Reel Asian 2023: Our Review of ‘S-Express Malaysia Shorts’

Posted in Festival Coverage by - November 08, 2023
Reel Asian 2023: Our Review of ‘S-Express Malaysia Shorts’

Who are we? Cinema, among many things, serve as a manifestation of identity. It’s difficult enough to do that in any cinematic parameter – within a feature or a short, to have something that global viewers can call a specific country’s national cinema within a market that feels both oversaturated and is constantly hungry for more. S-Express is a collective shwocasing programming all over Southeast Asia, this year focusing on Malaysia. The shorts here are about diversity, identity, and Malaysian cinema as it parallels with others in the world. Let’s begin.

Alina Wong’s Ms. Pontianak is the first short. It’s a ‘lost’ mockumentary depicting an actress, Salma (Jo Kukathas), who spent twenty years playing the titular Malaysian ghostly figure. She usually collaborates with a hack director. But that’s until her agent tells her that an artsy rival, James Lee, wants to make his own Pontianak film. Instead of offering her the role, he makes her audition for it. And through the process, she discovers that he’s taking as many risks in this new project as she is. There’s a slight disconnect here as all of the characters speak in English instead of Bahasa Melayu. But the film can chalk that up to how colonialism affects Global South cinema. Although it IS nice to watch a satire where no one is really the bad guy. It’s also a satire that, despite being the longest in the programme, doesn’t overstay its welcome.

It’s strange to watch straight up horror after watching a horror parody. And it’s stranger that Reel Asian is the second festival to do this to me this year, but here we are. Although, instead of a protagonist, Aldina Lydia Nabilah Azani’s Cruel (Kejam) has an antihero within a lieutenant Jamil. With a journalist, he raids a house where, allegedly, teenagers go to have sex. Is premarital sex illegal in Malaysian law, is this guy just a bad cop, or both? The shakycam here feels dated, but it’s a decent showcase of how both colonialism and religion clash within a short about a raid gone spooky.

Through Sisters, diretor Yazeid Suhaimi paraphrases Jean-Luc Godard and says that all a short needs are two nuns (Nia Atasha, Annes Sofea) with guns. These nuns execute four men who rapes one of their sisters and kills all but one. My head is saying that the short needed a minute or two to explain how these nuns rounded up these guys in the first place. However, my heart is reacting positively to its verdant moodiness. My recent trend for reviewing short programmes are that the first one is the best. But it’s like this programme just gets better as it progresses.

Months represent centuries in Kevin Lai’s A Worm, What Will Be Will Be, a short that puts together a Chinese-Malay woman’s progression into dementia, scenes of nature, and title cards indicating non-linear storytelling. The juxtapositions here are lucid. There’s a scene here where the woman recalls her time harvesting rubber as a village girl, and it follows that by showing trees with slashes on them. The poetry within that juxtaposition feels on the nose, but I’m an easy mark for stuff like this. People leave a mark on the world without knowing it, these marks lost within a landscape that feels whole.

The programme ends with For You, Forever 21, where a brother and a sister hang out and talk about their parents, fight, and makeup. It may take a while for the film to engage its viewers, which is strange for how simple it is, but as the short progresses, it shows how relatable its characters are. The Chinese and East Asian melodramatic influences in the score are a nice touch. A decent way to end the programme.

Find out how to watch the S-Express shorts here.

This post was written by
While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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