Kill The Engine

Derek Frey 2017 film, Kills the Engine, aptly exploits the one-act simplicity that makes short films their own art. The three protagonists have one goal, and—when initially thwarted—work together to fix their problem. Unfortunately, for them, their goal is to make their car work so that they kill themselves via carbon monoxide poisoning.

It is the simplicity, together with the gaps in the story, that make Kill the Engine funny. It tells us nothing of these men’s stories, so we can’t help but see them as slightly absurd incarnations of American pathos. Middle aged and average looking, they seem neither rich nor poor; brilliant nor stupid, or even particularly sad. In fact, their major obstacle in life appears to be their inability to get their mode of death up and running.

A lot of the comedy comes from their clear discomfort with mechanical work. When they attempt to jump the battery, they are terrified to even try for fear of being electrocuted. They also oddly decide to wear random children’s sports helmets, presumably with the idea that these will somehow protect them against shock. The only thing it protects them against, however, is a bump on the head. And, when they are finally able to get their car running, their Friday Night Lights victory pleasure is short lived, as they realize what victory means.

While the slapstick is fun and the story tightly written, the movie does fall apart a bit if you think about it too much. Stories like this work best when there is a larger commentary or cultural critique underpinning them. Because the men aren’t developed to be “real people,” with real problems, they are stand-ins for societal types. Given the characters’ inability to work with their hands and seeming malaise, it leads us to think that they may be stand-ins for emasculated men? If so, they lack the sharper critique of why that is interesting or important, making the film claim that that is, in itself, deserving of suicide. It could be their overreaction to societal norms that leading them to their sad condition; the film doesn’t say (or have the space to tell us that). It’s a fun ten minutes, though; it’s probably best not to think too hard about it and enjoy the ride.

Shadow

In Jae Won Jung’s Shadow (2017), a broke filmmaker gets what appears to be a too good to be true job. Jae-ha, an aspiring, desperate filmmaker who appears to be about two weeks from eviction, finds a flier that advertises twenty thousand dollars for three days of work. The job involves documenting a subject from morning to night without being spotted. Jae-ha is of course more than a little uncomfortable with the jobs and grows even more so when he sees his subject: a beautiful, young theatre actress named Sun-Woo, who smokes her way through rehearsals for a play and not much else.

Sun-Woo, like so many other truly cinematic heroines before her, is indecipherable. She says the lines from her play, but are they necessarily something she believes? And, while her performance consists of seemingly unemotional dialogues, she seems equally as unknowable outside of her play. She lies down, she smokes, she talks, but her face reveals nothing. In this way, Sun-Woo is quite similar to the female characters of Wan Kar Wai, David Lynch, and the other directors that Jung sites as inspiration. Like Laura Palmer and Su Li-Zhen, Sun-Woo is a compendium of melodramatic heroines who are placed in situations, not of their making. Through her emotive eyes and blank expressions, shadow asks that we empathize with Sun-Woo’s pain, even if we don’t understand it.

Her crisis, however, is more philosophical than material. Her monologues describe the struggle between the ephemeral nature of existence and the eternal nature of the world. That’s why she notes “ephemerality is as beautiful as an eternity.”
Her struggle is augmented by the difference in art forms that populate the film. Sun-Woo is of course engaged in theatrical performances; when she rehearses, each performance is transitory and complete in of itself. But Jae-ha is filming her, giving these finite performances a sense of permanence. In each of these dialogues, Sun-Woo seems to be aware of her short time in this world and the rather fleeting impression she makes on the world. However, these interactions and dialogues also foreground the challenges and differences between film and other performative media.

Shadow’s success is predicated on Se In Park’s excellent performance as Sun-Woo. Park is an actress that can project every emotion so clearly and yet remain entirely unreachable. Like so many of film’s great actresses, Park can embody the contradictory emotions that characterize human existence. With Park performance and the film’s classic, photographic cinematography, Jung creates a beautiful meditation on film, life, and the desire to be known and remembered.

