A worthy dozen at the esplanade


The inaugural Tropfest SEA took Penang by storm, uniting audiences from near and far for one night of films under the stars.

After months of buzz and anticipation, Tropfest South East Asia (Tropfest SEA) was finally upon us. It promised an evening of entertainment and camaraderie, of thousands of kindred spirits sitting down under the stars at Penang’s iconic Esplanade, watching roll after roll of short films passionately made by 12 finalists from all over South-East Asia. Music performances by local and regional bands were planned. A large crowd was expected. The week leading to the event day itself was full of workshops and in-depth discussions (including film symposium Roughcut 2014) by award-winning experts and silver screen darlings such as Adam Elliot, Robert Luketic and Gurmit Singh.

Did Tropfest SEA 2014 deliver? If you liked all of the above, then yes, it did. Spectacularly. By 6pm, the Esplanade was simmering with people sprawled all over the field. The sun was still blazing, so many took shelter underneath whatever shade was available while others braved sunstroke to sit in front of the main stage. Indonesian band White Shoes and the Couples Company was steadily pleasing the crowd with jazzy rhythms and Miss Sari’s velvety vocals.

Gurmit Singh.

The guests of honour started to arrive by 7pm, walking down the “black” carpet. Curious members of the audience gathered at the barricades to catch a glimpse of the celebrities up close, such as Singh and his on-screen sister-in-law in the comedy series Phua Chu Kang, Tan Kheng Hua (who did not look 51 at all). At sundown, the films began. It must be mentioned that the main stage setup was state-of-the-art, illuminated by laser lights. There were two other screens flanking the main stage so that all could get a good view of the films.

Not a film expert (my favourite movie being the giant robots vs. giant monsters movie Pacific Rim, although I do enjoy the odd art house film now and again), I was surprised at how easy it was to follow the films. Short films may have the reputation of being off-kilter and too abstract, but I felt that the 12 finalists provided work that had, if not clear narrative, then great acting or charming quirks. The Tropfest Signature Item (TSI) for this edition was rice, as can be seen from the Tropfest SEA logo itself. Thus, rice in all its forms, from grain to congee, was ubiquitous. I overheard a member of the audience commenting that she got hungry from watching the films!

Drama, horror, crime and a musical entertained everyone sufficiently. A personal favourite was Chicken, by our own Yihwen Chen. Great acting and a greatly disturbing storyline made me laugh and gasp at the same time. Chicken was the first film of the winner of BMW Shorties 2010 who studied filmmaking in Perth.

Thus, after all 12 films were screened, the judges tabulated the scores while the audience waited with gripping anticipation for the results. An Audience Choice Awards, powered by Asian short film platform Viddsee (which was also the festival’s online screening partner), was also open to the public for voting following the event. (It was announced in February that the winner of this award was Malaysian Bradley Liew’s endearing short, We Need To Break Up.)

The winners were finally announced, with Cambodians Ineas Sothea (for silent black-and-white Rice) and Polen Ly (for Duetto) taking first and second places respectively, and Malaysia-based Ezequiel Paolinelli (for the abstract The Last Flight) in third place. It was heart-warming to see the reactions of the talented young winners, and while the rest did not win, their works held much promise. Who knows what is in store for them in the future?

“I’m going to use the prize money to fund my next project,” said a breathless 24-year-old Sothea, who will be making her first feature film next. On the other hand, Ly, who mentioned that it was an achievement in itself to be a finalist, was in disbelief. “I feel like I’ve just woken up from a dream!” he gushed.

Festival managing director Joe Sidek.

Thus, the night wrapped up with the announcement of next year’s TSI – the wheel. Tropfest SEA shows that the region is a fertile breeding ground for talented filmmakers, and this festival is an excellent platform for them to showcase their talents. My only criticism of it – apart from the occasional glitch in the projector which made the screen freeze for split seconds – is about the choice of food and snacks. This Malaysian cries for kacang kuda, kuaci and sugar cane stalks to chew on. And maybe some popcorn.

But, there’s always next year. “Hopefully it will be held in Penang again,” said Tropfest SEA managing director Joe Sidek with a smile. “I would like to keep it here.”

Julia "Bubba" Tan is assistant editor for Penang Monthly. Apart from Pacific Rim, she also enjoys Chungking Express and wonders if a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro and Wong Kar-wai would ever be possible.

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