Director: Xin Yukun, Tan Shijie, Sivaroj Kongsakul
Cast: Chen Bolin, Paul Chun, Jiang Wenli, Yeo Yann Yann, Cheng Huan-Lin, Tony Yang
Run Time: 108 mins
Opens: 2 June 2016
Rating: PG13 (Brief Nudity)
Film anthologies. Sigh. The best of them flow seamlessly like a river on its inexorable course, while those on the opposite end of the spectrum give Frankenstein’s monster a run for its mismatched money. Distance falls somewhere in between, with three segments of differing quality combining to form a whole that is somewhat connected, if not quite faultlessly woven together. None of the vignettes are badly shot (one in particular is even quite good), but the pedigree of a film anthology lies in its summative impact, and Distance’s is just a little too diffused to execute the good old one-two-three punch.
Anthony Chen’s production house Giraffe Films returns with a short-film trilogy that, while featuring the Ilo Ilo wunderkind only in an executive producing role, seems to be in fairly good hands nonetheless. Taiwanese actor Chen Bolin plays three different roles that are supposed to encapsulate changes in the dynamics of separation and communication in the Internet age (wah cheem) and it’s interesting to see how each director’s vision impacts upon his performance, which in any case vindicates his position as one of Taiwan’s most promising young actors.
Chinese director Xin Yukun turns in a fairly conventional tale of long-lost fathers and bratty millennial teenagers set in Guangxi, and it’s really nothing that we haven’t seen before. Paul Chun is perfectly cast as the not-dad-of-the-year, but the short film doesn’t break any new ground. Yes, kids these days are obsessed with their gadgets and are self-entitled beyond belief. That’s the case in nearly every consumerist society, but director Xin can’t pin down anything more specific than that and illuminate his specifically southern Chinese context.
There’s comparatively more contextual flavour in the segment helmed by Thai director Sivaroj Kongsakul, about the reunion between a university professor and her former pupil twelve years after an ill-fated affair. The overall theme of physical and metaphorical distances is more pertinently evoked here, as Chen and Chinese actress Jiang Wenli play out the emotional skirmishes their respective characters partake in before finally shattering each other’s facades. Kongsakul also discourses on the social media effect and the transience of online relationships, but at least ties it in with his plot somewhat so that it doesn’t feel like mere lip service to the anthology’s larger dictates. The sub-plot involving a Thai-Chinese university student’s crush on Chen’s character (mirroring his feelings for his own professor) isn’t as well-handled, coming off as slightly extraneous, but is a good vehicle for showing off Thailand’s hitherto untapped pool of effectively bilingual actors.
Not to toot our own horn, but Singaporean director Tan Shijie’s segment is easily the best of the three. The rating at the bottom of the page is fully justified on the strength of Tan’s work alone, in spite of whatever flaws the film may otherwise demonstrate. Depicting the operation of our draconian justice system on naughty foreign nationals may not seem like a prudent way to grab eyeballs, but Tan weaves his tangled web adroitly enough to circumvent any outright controversy. The various subtexts running through Tan’s story of two childhood friends reconnecting just as one of them is about to receive the death penalty will provoke a lot of are-they-or-aren’t-they speculation without actually resolving anything.
Tony Yang Yo-ning cameos as the adult version of Chen Bolin’s death-row buddy, but it’s the two young actors who play the characters’ younger versions who steal the show with their raw intensity. Ilo Ilo’s other breakout Yeo Yann Yann doesn’t have much to do as a stern prison warden, though that’s really a minor gripe in a short film that begs to be re-watched so as to capture every single nuance and ambiguity. It even ties in uncannily with Xin’s prior segment to the extent that you’ll find yourself wondering for a moment if Chen is still playing the same character. Now that’s what’s known as synergy.
Casting Chen as three different characters undoubtedly provides Distance with a certain amount of constancy, but the possible exception of Tan’s segment aside, none of the three short films meaningfully engage with each other. All three short films revolve more or less around the same macro concept, but come at it in such different ways that the macro concept becomes more like a vague indicator of direction than an actual unifying element. Many times, two of the films will engage with a particular sentiment or phenomenon, only for the third to bypass it completely. It’s understandably difficult for directors working in three different countries to work completely in sync, but more attention should have been paid to how each entry resonates with the others.
Summary: Three short films running the gamut from passable to intriguing, Distance is a credible cross-country production hampered by a relative lack of thematic unity.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5 stars
– Leslie Wong