Mascot Fur Life

Jens Wernstedt’s 2016 short mockumentary, Mascots Fur Life, creates a sports film with all the usual clichés: the poor underdog that we can all root for, the Rocky-getting-fit montage, the final freeze, and almost all the rest. Crucially, this underdog isn’t a dog at all; rather, he’s an underlion. More precisely, he’s a lion mascot that real, just like (in this story) all mascots. In Wernstedt’s universe, mascots aren’t people in costume but actual living beings, who pay rent and have jobs and attempt to find self-fulfillment. In the case of Willion, the protagonist, his dream is to be an elite, pro football mascot, which is the pinnacle of mascot life.

Like a lot of sports protagonists, Willion is both truly dedicated and rather average. But what he lacks in talent and looks he makes up for in enthusiasm; Willion trains every day, foregoing work, money, and a personal life to try to make it to the big leagues. Of course, he has to have many trials and tribulations along the way. He must fail at first; therefore his final success is so much sweeter.

Mascots Fur Life is at its best—and therefore most absurd—when it’s at its most serious. While these mascots train exhaustively, their clunky bodies appear bizarre and rather useless. In one particularly funny scene, Willion’s friend is holding a boxing heavy bag for Willion while he practices sparring, but he can’t control his own head. Willion punches, and the friend’s absurdly large head ricochets off the bag, again and again, proving that repetition is indeed quite funny. In fact, the film could have more strongly highlighted the ways that these mascots aren’t built for society, illustrating their inability to handle touch phones and open envelopes.

And I think this is the main issue with the film. On the one hand, its photography is crystal clear, its musical choices are perfect, and its visuals accurately deploy the schmaltziness of sports fluff pieces. However, its satirical strain could have benefited from actually exaggerated those qualities more for greater effect. If the goal of the film is to call into question the need for feel-good sports narratives, it may have actually fallen a little short. The question remains: why do mascots exist (in this world) if not to be mascots? Is this a cruel world in which only a few mascots can be their truest selves? In answering that, the film could point to how we idolize sports life, often to the detriment of ourselves.

Firdaws

Mayur Puri’s 2017 Firdaws asks its audience to think about not whether or not there is an afterlife but if we can actually stand it once we get there. In the film’s earliest moments we meet Affy, a suicide bomber who managed to complete his mission and is now in the afterlife. He wakes up in a beautiful cabin, surrounded by cushions, candles, a TV that plays his favorite cricket match, and a gorgeous woman. The woman, Noor, is everything he was ever promised in the afterlife: sexy and absolutely compliant. Even as he is fed grapes and promised fantastic sex for the rest of his life, however, he remains uneasy. He keeps on asking what happened to his leader, his team, and his mission.

Moreover, the room itself has an undercurrent of malice to it. Behind the frilly pillows and giant television, the walls are wallpapered with newspaper clippings that discuss the horrors of the real world (“40 Dead in Kashmir” and “Trump Deports Immigrants” were two of the headlines). Although Noor is doing her best to seduce him and make him comfortable, he becomes more and more agitated as he remembers the school children he blew up. And, with her last line, Noor even undermines the idea that he is in paradise at all.

This is not to say that the film is pulling the “Twilight Zone Switch” and Affy is actually in hell; rather, the movie undermines most religions ideas of paradise. In many beliefs, there is only one true religion. For a terrorist bomber, it is likely even more so. Additionally, paradise should give its subjects peace of mind, but this paradise doesn’t erase the traumatic memories of the past. Instead, Firdaws images an afterlife in which the frivolous and rather banal desires of humans don’t really make for pure bliss. In a rather funny moment, for example, Affy remarks on how white looking Noor is, and she responds, “Yeah, that’s what you like, right?”, which marks Affy’s ambiguous relationship to western cultural standards. Moreover, when he can’t have sex, Noor gives him a Viagra—which seems an absurd need in the afterlife. In essence, Affy is still fundamentally fully human. In this way, he is only a convergence of his past actions and memories. Even in the afterlife, he can’t shed his own human nature.

