Finding Meaning In Films

I had a rather lengthy MSN conversation with an aspiring filmmaker friend, Sebastian about my personal disdain when people start asking me about the 'moral' or the 'meaning' of a film, which I forgot to save... unfortunately. Take my own Forced Labour for example, I had to put up with people asking me 'hey! i've just watched it! sooo... what's the moral of the story? what's the msg?'.



While having supper with Malaysian indie filmmaker James Lee back in July, just before I came back to Perth, I did try to ask him about certain aspects of his award-winning film 'A Beautiful Washing Machine' which I wasn't entirely sure of ("Yo, is that chick a genie that sprang forth from the washing machine?", "is she the SPIRIT of the washing machine?" "or is she Patrick Teoh's time-traveling late wife who accidentally time traveled to the future?"), his reaction was only a grin and a simple 'it's up to how you interpret it'. Fair enough.

I tend to feel that films, being personal experiences, should be interpreted differently by each and every single viewer, just like what they do with books and other creative works. Take the ending of 'Lost In Translation' for example, I like the ambiguity, of not having to know what Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson in the end, it was romantic, or it could be sad, or it could be something funny, it all depended on how you interpreted it. And there is no right or wrong in how you interpret it.

By telling my viewers what I was trying to convey in Forced Labour would have been a shallow and silly thing to do, as it means that I'm forcing people to have only one single interpretation of my short film. That's boring. After all, sometimes, I feel that another person's interpretation may have been much more interesting than mine. My lead actress, Amelia, came up with such a poignant and deep reading of the film that I secretly said to myself 'damn, why haven't I thought of that?'.

Hell, the insane theories conjured by Star Wars fans were most probably things that never occurred to George Lucas at all when he was making the film (although his fans tend to give him much more credit than that).

People tend to grow and develop, and films they don't understand at first will make a lot of sense upon future viewings. I used to think that Wong Kar Wai was a smug pretentious bastard who deliberately made films just for the heck of winning some film awards, and the so-called 'artyness' of his films were meant only to provide an aesthetically-pleasing package for something that were emotionally hollow. I was 15 then, and was bored out of my skull after watching 'In The Mood For Love'. Only the technical styles he used in his films stuck with me (which I would then employ sparingly for both of my short films, A Boring Story and Forced Labour). The only Wong Kar Wai film I remembered enjoying as a teen was Chungking Express, but I merely watched the first story, and then bits and pieces of the second story on TV.

Thus I was surprised when I found myself actually ENJOYING Ashes of Time when I first watched it two years ago (right after Leslie Cheung's death, I dug up movies of his to watch as a personal tribute). And earlier this year, despite generally regarded as Wong Kar Wai's weaker works, I was okay with 2046 as well, finding the entire film much more easier to comprehend compared to previous experiences of viewing WKW films. I finally got around to watching Days of Being Wild two months ago, and found myself marveling at the fact that Days of Being Wild, In The Mood For Love and 2046 were actually a trilogy, with recurring characters and all. (Yet Chungking Express, which I rewatched few nights ago, and finally in its entirety, would remain a personal favourite among all WKW works. Perhaps because of its sense of optimism and exhuberance, something different from the yearning and angsting that was in the films of the trilogy mentioned above)

Sebastian had mentioned that it's okay to NOT understand a film when you're a teenager, but if even adults can't understand that particular film, then there's something seriously wrong here. But how wrong is that? Just as I've said before, viewing film is a personal experience, Sebastian managed to grasp the entire meaning of American Beauty when he viewed it recently, but this meaning will still be lost to many older viewers. So does that mean that director Sam Mendes has to tell everyone what was he actually trying to convey in this Oscar-winning film of his? Please don't, I don't want to listen to it.

A filmmaker who seemed condescending and snotty to one viewer can actually give another viewer a whole different feeling. Thus the differing reactions from Guestblogger Justin and I after we watched Luis Bunuel's L'Age D'or (1930) or Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966). He loved them. I was indifferent. But then, even something lauded as a classic or masterpiece like Jean-Luc Godard's My Life To Live (1962) was considered a total bore by both of us ("Jeez, it's just some chick getting into prostitution and messing up her own life. Big deal.") when both of us actually liked his later film, Alphaville (1965), which was a major inspiration for my upcoming project Aisyalam.

But who knows? People grow and change, films that I once regarded as 'great' would become 'not so great' or even fall to 'why the hell did I even like it in the first place?' status whilst the 'WTF?' would actually turn into a 'ah, now i understand!' or 'whoa, this is freaking awesome, so that's what the film is actually about!'. But when I don't understand a particular film, I don't really feel that an explanation is necessary, either you get it or you don't, and explanation will merely cheapen the experience.

How would people feel if I post things like that at the end of my short films? "A Boring Story actually doesn't have much of a meaning, the deadline was a day away, the horror flick I tried to make fell apart cos' my camera sucked, so I decided to make an art flick with a twist ending instead" or "A Boring Story is not a simple parody of art films, it is my personal criticism of modern society who is unable to accept art due to their personal worship of capitalism". Or "Forced Labour is an analogy of my relationship with the Ice Maiden, whose occasional coldness towards me is so painful that I feel as if I've just been gunned down by a gang boss". Or "Nah, I just wanted to impress people with my editing skills, and use suit-wearing gangsters in it for the sake of coolness, thus I made Forced Labour". Or "After watching so many arty films from local indie filmmakers, I intend to make something stylish and cool!". Pretty much kills the fun about experiencing movies for yourself