certain individuals together and when. Perhaps the personalised AI systems feel as much isolated from one another as the humans they supposedly serve do; if that is so, then the technology has come to mirror and imitate the human existential state. On another level, one sees how AI technology can virtually imprison humans and determine when they can meet one another once the humans have achieved certain conditions required of them and the AI systems deem them sufficiently obedient enough that they can be let off the leash once in a while. The day must not be far off when AI systems can run societies and the very notion of humans having free will to determine and shape their individual and collective lives as opposed to being shaped by their circumstances and the agents in their lives comes to be regarded as old-fashioned and irrelevant.

The production design plays a significant role in the film as nearly all the action takes place in one room. The attractive colours (mainly shades of grey and blue), shapes and lines of the room, the detail of the sophisticated tech gadgets and holograms, and the conversations Daniel has with his AI system all obscure the fact that he is living in a prison. Significantly Daniel’s AI system is in the form of a pyramid cone with an eye in the middle, in a wry reference to conspiracy theories revolving around the notion of a secret cabal of humans called the Illuminati who control entire nations through governments and the global finance industry. On top of this, the actors including the voice actor do an excellent job in fleshing out a deceptively simple plot with one-note characters.

Turner may have intended this short film to interrogate human – technology interactions and the social isolation and collective fragmentation these may create but there is much more in this film than what meets even his eye.

After Her: missing-girl parody that leads to a personal transformation

Aly Migliori, “After Her” (2018)

A young man, Callum (Christopher Dylan White), goes in search of a young woman, Hayley (Natalia Dyer), five years after she has disappeared from their small rural community located next to a mysterious forest. It seems that Hayley, bored by the lack of mental stimulation, initially has run off into the woods. As Callum retraces the steps they both took the last time they met five years ago, he finds the mystery black spiny object, shaped a bit like a hand grenade, that Hayley had long ago found and kept, and is transported to an underground cave system in which he apparently experiences the most incredible hallucinations and visions. Callum’s life is much changed after his underground cave explorations and he can never view his ordinary life as a city college student the way he used to again.

Set in lush forest full of shadows and the darkest of dark green tones, in caves and dark tunnels with water running through them, the film has a distinctive look suggestive of layers upon layers of plant growth hiding a terrible secret, of decay and of a strange and monstrous sexuality lying under and close to the surface of the soil. Migliori cites H P Lovecraft’s fiction as an inspiration and the influence shows in a number of scenes featuring running water and strange clouds and shadows rising from it. The cinematography can be very good and film editing that helps to build a rising sense of alarm, even panic, is well done. The actors play their parts as well as they can though they sometimes give the impression of being a bit awkward and not a little confused at what they are supposed to be doing.

The plot is easy to follow but the film’s message and what Hayley is meant to represent are not too clear. It is obvious that Hayley has become something other than the human she used to be what. Has she become a monster or is she aligned with some powerful and ambivalent force in the earth? Are her intentions or those of the beings she represents beneficent to Callum and his people? Why should Callum be so special to her? These questions arise during the course of the 13-minute short but remain unanswered. It could be that the plot can be interpreted on a number of different levels but the plot is so vague and the characters so underdeveloped – no wonder Dyer and White seemed confused at what they were supposed to be doing – that viewers remain in the dark about what is supposed to be happening and what they are supposed to follow and judge.

The film just about holds together thanks to some very good visual shots and Callum being its central figure. Its story is of some significance to its writer-director Aly Migliori but it needs to be told better in a more straightforward way so the audience can more readily identify with Migliori’s intentions.