Painkiller

In the tradition of The Commitments and Once, Joshua Todd’s 2016 short film Painkiller charts the story of a group of ne’er do wells and misfits who overcome their baggage to make music. At the beginning of Painkiller, the teenaged Rob, a heavy metal enthusiast with a serious physical disability, gets fired by his band mates, who claim that his disability (and fear of performance) makes him unreliable. He mops for while but is dragged out of his morass by his best friend Cass, a young woman that he used to play music with and who also seems a bit isolated from the metal scene. They hook up with an awkward, laconic jazz drummer to form their own metal band, Painkiller. Before he can perform, however, Rob has to deal with his own fears about his pain, disability, and ability to perform.

Painkiller is charming and very tightly paced, and it manages to keep a lot of plot moving at a rapid pace within a short period of time. In part, of course, it’s in part because Rob, Cass, and Mickey are common tropes, mal-adepts who are able to overcome stereotypes at play in the music world. Moreover, the characters are drawn from a strong that Anglo and Irish traditions of the poor kid who makes good, if only for an instant. In this way, the dialogues flow, the characters’ personal growth seems easy and natural, and the music matches the film’s quick pace. The young actors are also well cast; Rob (Mitch Wood) lets us feel for his personal struggles to be an entirely normal kid.

Moreover, the sparse photography and elegant camerawork give Painkiller a kind of sophisticated filmmaking style. Todd never seems to let the camera get in the way of his characters. The film’s backdrops–middle and working-class homes, janky record stores, and low-rent clubs— give us a sense of an environment where the joy of music is the only way to transcend the banalities (and the pains) of everyday life.

While the story isn’t at all new, unusual, or surprising, Painkiller nonetheless draws from a wonderful generic traditional and does it justice. In the film, music helps us overcome our personal challenges, connects disparate peoples, and proves that joy can emerge in unusual places and odd outlets. And, although ostensibly heavy metal and outward joy seem dichotomous, Painkiller proves that this weird juxtaposition is actually a really good fit.

Pierrot

To escape from the cruel reality one can find many ways, but is it the right way? How can one determine that? What if we think that we are moving forwards to salvation from our inner voice that always brings us down, instead we are creating one more imaginary cruel reality that is even worse than the original one? Main character (Idan) chooses acting as an escape, as “other life”. He is locked in his own state of mind, and won’t open even to his mother. On the stage he encounters a problem in acting his part. It was an act of impossible love. To want somebody so much but instead all he can do is be a “ghost” with feelings. Here is where you wonder is it because he never felt something like that in his real life, and therefore he is unable to perform. Then he saw a man (Igor) that is cleaning the stage in theater after everyone left. He was acting similar scene that he failed. So passionate, full of affection, he was intrigued and watched the men’s “performance”. When Igor saw him, he was a bit ashamed and continued cleaning. Next day he asked Igor to do again what he did last night, but Igor knew he is struggling with his part, and made him do it. Idan found help where he never thought he could.

Even when you don’t speak to your mother, she can see your state of mind and feelings. She saw that acting is not helping him, and that it is only making his state worse. In the past she forbid him to go to theater, and when he did not obey, she denied giving him the promised money. By that act, she was convinced that he will stop acting. His mothers actions led him to more terrible action. Next day he stole money from the theater, and everybody thought it was Igor and because of that, he got fired. This is the moment he realizes the damage he has done and how bad it actually feels. The moment he found out that Igor was fired, the emotions stroke his face, emotions similar to those that would make his acting part perfect.

In the end, he finds out that when he saw Igor acting, his feelings were actually real, and they were forwards Idans mother. And everything ends in his own house, where he interrupted Igor and his mother who had almost kissed.

