Sydney Film Festival 2020 Shorts Round-Up: Live-Action

Her Own Music

Reviewed by Brooke Heinz

Sexual awakenings and first loves are a cornerstone of the female coming-of-age genre, forming the bases for heroines’ understandings of self and adulthood. Though the most accomplished of this genre weave such elements of the self in harmony with genuinely affecting romance, Her Own Music does not achieve such grace. 

Set within a religious all-girls school, writer-director Olivia Aleksoski’s fictional short follows over-achieving captain Maddie (Alexandra Morgan) as she is assigned as a music tutor to failing student Tessa (Zoe Terakes). Tessa’s free-spirited attitude towards education annoys yet intrigues Maddie. When the two begin a romantic relationship in secret, Maddie realises there is more to life than reputation and grades. 

Whilst the film shows that Maddie has little concerns herself about sexuality, Her Own Music does not gloss over the microaggressions that pervade the teenage queer experience. Heteronormative assumptions, accusatory tones of mothers and teachers, and casual homophobic jokes by cliched ‘bitchy’ friends all show ways in which homosexuality is subtlely coded as ‘other’ on an everyday basis. Despite these realistic details, Maddie and Tessa’s relationship is comparatively shallow due to rushed pacing — such that their first kiss happens in what feels like seconds after meeting — undermining the emotional investment necessary to pine for their union. Even non-verbal cues, such as attempts to capitalise on the inherent sexual-tension of sharing a piano (Stoker says hi), are broken by repetitive and poorly-focused close-ups.

With the central romance of the film severely underdeveloped, Aleksoski’s main interest instead appears to revolve around dismantling the pressures and stereotypes around privately-educated women — or at least, the socio-economically privileged and high-achieving ones. Maddie, whose Macbook sits across from her mirror adorned with her dream ATAR (98.5, naturally), stands in stark contrast to Tessa. With scant background information besides a brief mention of her rural hometown and a history of ‘delinquent’ behaviour such as skipping class (much to Maddie’s horror), Tessa’s barely-there character is threaded together from largely masculine-coded, rebellious archetypes like the ‘bad boy’. With Tessa’s perspective never fleshed out, the romance feels one-sided and entirely in service of catalysing Maddie’s decision to reject the academic and heteronormative expectations placed on her.

Aleksoski’s good intentions are ironically the film’s biggest pitfalls. Deriding the ‘rich (white) private school girl’ stereotype while indulging in other cliches, Her Own Music’s chance to dig to below the surface instead falls way to a by-the-numbers LGBT+ romance used as a superficial device for adolescent self-discovery.  

Mukbang

Reviewed by Jamie Tram

Mukbang, the debut short from Eliza Scanlen (of Sharp Objects [2018] and Little Women [2019] fame), is an all-too-rare evocation of the collision between emerging female sexuality and online cultures. Its timely preoccupations are to be admired; its execution, mired in lazy orientalising, less so.

The film follows Annie (Nadia Zwecker), a marginalised high-schooler at a spiffy private school, whose obsession with Mukbang sets off a sexual awakening. The viral Korean trend, in which people consume typically gargantuan portions of food and interact with online audiences, is one which predominantly serves to entertain and substitute for an evaporating sense of community. Annie, on the other hand, relishes in its pornographic potential, with the film’s sound design amplifying each bite, lick, and pleasured moan emanating from the Mukbang stars she scrutinises.

Considering that these videos and broadcasts have long been perceived as a fetish, it’s disappointing that the film hinges on such a trite comparison. While it’s clear that the reductive depiction of Mukbang is filtered through Annie’s carnal perspective, the lack of broader contextualisation or meaningful commentary only serves to further entrench this phenomenon in taboo.

It’s a difficult tightrope to walk. After all, it’s pleasing to see a film that portrays unconventional sexual interests without judgement, but the racialised nature of Annie’s fetish makes this sentiment somewhat difficult to swallow, particularly when she dresses up in Japanese lolita garb to partake in it. Meanwhile, a subplot involving a leaked sex tape of Annie’s classmate reminds us that little is normal about the standard ways in which the internet feeds adolescent sexual appetites. It’s a sobering contrast, albeit one that involves fine young actors spouting off some unconvincing teen dialogue.

I can’t entirely recommend Mukbang, but it’s certainly worth a look. While teen cinema and television is steadily growing more sex-positive, the role that the internet has to play in the development of sexuality is glaringly shied away from – at best reduced to cheap jokes about pornography. Scanlen’s film partially succeeds in reckoning with the hidden complexities of adolescent online engagement, all the while delivering a memorably slurpy sensorial experience.

Idol

Reviewed by Debbie Zhou

CW: Suicide

A long, continuous shot frames the face of Chinese celebrity singer protagonist, Wan Ran, so tenderly that the surrounding narrative only functions as a devastating showcase of actor Nan Chen’s quivering lips, the wet tears leaking from his eyes, his internal guilt heaving out into hyperventilating breaths. In writer-director Alex Wu’s live-action short film Idol, the apparent simplicity of filming technique — with the camera focusing squarely on Chen’s facial expressions for most of the film — juxtaposes with the complex layers of story that operate in the background of Wan Ran’s status as a revelled pop culture ‘idol’. But as all hints of glamour are stripped back in aesthetics and style, Wu accentuates the crushing consequences and responsibilities attached to occupying a role that is inextricably linked to the fine balancing act of fame, career and sacrifice. 

Jiapei Wu plays a company executive who breaks the news to him, her voice heard out of frame: a 14-year-old fan or young ‘stan’ from rural Hunnan has committed suicide after hearing about Wan’s eight-month romantic relationship which had been deliberately hidden from the press. There’s a harsh, but quiet anger to Wu’s scolding. As she executes her cold, callous calculations to strategise Wan out of the situation, Wan’s face absorbs the information before eventually succumbing helplessly to her decision-making. Bookended by Wan’s mother’s voicemail enquiring into his wellbeing, and his eventual decision to call her back, Wu’s short manufactures an ending that feels mostly abrupt because of how utterly still the film feels otherwise. Despite the upsetting tactics employed by his management, and his almost tragic acceptance of them, the silences and the minute details in the singular shot show a more realistic sliver to Asia’s idol culture than the words spoken. It’s in Chen’s every swallow, every averted gaze, every stutter.

Her Own Music, Mukbang, and Idol are playing as part of SFF’s Dendy Awards for Australian Short Films. More info here, here and here.

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Brooke Heinz is a journalism graduate from Newcastle. She writes Asian film reviews for Filmed in Etherand is a fervent awards campaigner for Sakura Andô. Follow her on Twitter at @Brooke_ssi.

Jamie Tram is a writer, filmmaker, and screwball obsessive from Melbourne, Australia. His writing lurks at Senses of Cinema, Kill Your Darlings, and other places. You can direct all your complaints to @sameytram.

Debbie Zhou is an arts writer/critic and managing editor of Rough Cut. She’s just a bit obsessed with movies and the theatre, and she will always get behind a good film score. Her words also appear in Time Out Sydney, The Guardian, The Big Issue, Audrey Journal and more. Tweet her at @debbie_zhou

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