Beautiful and heartbreaking. Freshman director Calif Chong crafts a heartbreaking narrative that explores lives of quiet desperation. Wai Shan Ng plays Jane, a teacher, and mother struggling to support her spoiled daughter and chronically-ill husband. At work, she is a stickler for the rules, coming down hard on students, and enforcing discipline. When she gets home, she cannot rest. She must continue to work while taking care of her family, as her husband cannot work and her daughter refuses. She has mounting debt, no time to herself, and pressure from all sides. So, when a wealthy man offers her a large sum of money for her underwear, she is unable to turn him down.
They meet in a restaurant where she is surprised to find him handsome, civil, and charming. They form a “business partnership” in which, by degrees, he continually pushes her boundaries until finally making her his concubine. She discovers in herself a wellspring of passion with her wealthy benefactor that she previously didn’t know existed within her. Meanwhile, at home, she continues to struggle with her husband, whose pride forces him to piss the bed rather than ask for help to the restroom.
“They form a ‘business partnership’ in which, by degrees, he continually pushes her boundaries…”
Underneath, in many respects, is typical romance novel stuff. But in the hands of Calif Chong, it becomes an exploration of a repressed woman’s sexual desire. While that sentence does come off like late-night cable porn, the short also explores Jane’s need for autonomy. Her need not only for sexual release but to feel like she is her own person outside of her job and family. At no point does the work feel exploitative or risqué, even during the lovemaking scene. Rather it treats its subjects with respect and dignity. There is absolutely nothing salacious about this film.
But therein lies the problem with Underneath, not the lack of salacious content, but the length of the piece. Because it is only 18 minutes long, we don’t really get a sense of the characters. The heavy lifting for character development is left entirely to the performances rather than the script. The story itself plays more like an outline than a story—an entertaining, well-performed, well-directed outline, but an outline none the less. With another hour, Chong could have fleshed out the characters more and better explored the themes. And, I am really hoping she gets that opportunity. I’d love to know how the wealthy man found her. What illness her husband is suffering from. What she ever saw in her husband to begin with. Even more about the mother-daughter dynamic, the power dynamic between Jane and her benefactor, and most importantly, more about Jane herself.
Calif Chong, if you start a crowdfunding page for a feature-length version, I promise to donate.
The short subject is very well done, and apparently, it is a student project. I hope she got high marks on it. Underneath ends ambiguously, with a stadium’s worth of room for embellishment. It is a glimpse into a new talent who I hope we see more from in the future.
"…a heartbreaking narrative that explores lives of quiet desperation"