Tuesday, August 26, 2008

NYKFF: Shorts

In publishing, it is established wisdom that readers prefer novels to short stories. With films, the preference for features over shorts is even more pronounced. It seems that film festivals are the only real venue remaining for shorts, which is unfortunate. It is not as if people can not enjoy short films if given an opportunity. They just are not on the current cultural radar. To expand on a discussion after Monday night’s short film program at the New York Korean Film Festival, one reason shorts are largely denied any meaningful publicity is because they can be devilishly difficult to write about (believe me).

By their nature, shorts are often impressionistic and poetic. Their stories are compressed, frequently relying on suggestion and gesture. Conveying such a viewing experience to readers is much more demanding than simple plot summary. A film like Weekend, directed by Paula Kim, is a case in point. It is a film entirely about perspective, depicting the dreariness of solitude or the pleasure of independent living, depending on the artfully filmed point-of-view. As the audience first watches the protagonist’s weekend unfold, her face is kept obscured from view, without the film feeling forced or gimmicky. During the second pass, we see her countenance, getting entirely different impression of her weekend spent alone. Obviously, you have to see the film to get a real sense of it.

When short films do have concrete plots, or at least discrete plot devices, they often end on an indeterminate note, or a punch line for which you have to experience the set-up to truly appreciate. Ted Chung’s A Thousand Words is a story of a man’s attempt to return a digital camera to a woman on a train, and perhaps forge a more substantial human connection, that concludes without definitively revealing his ultimate success or failure. Similarly, Ruslan Pak’s

Dance of the Free Bird, caps off a student’s terrible night of internet dating with an amusing moment that would not have much meaning apart from the scenes which led up to it.

The best short film of the NYKFF shorts program is probably the easiest to convey, at least in terms of communicating its basic plot, if not its intensity. James Bang’s Wianbu—Comfort Woman dramatizes the horrific experience of a so-called Comfort Woman, one of 200,000 Asian women kidnapped and sexually brutalized by the Japanese military during WWII. Portraying Sohee, a captive Korean comfort woman, Elena Chang gives an absolutely fearless performance. As a Wianbu, she is repeatedly violated, but shames one of her would be tormentors with the depravity of his actions. It is a painfully difficult film to watch.

Clearly, festivals like NYKFF still value short films as early opportunities for young filmmakers to practice their craft. Yes, there is tremendous potential for shorts to find viewers online. However, the better short films like Wianbu deserve a serious audience and should be seen as they were intended. Most filmmakers did not go to the considerable effort and expense of making their short films in the hopes it would be seen in a cocktail napkin-sized window on youtube. They had a big screen in mind. Last night you could sense nobody in the audience could breathe during Wianbu. That is an element of the viewing experience completely lost online.