Lowave video, the DVD label that specializes in experimental film and video, has undertaken an ambitious series of discs which are grouped by various human passions such as Fear and Desire. The series is called “Human Frames,” and the DVD entitled “Impermanence” includes some beautiful films on that most central of human experiences: death. Like all Lowave discs, the DVD is well packaged, with subtitles in English, French and German, and a helpful booklet with information about the included artists. The discs come conveniently with an NTSC side and a PAL side, but one minor complaint is that the transcoding of the NTSC side is not done properly, and the motion is noticeably jerky.
Gérard Cairaschi’s poetic meditation “Magia” is actually more about birth than death. This visually beautiful film uses a technique of rapidly alternating images, mainly images of hands shaping a womb-like figure from clay and of a naked boy by a woodland stream. Because the hands are framed so that they seem to fit around the boy’s body, the effect of the rapidly alternating frames is to make it seem as if the hands are also shaping him, and this inevitably calls to mind those creation myths where various deities shape the first people. It also recalls the Zen notion that when we make things, the things shape us as much as we shape them. The film is set to a haunting arrangement of a Satie piece, and unfortunately the marked rhythmic effect of the editing has no musical relationship to the rhythm of the music, and this strongly undermines the film’s visual beauty.
In contrast, the coordination between Samson Ka Fai Young’s music, Daniel Yeung’s choreography, and Nose Chan and Christopher Lau’s filmmaking in their beautiful dance film “Aftermath (in memory of his body)” is so precise and nuanced that it gives the film an exquisite power. A meditation on energy flowing through and then leaving a dying body, the film borrows an idea from Maya Deren’s dance films and sets Yeung’s powerful dance sequence as if he is simultaneously dancing in several settings: naked and in a blank white space, up to his waist in the ocean, in a grassy field, in a city, and in a columbarium of ashes. (They even use Deren’s device of having the dancer walk so that each footfall lands in a different location.) The swirling patterns of paint released into water are used to beautiful effect as mattes to hide and reveal the dancer’s body, evoking the flow of energy as it is leaving the body. When he dances in the water, we can see the effect of his movements in the waves. The film powerfully combines the feeling of a meditation, a ritual, and a prayer.
Teo Wei Yong’s majestic, minimalist music also contributes powerfully to Nelson Yeo’s hauntingly elegiac “Seeya in Elektrik Dreamz.” The cinematography in this visually rich film revels in beautifully lit textures: a crumbling wall, mosquito netting, falling ashes. In a post-apocalyptic world, we see a young girl and a boy, a young adult man and woman, and an old man, seemingly the same characters at different ages. The snippets of text and action do not directly tell a story, but the setting of a destroyed world is used to meditate on the sense of loss many people now feel, in our world where ecological disaster looms around the corner. End-of-the-world scenarios are ubiquitous in current popular culture, and these depopulated worlds may reflect a subconscious wish we feel, in our overcrowded world, for solitude. “Seeya in Electrik Dreamz” is a lovely, quiet film poem, exploring the same feelings which have given rise to so many noisy, crass commercial “disaster films.”
“Old Choi’s Film” can be hard to watch, since it is a direct and personal document of filmmaker Bin Chuen Choi caring for his father as he dies. Viewers like me, who have cared for quite a few relatives and friends as they died, may not care to re-live the experience through film, but Choi has still made a moving and precise document of an essential human experience.
Ashish Avikunthak, on the other hand, has taken his grief over the suicidal death of his friend, the artist Girish Dahiwale, and used it to create a strange and evocative mourning ritual in the form of a film, entitled “Vakratunda Swaha.” The film is inspired by footage the artist had made of his friend ritually dunking a (plastic wrapped) shrine to Ganesha at Chowpati Beach. Parts of this footage recur throughout the film, interspersed with other ritualized sequences where the artist has his head shaved, or various performers parade though the city or through the forest in Ganesha masks or (similarly shaped) gas masks. There are several scenes in which the film is run backwards: water leaps back into a bucket, and smashed shrines magically reconstitute themselves. Film, and by extension art, is the opposite of death, since it can make a dead friend seem to be alive once again, and thus it makes time and entropy flow backwards. Ganesha, whose ritual of death and rebirth points to the circular nature of time, protects us (like a gas mask) from our terror of death. Avikunthak creates a spellbinding sense of ritual power through his filmed elegy.
Every film in this collection is important and well made, and several are outstanding. Lowave has once again assembled a “must see” collection of works from artists who deserve much more exposure.