DISCLAIMER: The following essays contain spoilers!
Chingum. 2021. Directed by Mihir Fadnavis. Written by Fadnavis & Srinivas Annamraju.
Starring Ratnabali Bhattacharjee, Bandita Bora, & Randeep Jha.
Andolan Films / Antifa Films Private Limited / Fundamental Pictures
Not Rating / 18 minutes
Fantasy / Horror / Thriller
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Mihir Fadnavis’s Chingum begins with a man ready to board a train, headed to see his sweetheart. The man has a box of chocolates with him. He texts his lady friend while getting onto the train; that’s where his nice evening ends. The train is quiet, shadowy. Nobody else is onboard, except for a dark, mysterious figure the man notices among the shadows. The figure makes eerie noises, chewing, and moves about the train car suspiciously. Eventually, the man jumps from the train car to escape. Only there’s no escape.
The thing keeps on following the man, asking for just one thing: “Chingum.”
Now, ‘chingum’ is slang for ‘chewing gum.’ Could there be something deeper? On Urban Dictionary, one of the suggestions for ‘chingum’ reads as follows: “A gender neutral term that describes a person, thing or the behaviour of an individual who typically wants to consume something without contributing to its sustenance. A thing that is typically dishevelled or dilapidated.” This definition of ‘chingum’ intrigues me, because of the thing following the man in Fadnavis’s short; the mysterious figure only wants chewing gum and offers nothing in return. That’s a mediocre reading, but what if we look at some of the other little pieces of symbolism in Chingum that bring sociopolitical elements in to combine with that reading?
One of the first visible images is the box of chocolates, and on it, if you look closely, is a sticker that says Savarkar Chocolate Factory. There’s also the man’s phone screen, donning a photo of Savarkar as his background. For my fellow white folk who don’t know, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar was an Indian politician, famous for, among other things, being a fan of nationalism, the Nazis, and fascism. At one point in the short, the man gets mad and threatens a cab driver by saying: “I‘ll report your auto‘s number to the Shiv Sena.” Again, for the white folk reading this, Shiv Sena is a right-wing, Marathi nationalist and ultranationalist political party founded in 1966. Is the thing following our protagonist a ‘chingum’ representing the right-wing of India, feeding off the country and its citizens, consuming everything/everyone in its path but not actually contributing anything helpful to the people? Or, is this a reading that’s gone too deep?
What I know is that Fadnavis creates an atmosphere of unrelenting black-and-white dread that never lets go, from the first frame to the last. The short doesn’t feel like eighteen minutes because it’s so engaging. Also, in spite of my readings of Chingum, there are a number of potential ways to interpret Fadnavis’s work here. Still, it’s clear, regardless of how you do read the film, there are social and political elements at play and they’re not throwaway inclusions—especially when Fadnavis, judging by their Twitter, is highly critical of Narendra Modi, whose ideology has links to Savarkar’s Hindutva. All that being said, I’m a queer white man from Newfoundland and Labrador on the far East Coast of Canada, so I’m not extremely well-versed on all the sociopolitical complexities of India and its government; meaning, I may have my reading(s) here all wrong. Even if I do, I still love Chingum because it made me think and, more important than that, it also made me want to turn on all the lights in my house when I went to bed.
Juan-Diablo-Pablo. 2021. Directed by Ralph Pineda & Dyan Sagenes. Written by Len Frago.
Starring Nel Etsuya, David Shouder, Bobby Tamayo, & Cloud Ugnayan.
Not Rated / 15 minutes
Fantasy / Horror
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
If I’d seen Juan-Diablo-Pablo physically at Fantasia I would’ve still loved it just as much, but it took me watching this on-demand and pausing the screen at a couple points to pick out crucial images to ultimately interpret (or try to interpret) what’s really going on here behind the cryptic narrative. That isn’t criticism. I love when a film, or any story in any format, makes me work to unlock its symbols. Ralph Pineda and Dyan Sagenes have created a special little film, from a short screenplay written by Len Frago. The imagery is evocative and haunting. It’s also occasionally playful, if you can believe that about a story of a devil (played by Bobby Tamayo, tragically murdered in 2020) whose day consists of living in a decaying house amongst duelling television screens and rotting newspapers, not to mention pulling organs out of corpses.
What if I told you the devil just wants a buddy? He’s kind of nice, actually. He only looks scary, and a little sad.