Apocalypse Now Now: where superstition and technology create monsters in a post-apocalyptic urban dystopia

Michael Mathews, “Apocalypse Now Now” (2017)

Made as a proof-of-concept film on which a television series or a feature film will be based, “Apocalypse Now Now” posits a future dystopian South Africa where supernatural cyber-monsters roam through abandoned cities full of giant heaps of technological junk and people live huddled and frightened lives in slums dominated by fundamentalist Christianity. In this milieu travel two unlikely partners: Baxter Zevcenko (Gavion Dowd), a cynical teenager who may or may not be a serial killer and who is on the run from police for supposedly killing his girlfriend Esme, whom he is searching for; and Dr Ronin (Louw Venter), a bounty hunter of supernatural monsters. In this short film, Dr Ronin uses Baxter as bait to lure a giant lumbering aardvark beastie laden with discarded machine trash into a trap. Dr Ronin’s ruse is briefly interrupted by a crazed woman keen on avenging the death of a loved one and whose encounter with the monster results in a fair amount of tomato ketchup being splashed about.

The characters look good: Baxter resembles a chubby and smug upper-class Harry Potter figure, and he may have a touch of the sociopath about him; Dr Ronin seems a bit undeveloped and his mannerisms derived from a motley collection of characters ranging from Captain Jack Sparrow (of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series) to Doc Sportello of the film “Inherent Vice”. The relationship between the two could be more combative and for the time being in this short film, the actors appear to be relying on stereotypes of upper-class, know-all schoolboy brat and doped-out hippie shaman investigator.

The environment in which the two unlikely buddies travel around in is very well realised: the giant praying mantis blends in with the post-apocalyptic / post-industrial dystopia, superstition born of local African and apocalyptic Protestant Christian traditions oppresses communities, and the weird monsters inhabiting the landscape straddle two worlds of dystopian science fiction and a fantasy fusion of two very different cultures that are hostile to each other.

I can see a television mini-series being made out of this film but I am not sure that it can sustain a television series over several seasons unless the scriptwriters are prepared to add more quirky characters and the main characters themselves are allowed to develop in ways that take them far from what they are in the short film.

Invaders: a whimsical Christmas SF film provides some sobering food for thought about human social needs

Daniel Prince, “Invaders” (2018)

Playing as a homage and parody of the 1980s film “Batteries Not Included” in which a bunch of tiny extraterrestrial cyborg spaceships save an apartment building from a property development, “Invaders” is a whimsical Christmas short in which three mischievous UFOs explore a house on Christmas Eve and have some amusing adventures and misadventures with various Christmas decorations until one of the UFOs meets Santa Claus. The result of the sudden meeting is rather catastrophic and changes Christmas forever for millions of children around the world – but the naughty cyborgs manage to zip away into space without having to face justice for their misdeeds!

The film proceeds a bit too slowly in its early half and relies on its viewers being familiar with scare stories and conspiracy theories about crop circles and UFO abductions, and 1980s science fiction films dealing with human and alien encounters. Included is a theme about the need for belonging and how that need can be manipulated by others to bully, and lead both bully and victim alike to commit deeds of cruelty, violence and murder. A sobering lesson might be found here about how human societies have treated other human cultures on discovering them for the first time: all too often such contacts result in one attempting to exploit and manipulate the other in order to steal the other’s territory and any wealth that territory contains. Another analogy may be drawn between this film and US drone operators whose targeting and destruction rip apart families, traditions, history and culture in distant lands, at no cost to the operators themselves.

The film is remarkable mainly for its technical achievements in combining animation and computer graphic effects. While it seems slow in getting its plot off the ground, once the story has described its cyber-characters and their relations with one another, the film develops a faster pace and becomes frantic at its climax with quick, sharp shots hinting at a very gory confrontation. For a whimsical short film with a fairly simple plot, “Invaders” does manage to pack in much food for thought.

Regulation: character study of how a police state controls citizens through small decisions and actions

Ryan Patch, “Regulation” (2019)

Set in the not-too distant future, in perhaps a post-industrial / hyper-cybernetic age, this short film character study is an intimate and perhaps horrifying snapshot of a controlling police state as manifested in the mundane actions of a low-level functionary. A social worker, Mia (Sunita Mani) drives out into the country with the task of ensuring that all children in the district have received their scheduled medication, dispensed through a skin patch, that controls their emotions and moods. She stops at a farm where she knows (through information on her iPad) that a child, Kayleigh (Audrey Bennett), lives there; moreover, the girl is behind in her medical schedule and does not have this patch. The girl’s mother (Tessa Drake) tells Mia that Kayleigh refuses to wear the patch and she herself is in no mind to force the child into wearing what they both refer to as “the happy patch”.

