For our final report from the inaugural Fantastic Film Festival Australia, we take a look at two films that were in production for many years, Away and S He. They are the work of visionary filmmakers, and they are both completely original films. Let’s dive in.
Away (Gints Zilbalodis)
The story behind this debut feature is fascinating. Latvian director Gints Zilbalodis spent three and a half years crafting this 75-minute animated feature, and he did it completely alone. There was no crew, no cast, no help. Zilbalodis was director, writer, editor, composer, you name it, he did it. A true one man band. The finished product, an expansion of his 2017 short Oasis, is a beautifully realised vision.
As the film opens we meet a boy whose parachute is tangled in a tree in the middle of a vast desert. He awakes and is almost immediately absorbed by a mysterious dark monster. From there he is on the run, to escape the ominous monster and to find the safety of civilisation. He finds a map which details a potential settlement on the other side of this unusual island. He also discovers a motorbike and befriends a small yellow bird. With the monster always following, slowly catching our protagonist, and absorbing all signs of life that cross its path, the boy and his bird head out into the world of changing, gorgeous landscapes and unforeseen dangers.
With Away, Zilbalodis has created some truly gorgeous, visionary images. The artistic design is a simplistic one, which may be jarring originally for viewers used to Pixar and Disney. However, once you settle in to the film, it’s impossible not to blown away by the beautiful vistas and the craft behind it.
Zilbalodis has made minimalistic choices everywhere you look, from the design to the story. It is a simple tale, as our protagonist follows one path all the way in the hope of finding civilisation, but it never feels like Zilbalodis is aiming for style over substance. The constant looming threat of the monster pushes our protagonist and the film forward.
As the film has no dialogue, the use of music and sound is crucial to its success. As with everything else, the music is kept simple, but it still adds to the danger for both the boy and bird in times of tension. The piano, string instruments and drums are used at various times to indicate danger or serenity. The clinking of wind chimes and the purring of the motorbike are little touches to help create a living breathing world.
Away is split into chapters, as the boy explores different areas of the island. This, along with the design, does give the film somewhat of a video-game feel, and Zilbalodis has admitted that he was influenced by a vast array of media for this feature. He notes the work of Hayao Miyazaki and the books of Haruki Murakami alongside video games like Journey and Shadow of the Colossus. You can clearly see the imprint of all of these projects on the finished work, but Away also proves itself as no carbon copy.
This is Zilbalodis’ vision pure and simple, influenced by others, but also unmistakably his. It is an admirable endeavour that has paid off immensely, in what is a delightful movie. Zilbalodis is an animator to keep your eye on.
S He (Shengwei Zhou)
This stop motion film is not like other stop motion films you have seen before. In fact, it’s likely that it’s unlike any film you’ve seen before. Chinese director Shengwei Zhou’s film (which he worked on for an incredible six years) takes place in a world of anthropomorphic shoes. The males are black loafers, covered in nuts and bolts, whilst the female high heels grow vines and fruit from their colourful frames.
The male shoes rule this world, and high heels are outlawed. We open on a prison made of coats where the high heels are kept. A male shoe systematically opens each prison cell, cutting off the fruit (literally oranges, kiwis and limes) from the females, and slicing them open to reveal baby high heels inside. These little shoes are then mutilated and turned into black male shoes. One shoe escapes this mayhem and journeys into the patriarchal world disguised as a male shoe in order to find food for her daughter.
For many the concept is understandably, a very very tough sell. However, once you begin watching it is hard to look away. From this bizarre concept, Zhou has created a film that is highly disturbing and consistently fascinating. The design of the world is at times gorgeous in its nature, and at other times, brutal in its cold dystopian elements. Zhou is playing with lots of themes here. It is certainly a critique of the patriarchal system we inhabit, and the physical and verbal abuse of women that still prevails. Zhou doesn’t stop there though.
The creations in the film, from snakes to spiders and everything in between, are made from hand. Nuts and bolts form a centipede. Jack Daniels and Coca Cola bottle caps are now sharp-toothed wide-eyed parasites. Old perfume bottles have tentacles that trap prey. You’ll even spot Mickey amongst all the chaos.
S He is a painful demonstration of how our capitalist society destroys nature with its excessive production. No matter how hard we try, we will never have autonomy over nature. It will always come back to claim what is rightfully its own. As well as these international themes, the film is open to interpretation, and many will find it extremely easy to project their own thoughts and ideas onto it.
Similar to the aforementioned Away, there is no dialogue to be heard in S He, only singing and grunts and screams and a whole host of other noises. Nevertheless, the pain, the joy, the love is felt throughout in these flashes of sound. It’s incredible in fact how coherent the film is, with such a complex idea, and without dialogue.
Shortly after the hour mark of this 90-minute film, it appears like the story is coming to a close. Then the film takes another turn. Zhou could’ve wrapped up, and some will say he should have. The distressing epilogue of sorts that follows highlights the awfully cyclical nature of the world, and how we don’t learn from our mistakes. We forget what our ancestors fought so hard to stop and what they protected us from. It will be an overlong addition for some, but for those fully engrossed in Zhou’s creation, it will be another worthwhile talking point.
The imagination on show here is cinema at its very best, and the work behind the scenes deserves to be marvelled at. S He is an eye-opening, wonderfully inventive, journey of a film.
What are your favourite animated movies? Let us know in the comments below.
Away is available on demand in the US. S He has no UK or US release dates as of yet.
Find out more about Fantastic Film Festival Australia here.
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