The other day my wife and I brought our daughter to the Seattle Asian Art Museum. A cool Seattle breeze passed over Volunteer Park, a verdant outlook steeping over the Capital Hill neighborhood. I realized that my kid hadn’t been to a proper museum before. She is a great appreciator of art already. Mostly of creating it but also looking at it, same as her folks. Walking into the museum, there is a plaque that greets you. If you go to a museum for the first time, have the decency to read the plaques. They will properly guide you through an unknown experience. The plaque described the museum’s collection of all of Asia’s arts, not to create a monolith of what Asian art could be, but rather to show an ancient way of being in the world, as lensed through a collection of fine arts from the various regions. In the next room, my daughter sat in front of a sculpture. “She was beautiful and strong, just like me.” Just like you. The simplicity of it all, how a child interacts with an ancient relic, is about as profound of a viewing experience as you can have. You imagine the people from long ago shaping this hundreds of years old piece of art and then a child, practically a newborn relative to the ancient piece, gazing at it like she understands its ancient powers better than the adults in the room. In some way, she probably does, closer to some eternal cycle of birth than many of us in the room. Something was already born into her mind through years of evolution and, intellectually, she understood the sculpture more than I did (my reading of it having no meaningful separation from the other three I viewed in the same room). There was a station where children could draw their own art. She scribbled with abstract genius. I hope she gets something in a museum one day and gets to see it happen. The Radical Spirits collection is a bit like that, a series of ancient wisdoms passed down from all kinds of different places and probably intellectually understood by those closer to the spiritual realm than I. The best I can do is describe the hope in them.
A Sip of Water
South Korea brings us our first short from director Cho Hyun-a. A Sip of Water concerns Korean shamanism, who are in conference with the gods and see the gods within themselves. It is thought to be a disreputable vocation in South Korea, and so, rather than film the shamans interviewed for the picture, Cho Hyun-a has created a tidy animation that tells their story. There is a lovely, evocative beginning, where a shaman faces a lighthouse while atop a cliff-face, the gods encircling her. She explores the territory between the living and the dead, the mythical and the mundane. The short captures all of that energy and exudes an ancient sense of mysticism.
At Last, the Sea
From Mexico springs a story of generations of women who could conjure the spirits of the sea to relieve their suffering. It’s a bleak short, until it taps into Ana Karen Alva Medina’s early signature of magical realism creating a meaningful context for stories of equality. A woman is being held captive and abused. When she summons the magic of several matriarchal family members, she is able to envision herself as a child again, and flood her prison room, with both water and an ethereal, symbolic hope for fair treatment and equality outside the prison. At Last, the Sea shows how old knowledge of the world can lessen gaps of inequality and how ritualistic belief helps marginalized groups through difficult times – how those ancient powers might steer the ship toward an opportunity of equality.
Lifeblood is a piece seeking an intersection of place, history, and identity. Inspired by Aboriginal Australian mythology, the short – as many of these are doing – is most concerned with interconnectedness. The specific focus in on the connection to the land, the sky, and trees, through mythologies made to help explain creation. The story of Baiame, as the short points out, varies widely between aboriginal groups. Through a rectangular presentation, the stretched animation illustrates a distinct creation story with a fascinatingly proportioned god at the center of it all. Colorful, distinct, and asymmetrical, Lifeblood grapples with big themes and difficult history in a short amount of time.
A rich tapestry of sound design and eclectic instrumentation define Mergen, a Central Asian, historical thriller with high production values. It’s rare to find shorts with such specific sound design, where the mix gets to sing and herald the action with biting sound cues. Mergen is exactly what I’m looking for. It’s a short that goes the distance. A crisp 26-minute tale of a boy enchanted by his grandmother’s ancient spell of protection. He must show bravery and a strong face, going to war over a compellingly shot tundra of frozen grassland. An impressive production that, of the bunch included, best ties ancient mystical themes into meaningful story developments. Sound design is rarely at the forefront of short film productions but, when it’s prioritized, the best case is a special film like Mergen.
From China, Snake Trail is a story about searching for answers in the past. A young girl faces tragedy as her mother passes away and her grandmother reveals a secret: she is an illegitimate child. Without a father or mother to console her, the young girl seeks her answers from the past and ancient wisdoms that have always been within her reach. Sometimes it takes a catastrophic event to realize our whole potential and who we really are. Snake Trail is a moving short document of that fact and a brief examination of familial grief but also the importance of traditions passed down over generations.
Good for You
A ‘gud’ (literally “good”) is a ceremony performed by Korean Shamans. “And this is Good for You,” say the opening title cards. A seven-minute ceremony performed on behalf of the audience. The form is expressionistic, a figure dances around while the screen distorts and deforms. Words and colors flash around the screen, a part of the dance. The music invites us in. The way to properly end any selection of shorts, I’ve always thought, is to show a celebratory example of the films that have come before. Good for You does just that, its purification ritual blesses us as we leave this mystical selection of films deeply rooted in various cultures, a monument to the kind of cultural diversity that you can only find at a film festival. What a wonderful collection to have worked through, as hard as it has been to describe and do any justice to these representations of each culture, the rewards are fruitful.