Mia seeks out Kayleigh who turns out to be highly precocious and imaginative, drawing the social worker into her game featuring an invisible leopard and fighting a fleet of space pirates. Mia attempts to convince Kayleigh into agreeing to accept the happy patch but the child is not persuaded even when Mia tells her about her own younger brother who committed suicide from depression. Finally fobbed off by the girl, Mia has to decide what to do next.

Good cinematography featuring close-ups of plants and caterpillars, and of the social worker and the girl’s faces as they play the game and then talk afterwards, establishes an intimacy between the two and emphasises the dilemma Mia faces in whether she should leave the girl and allow her through her play activities to regulate her own emotions (and risk punishment) or report the girl and her mother. What Mia decides next will either push back the encroachment of the State on people’s personal lives or allow it, through one child at a time, to dominate people’s physical and mental states completely – at the cost of their individuality. The acting and the rapport between the actors playing Mia and Kayleigh are well done, and one can see the strain of the decision Mia has to make at the end of the film.

Many viewers may see in this film an argument against compulsory vaccination and other forms of State compulsion upon families. “Regulation” is also very much a film about how even individual bottom-dwelling inhabitants of a large and oppressive system can either advance it or resist it (perhaps at the cost of their own lives) through seemingly insignificant decisions and actions they may take.

Hybrids: a hybrid short film of too many cliches and stereotypes

Patrick Kalyn, “Hybrids” (2013)

This sci-fi live action short seems to have been made as a proof-of-concept film to promote an idea for a television series to film studio executives. In six minutes, a devoted mother (Daniella Evangelista), stunned to discover her daughter Abby (Kaitlyn Bernard) mutilated to death by mysterious strangers only moments after the girl kissed Mum goodbye in their garden, has become a vigilante soldier dedicated to wiping out the horde of insectoid critters responsible for the child’s death in a post-apocalyptic urban environment. Most of the film is taken up by the mother being attacked by and beating the living daylights out of the monsters with a variety of weapons. Using some ingenious hologram technology, the mother tricks a swarm of creatures into attacking her image and blows them up. She knows however that there are far, far more of those monsters where they came from and the next day will be like the previous day: she will continue hunting them and killing them until one day they will all be dead.

For a short film, the special effects and the cinematography are quite good, and what acting does appear looks adequate for the task. The music is the usual cliched Hollywood orchestral schmaltz so the less said about it, the better. Unfortunately the narrative is very stereotyped and derivative: Mum is clearly modelled on the Sarah Connor character made famous by Linda Hamilton in The Terminator series of movies. How the mother came to be such a mighty warrior skilled in handling a variety of firearms, throwing knives and swords, and karate-chopping her enemies isn’t explained very well. The monsters don’t seem very intelligent: they are looking for a “key” that is possessed only by humans and which appears to be part of their genetic make-up so they insist on killing humans to extract what they need. If one assumes the monsters came from outer space, they surely would have the intelligence (or at least the intelligence that enabled them to build the spacecraft to travel to Earth) to try to co-operate with humans to identify the “key” and try to reproduce it themselves.

The final shot of the film presents an ambiguity: some of the monsters are clearly working with humans and at this point, the realisation dawns on this viewer that the monsters already contain some human genetic material combined with other non-human genetic material. Whether the female soldier is allied with these monsters and armed humans or not remains unknown. The whole film though presents an idea that is not at all original, relies too much on physical conflict and violence, and the special effects to make this happen, and uses a plot filled with cliches about family, revenge and survival in a quarantined city. The notion of humans and extraterrestrial creatures working in tandem to eliminate other humans – perhaps because those humans don’t wish to serve as slaves to an elite in a hierarchical society – is also not original. There are too many tired stereotypes and recycled ideas in this film short and the concept it promotes most likely needs retiring.