Even after the category winners are announced for the All Asian Independent Film Festival (AAIFF), we are proud to shine the spotlight on individual entries and to applaud the writers, producers, actors and brilliant crews that continue to make this festival possible through their creativity and vision.
The Student Film Category of the festival has always been a space for inspiration, learning, and a unique look into the next generation of filmmakers and creatives. This year’s selection of student films comes after a year in which the younger generation was faced with the realization that graduations, first jobs, social lives and so much more associated with normalcy would be changed, perhaps forever. A rising generation faced with an uncertain future. AAIFF’s 2021 Student Film category reflects this uncertainty that we have all felt throughout 2020 and 2021; but the feelings these films leave us with may not be as bleak as they seem.
In director Jiayi Huang’s RELEASE, winner of its category at AAIFF 2021, audiences are presented with a documentary-esque presentation on the nature of rope play and bondage. The opening images of the film are voyeuristic and unsettling, featuring close ups of a young woman being tied up. The intimate nature of the visual plays on the audience’s assumptions of the situation — is the young woman in danger? Has she been kidnapped? Or, yes, perhaps this is a sexual encounter involving BDSM. And yet, Huang composes a film that bashes all assumptions. In interviewing their subjects, Huang helps to show a different side of the bondage community. It is an art; an aesthetic. A divergence from sexual enjoyment to something more euphoric, even spiritual. A way to let go and trust in your partner and in what you yourself can handle. It is, for lack of a better word — a release. Audiences will definitely relate to this craving to escape into a place of freedom and giving in to desire.
However, DEMONS, directed by Niko Angelo Quimbo Chu, has a different take on this desperation for release. The film plays with the same notions of uncertainty and subverting expectations as RELEASE, but rather than revelling in the relief of letting go, DEMONS suggests that giving in to desire is not always for the better. We open on a car driving down a lonely road at night — the telltale cinematic scene of impending doom and something gone horribly awry. The film spins a story of regret and the demons of the past that inevitably catch up to all of us. The mastery of this student film comes from the growing sense of dread; just when audiences think things can’t get any worse, they do. Which is, unfortunately, a decently accurate description of how these past two years have felt.
Continuing the message of breaking the mould that RELEASE represents, BOY QUEEN, directed by Sai Nyi Min Htut tells the powerful story of a young man who shines brightest at night. By day, Agyip is a hotel receptionist. His family expects him to perform the traditional role of provider for the household, but Agyip wishes to perform in a different way — through drag. Coinciding with this selection of Student Film’s theme of uncertainty, BOY QUEEN explores this message through the exploration of one’s sexuality and expression. It is a joyous and freeing take on the unknown, different from the more descriptive take in RELEASE or the dread in DEMONS. This is a story of a boy who strives to live his truth in spite of family or societal expectations, beautifully captured through documentary-style storytelling and an astounding and visually evocative final scene.
Perhaps the student film most perfectly embodying this message of escape into the unknown is THE GUPPY’S DEATH, directed by Yi Han. The film tells the story of a young woman who steals her neighbor’s letters and becomes invested in the stories the messenger writes. Similar to RELEASE, THE GUPPY’S DEATH plays with voyeurism and crafts a story through the letters sent by this mysterious individual. The letter-writer tells stories of love and hardship, a life that the young woman finds much more interesting than her own. And yet the film does not aim to invoke feelings of jealousy or unfulfillment — it simply serves to introduce another means of exploring the unknown, made even more intimate because of this secret connection between two complete strangers.
The 2021 AAIFF Student Film selections weave stories of escapism, metaphorical and symbolic expressions of uncertainty, fear, and yearning. But even the darkest of these films serve as warnings, not end-all threats. They urge us to find pleasure in unexpected places. To not give in to demons. To have the courage to put ourselves first. To escape into the stories of others. For even as we feel lost, vulnerable or helpless, this rising generation of talented young filmmakers clearly has a lot to say about the state of our world and its future. Above all, they urge us to seek and demand change.