“The World. In Short Form.” — On TIFF’s Short Cuts Program

Short film, like other mediums accompanied by the modifier, is often defined by its length, as though it is a curtailed version of what would have been, or a diminutive of an established medium. Indeed a short film is short(er) — the industry standard is something along the lines of ‘under 40 minutes’ —, especially when compared to Hollywood epics or trilogies. But it is a medium in its own right, by which I mean that the qualities that make great shorts are entirely different from those that make a feature length great. The slogan for TIFF’s Short Cuts program this year is “The World. In Short Form.” And indeed Short Cuts’s eight programs and sixty or so films in total are exemplars of the form’s ability to be broader than its length.

In Yang Qiu’s A Gentle Night, a mother searches for her missing daughter a few nights before the Lunar New Year. There is little dialogue, just enough to propel the story; we aren’t told who these people are; no establishing shots tell us where or even when we are; no thriller-genre watermarks that keep us on the edge. Yet, we are engulfed. A Gentle Night relies on the images and pacing to make immediate this removed and unnamed mother’s horror and despair. The movie ends as it begins with little explanations, yet it is difficult to escape the feeling that it is complete, that Qiu’s said all he wanted to say. Absence of specific details encourages the audience to engage with the film with sympathy and compassion, two refreshingly different emotional standpoints from empathy, the currency of usual feature lengths that involve a mother and a lost child. The audience cannot identify with the mother, is left in the emotional peripheries, just close enough to be bystanders to the horror that’s all her own. Charlotte Wells’s Blue Christmas is another example of this kind of storytelling. The story of Alec, a debt collector out on the job on Christmas Eve, hurtles forward — he has a son and a wife, who wants to burn down the family Christmas tree. Much of the film is occupied with Alec driving around town, collecting. Yet, when the film draws to a close and Alec returns home to his smoky living room, we cannot help but sympathize with this family we barely know or understand. Once again, the narrative is focused on the specific events and not on its origins or aftermath. The latter two, we are told, are Alec and his family’s, as Qiu’s mother’s is hers.

Kei Chikaura’s Signature takes a different approach. A man walks through Shibuya, Tokyo. He is unfamiliar with the city and does not seem to speak either Japanese nor English. He runs into a petition, passes by a row a row vending machines, walks into alleyways, and ends up in a dimly lit, disturbingly green hallway. The audience is kept in the dark until the subdued revelation that the man, Cheng Liang, is a ‘foreign worker’ trying to land a factory job. The film creates the illusion that we are, in real time, experiencing what Cheng is experiencing. It is immersive in that the audience’s not knowing is parallel to Cheng’s jarring and painful feeling of being uncertain, out of place, alone, in a foreign country. We find sure footing on the narrative just as Cheng finds his footing in his job interview.

Watching a number of these short films one after the other, one can’t help but feel that they are more truthful reflections of the way we live — not in grand narrative arcs, but in a series of indelible, meaningful periods of time — and of the way we interact with others, within liminal spaces between our points A and points B. That the beginnings and resolutions in many short films feel abrupt is perhaps the form’s greatest gift; our dealing with their absence is an exercise in compassion.

TIFF Short Cuts has eight programs, each with a loose theme ranging from relationships to survival. Details on each of the eight programs, times, and ticket information can be found here. I highly recommend the three mentioned above (‘A Gentle Night‘, ‘Blue Christmas‘, and ‘Signature‘) and the following: ‘Waiting‘ (Amberley Jo Aumua), ‘Magic Moments‘ (Martina Buchelová), and ‘Mother‘ (Rodrigo Sorogoyen). 

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5 of the Best Animated Movies This Year

Most of us seem to tend to think of animated films as something for children, that they lack the same emotional depth and/or sophisticated plotting of live action. This is simply untrue. Animation is not merely for children. It is an exciting storytelling vehicle with its ability to suspend rules of reality and show anything you can imagine. It’s an under-appreciated medium. But it is gaining recognition and acceptance as a true art form. Here are five of the best animated films that came out this year.

Have A Nice Day

This Chinese dark comedy, written and directed by Liu Jian, feels a bit like a classic Tarantino film with the same quirky style and irreverent violence, but still maintains its cultural roots. The plot of the movie revolves around a young chauffeur in a small town in China who steals a bag with a large sum of money from his boss, and the reactions of those about town who learn of the theft. Jian’s sharp script has characters poking into each others’ desires and motivations all under the shadow of the money and the personal and societal expectations placed on them.

My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

I think we sadly still have this idea that “weird” is a negative term, so many of us may feel reluctant to try out something weird or shy away from anything just a little too bizarre or confusing. That’s why I love this film (written and directed by Dash Shaw), whose plot centers around an ordinary high school suddenly sinking into the ocean and the attempts by the students and staff to get back to the surface. This is exactly the kind of premise that can only be accomplished in animation. The movie doesn’t spend a lot of time worrying about how exactly it happened, but instead uses the bizarre circumstances to ask how exactly these totally ordinary people react to the totally extraordinary.  

Mary and the Witch’s Flower

Based on the book The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, this fantasy anime tells the story of a young girl who suddenly finds herself with magical, mysterious powers. While Mary and the Witch’s Flower isn’t actually a project from the famous Studio Ghibli, it does have the same animation style and magical themes present in most Ghibli films. That’s because it’s a work produced by Studio Ponoc, a very new Japanese animation studio founded by several former Ghibli employees. Not to mention, the movie was directed by Hirosama Yonebayashi, a former animator and director at Ghibli. If you’re looking for a strong female protagonist in a magical setting, this is the movie for you.

Lu Over the Wall

This visually stunning anime film, directed by Masaaki Yuasa and written by Yuasa and Reiko Yoshida, tells the story a young man named Kai living in a small fishing village who meets an eccentric mermaid called Lu and proceeds on a wondrous adventure with her. While the premise may seem a little familiar, the movie makes up for it with beautiful animation and incredible visual imagery (giant water cubes with boats teetering off the edge, among other things). Yuasa is known especially for his fantastical, colorful animation style, and in this film, his talent and ideas perfectly shine through.

In a Heartbeat

Most of us can probably remember the heart-pounding, butterflies-in-the-stomach, red-cheek feeling of having our first crush. Nowhere has that been so perfectly depicted as in this American short film by Esteban Bravo and Beth David and produced by the Ringling College of Art and Design. Without a single word of dialogue, this four-minute film runs us through a whirlwind of emotions, led on by an anthropomorphic heart, and gives us a lovely, happy ending, a rarity for any film with LGBT themes and protagonists. If you’re ready to be taken on a roller coaster of emotion and sweetness, watch this right away.

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