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I See You See I See You [Chen Jiexiao, Singapore, 2017] /// Self-Portrait with Mother (Serve), USA, 2018]

May 15, 2019

At some point everyone has been a victim to pareidolia, the phenomenon that occurs when we begin to interpret inanimate objects as something more familiar. For filmmaker and dance choreographer Chen Jiexiao, such an event occurred when he began to recognise faces in the foam of swimming float kickboards. Using this discovery as a stimulus for his characters, I See You See I See You utilises mask work, dance choreography and rubber ducks to deliver a short that is every bit as bizarre as it is wonderful.

 

As our three main characters dance around a Singaporean apartment lot with their faces covered by the float kickboard masks and a jovial accordion score driving their progression, their interactions begin to become more absurd, as they discover the presence of three rubber ducks. The android-like appearance of the masks are frightening at first glance, but are grounded by the triviality of the smiling bath ducks and the upbeat accordion accompaniment.

Who are these masked performers? What are their intentions? Are they driven by an urge to interact with the ducks or do they themselves represent the duck’s human physical embodiments? It is hard to say and, indeed, anyone looking for answers might be searching for a very long time. The dancers (Tay Ru Hui, Charmaine Tan and Wee Li-N) work beautifully together. The choreography may not always be the most extravagant, but in their capacity to work in tandem and compliment each other’s movements, the dancers’ character choices are clear, even if their motivations are perhaps a little too abstract to confidently grasp.

 

Throughout, there are some simple yet strong editorial choices; sequences being sped up, sections being faded out and moments where the colour grade schemes completely shift are all welcome additions to the film. I See You See I See You boasts some really lovely visual moments, such as when the three performers are shot from below as they hang lifelessly over different storied balconies, or when they scrub mint green toothpaste into their turquoise masks.

 

With this kind of absurdist piece, there is always going to be a clash if it is not to your taste but, in terms of actual pronounced flaws, there are few and they do little to distract from the sheer merriment of the film as a whole. A potential detraction comes when we first view the dancers hanging over the edge of a stairwell. Here the frame rate drops to well below that used for the entirety of the rest of the film. If this is a stylistic choice then its relevance has unfortunately been missed. Instead this seems like one moment that, perhaps, should have just been omitted from the final cut. The only other discernible flaw is each performers face being clearly visible under their masks when filmed in side profile. Whilst it did not ruin the film, the effect that slipped masks have in ruining the illusion of character is imposing.

 

Overall, any viewer seeking an unadulterated thrill and a hell of a lot of fun may just have found a firm favourite. Chen Jiexaio’s dance background certainly comes to the fore in his capacity as the film’s director and I See You See I See You’s official selection at Moving Images in Nicosia, Cyprus in 2017 seems well deserved.

Artist Gray Swartzel’s experimental short depicts himself as a waiter and his mother as an extravagant woman dining and smoking a cigarette whilst she prepares for her lobster dinner to be cooked and served. Sensually they touch whilst fulfilling their assigned roles, Swartzel pouring his mother an overflowing glass of champagne whilst she awaits the serving of her banquet in an armless pink cocktail dress.

 

The tableau presented to the viewer is one of intimacy, decadence and slight revulsion as the jerking convulsions of the lobster match the movements of the mother’s arm. The composition of elements within Swartzel’s silent shot is simultaneously understated and garish. The left arm of a maître d’ hangs almost imperceptibly within the shot, whilst the champagne, cake and lobster intrude loudly upon proceedings.

Swartzel’s piece seeks to comment on the factual and fabricated shared events of his and his mother’s lives, and the established roles assigned to them both, as son and as mother. The oozing red insides of the cake, left open after the cut of the first piece are unmistakably vaginal in their symbolism, and the cake is afforded the role of centrepiece on the restaurant table.

 

Whilst the film does seem to accurately represent the artist’s intention of exploring the factual and imagined interactions of his and his mother’s lives and familial roles, the tableau we are presented doesn’t seem overly original. The pair’s interaction is enjoyable, and their constant physical connection is beautifully tender. However, images of champagne, cake, lobsters, cigarettes and bow tied waiters don’t threaten to tread much new ground.

 

Swartzel describes his work as presenting “passionate exaggerations of the trivial”, and this simple description would serve as a pretty excellent review of this piece as a whole. The piece offers unquestionable passion between mother and son, and decadent exaggeration of the moments of their lives, but at the same time, unfortunately, it comes across as a piece that is ultimately too trivial.  

‘I See You See I See You’ and ‘Self Portrait With Mother (Serve)’ were both film in consideration for Short Focus Film Festival 2018.

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