Similar to Chingum, Pineda and Sagenes’s Juan-Diablo-Pablo is full of social and political power boiling barely below the surface of a decaying and macabre atmosphere. The devil in his Gothic house seems to lament the state of life in the Philippines. He often hears screams like they’re coming from thin air. He plugs holes in his walls with newspaper to block out the light, but it feels more like he’s trying to block out the world itself. An important image that helps to unlock all the trauma of Juan-Diablo-Pablo is seen on one of the TVs: a news report of the June 1991 Vizconde massacre in Metro Manila, Philippines, when three people from the Vizconde family were brutally murdered—49-year-old Estrellita Vizconde, 19-year-old Maria Carmela Vizconde, and 6-year-old Anne Marie Jennifer. To date, there has been no true justice for the Vizconde family.
We also see portraits of Adolf Hitler, Mother Teresa, and (who I believe is) Pope John Paul II. It’s known that Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II visited the Philippines at different times, and their presence could be interpreted as positive symbols in the film, even if their photos are on a dilapidated, peeling wall. Where does Hitler fit in here? Well, Rodrigo Duterte, only a few years ago, likened himself to Hitler by saying he’d do to Philippine drug addicts what Adolf did to the Jews. The portraits on the wall are like lost hope in the Philippines; they’d like to have more positive history re: Mother Teresa/Pope John Paul II, except Duterte is busy trying to be like Hitler. Similarly, the film’s dedication to Bobby Tamayo feels like a tragical parallel to the Vizconde murder case, in that Tamayo’s killer has not been brought to justice, either. All the while we see the devil working on corpses and receiving bloody offerings from court jesters/clowns at his door. Until a child takes interest in the devil, bringing him gifts.
These gifts are crucial to an understanding of Juan-Diablo-Pablo, because of the social and political historical context offered by the photos on the wall and the Vizconde reference on TV. First, the child gives the devil a pencil, as if to rewrite history. Then the child gives the devil an eraser, perhaps to erase history. Here lies the fundamental tension of the short’s story. Because if we erase history, such as the Vizconde massacre, then we’re at risk of repeating the past, like Tamayo’s murder; this is also true for the historical crimes of Hitler, and yet we’re still seeing a rise in ethnic nationalism and neo-Nazi/extreme right-wing groups. The sadness of Juan-Diablo-Pablo is that history keeps going and we’re incapable of stopping it, while many are also incapable of learning what’s necessary from where we’ve been and it’s making it increasingly difficult to get where we’re going.
Laika. 2021. Directed & Written by Adam Fair.
Starring Roisin Monaghan & Anton Saunders.
Not Rated / 9 minutes
Drama / Fantasy / Horror / Science Fiction
★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Adam Fair’s Laika contains a dog; that’s all you need to know! A really awesome dog. The fact there’s also science fiction and a dash of horror in this short film only makes it better. Laika tells the story of the eponymous Soviet space dog, blasted into the cosmos never to be seen again. Except that one day there’s a disaster aboard the International Space Station: fire, explosions, and only a single survivor. The Russian astronaut who escapes the terror can barely believe what he saw. He has to believe it when he confirms it with his own eyes again: it’s Laika, and this is one angry, vengeful dog, pissed off not just at the Soviets but at humankind in general.
Like Juan-Diablo-Pablo and Chingum, Laika is full of politics just by virtue of the historically-inspired story. If you’re not aware, Laika was a real animal shot into space, and you can read more on her sad tale here. That’s why it is glorious to see Adam Fair give the real Laika fictional justice. Instead of Laika dying in this short, she has quite clearly used her time in space to get smarter, with the sole intent of getting even someday. The escaping astronaut fleeing the explosions on the ISS has seen what killed everybody else, only able to repeat “Laika” in a frenzy before he tells the people trying to get him home safely: “You‘re sending me to Hell.” Brilliant, tense stuff. The best is the end when we finally get to see Laika again, after all her time out in space. She’s now an angry, bloodthirsty animal once discarded by humans, returning to Earth so she may not just come home but so that she can also take her revenge on more than just the ISS. In reality, the dog was sent on what was, for all intents and purposes, a suicide mission. Her inevitable death in space was all in the name of ‘progress.’ Fair’s short cleverly takes on this unfortunate chapter in human history in a day and age when society largely condemns animal cruelty. Usually films with animals as main characters are sappy, saccharine stories, and they’re typically aimed at children. Laika is an animal story for adults, both in its historical reference and its subject matter, and it’s a film with horror elements where, finally, the dog doesn’t die.