After the film ends, everybody is left wondering. Was everything happening inside Idans head? Was everything just his imagination, did he used real life persons and made a perfect play for himself? Is he suffering from a mental disease and literally never left his room? Is Igor Idans father ?

Again, this film could be understood in many ways. That is what makes this film wonderful. Acting, idea and the final realization are great. All that is left is for the audience, to understand the film in their own way.

Servo

In Olivia Minhyul Bae’s Servo, an adorable–if clumsy and moody–robot makes friends with an overworked office worker after the man buys it as a personal assistant for his home. At first, the two don’t get along; the man even vaguely wonders aloud on the phone if he should return it. However, the robot learns to be more productive and the two become friends, playing video games and eating dinner together. When the company insists on mandatory updates, however, the robot’s owner becomes distressed and tries to refuse them.

The real success here is Bae’s animation, which is seamless, and Junghwan Sul, who plays the gruff office worker. With its giant eyes and expressive pupils, Servo the robot is able to give a convincingly anthropomorphic performance. It appears chagrined when it drops a dish, joyful while gaming, and empathetic when the man is sad. Servo’s fractious movements, the way it flails its body or shifts its head, produce a kind of charming ugliness that makes it far more human. The film also includes some charming moments between robot and human, including a sweet moment in which the robot makes a birthday meal for his owner.

The movie also speaks to the profound loneliness of the office worker automation. Except for a short phone conversation with a customer service representative, the human protagonist never interacts with any other human. Instead, his only vessel for emotional expression is this robot, which is perhaps not coincidentally also his servant. Furthermore, the man’s enjoyment of the robot seems clearly linked to its behavior, as he beats it when it fails (a very odd note in the film that just doesn’t work). The main character’s inability to emotionally connect with this object only when it is well behaved makes him seem emotionally childlike as well and makes his loneliness even more disturbing. Whether intentional or not, the film makes it seem that the flaw isn’t in the company that wants to upgrade but in the protagonist. Instead of worrying about the robot’s upgrade, perhaps the good-looking, wealthy office worker should simply get out more? It’s unclear if the film is trying to make a larger comment about contemporary intimacy or if the protagonist is merely a misanthrope, a slippage that may leave the audience unsure if this is a comedy or a tragedy.

Icky (2017)

One of the most wonderful things about animation is its ability to make metaphors physical. In the Bettie Boop short “Minnie the Moocher,” for example, Bettie’s father is giving her a lecture because she’s not eating her dinner. As she tiredly gazes on him, his head transforms into a phonograph, and the scratchy, static sound that comes out is incomprehensible. Before her eyes, he has turned into a literal broken record. Of course, her mom then changes the record to something more festive and begins to tap her foot to the music. Animations play with reality to make the implicit visible; part of the joy is making those connections between traditionally metaphorical language and the images we see.

Icky is similar to the Fleischer brothers’ classic short, not only because heads change shape but also because it rests on creating meaning through actualizing metaphors. In the short film, people have regular human bodies but their heads are literal puzzles (in this case Rubik’s Cubes). A child is born with her puzzle incomplete. While all the other heads have tiles that match on each side, this child’s head puzzle is a mess—none of the colored tiles or sides is “solved.” In fact, when the child’s mother attempts to right the sides, they keep on reverting to their unsolved state. This renders the child an outsider, isolated from her fellow puzzleheads. She even goes to doctors and therapists to attempt to treat her unsolved nature. While waiting for a bus in the rain, however, she looks down at a puddle to see various colors dripping into the drain. She looks up to find another person whose head is also unsolved—it seems as the man had painted normalcy over it.

Perhaps a metaphor for LGBTQ identity developmental disability or mental illness, the film speaks to the challenges of being a visible outsider. Its lack of dialogue and strong visuals create a simple yet universal theme—that of wanting to know if they are okay, even if they move through the world differently than others. Although it doesn’t exactly move on to new ground thematically, director Parastoo Cardgar’s elegant drawings and simple message give it a universal charisma that makes it a pleasure to watch.

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