Suffering from a short attention span? From David Lynch’s four-minute nightmare animation to Park Chan-wook’s South Korean mall collapse short, these films pack a powerful punch in quicktime
JULIE DASH, ILLUSIONS (1982)
In 1991, Julie Dash made cinematic history as the first African-American woman to make a wide-release feature: her masterful, experimental film Daughters of the Dust. In spite of the movie’s box office success, however, Dash struggled to make it in Hollywood thereafter, in a scenario depressingly foreshadowed by her brilliant Illusions. The 1982 short is set in World War Two-era Hollywood, and centres on Mignon, a Black female studio executive who passes as white, and Ester, a young Black woman making her living as the singing voice for white Hollywood stars. As its title suggests, the film shines a light on Hollywood’s unchecked perpetuation of false images – from the whitewashing of war footage to Black singers' faceless role in the success of its musicals – while simultaneously upholding a belief in the power of film to incite positive change. As Mignon tells her mother in words that still ring vitally true, “If (things) don’t change in this industry, then I don’t think they’re going to change at all.”
ARI ASTER, THE STRANGE THING ABOUT THE JOHNSONS (2011)
The Strange Thing About The Johnsons is a typically taboo offering from the modern doyen of horror, Ari Aster, and was made during his studies at the AFI Conservatory. The Johnsons appear to have it all: Sidney is a famous poet; Joan is a wonderful homemaker and hostess, and their charismatic son, Isaiah is about to embark on married life. But from the very first scene, we’re made excruciatingly aware that all is not as it seems. Aster’s subversive twist on the topics of incest and abuse won’t surprise those who’ve watched Hereditary or Midsommar, but that doesn’t dampen the film’s shock factor. It’s a truly difficult watch – and Aster’s decision to make the Johnsons a Black family only added to its controversy (you can read his comments about that here) – but it’s a key stepping stone in understanding the director’s radical path to cinematic provocation.
LULU WANG, TOUCH (2015)
Lulu Wang made waves with her 2019 film The Farewell, the story of a Chinese-American woman who visits her dying grandmother in China, only to discover that the old lady has not been made aware of her terminal diagnosis in accordance with traditional customs. The film traverses the topic of cultural differences with humour, poignancy and nuance – a skill Wang mastered four years earlier with her short film, Touch. It centres on an elderly Chinese immigrant in America, who makes a cultural faux pas in a public restroom, with devastating consequences. Based on a true story, the 15-minute short makes for uncomfortable but essential viewing, urgently calling into question our preconceived notions of right and wrong.
PARK CHAN-WOOK, SIMPAN (1999)
Suspense and satire abound in this early short by Park Chan-wook, the singular South Korean auteur behind Oldboy and The Handmaiden. Titled Simpan (“judgement”), its starting point is the deathly collapse of a shopping mall in South Korea, and the announcement that all relatives of the deceased will be financially compensated for their loss. Cut to the local morgue, where a weeping couple identify one of the victims as their missing daughter – only to be challenged by the morgue assistant, who claims that the dead woman is, in fact, his lost child. What ensues is an eccentric, stomach-churning musing on capitalist greed, rounded off with a gleefully bitter twist.
DAVID LOWERY, PIONEER (2011)
The passing of time, and the nostalgic melancholy that so often accompanies it, is a subject that American director David Lowery returns to again and again, whether making indie dramas like A Ghost Story, or big blockbusters like Pete’s Dragon. This short film – the one that put him on the map, scooping multiple awards – is no exception. It begins with a young boy asking his father to tell him the story of his absent mother before bed, and to start at the very beginning. The father does just that, embarking on the epic and mysterious tale in hushed tones while his son listens in wide-eyed wonderment. The result is a spellbinding ode to storytelling and its transportative powers, achieved in just 15 minutes.
DAVID LYNCH, THE ALPHABET (1968)
Before making his seminal debut feature, Eraserhead, in 1977, David Lynch cut his teeth with a string of unsurprisingly strange shorts. The second of these, The Alphabet, was perhaps the most integral to Lynch’s success. It caught the attention of the American Film Institute (AFI) and resulted in a production grant for his 1970 film, The Grandmother. The Alphabet is very short, at just under four minutes, but is still utterly terrifying. Part animation, part live action, it was inspired by the niece of Lynch’s then-wife Peggy, who’d awoken from a nightmare reciting the alphabet. The director merges the aesthetics of Francis Bacon’s paintings with those of the Surrealists’ films to conjure up the unsettling first segment, before cutting to a white-faced Peggy, dressed up à la Regan MacNeil, spouting the alphabet in a black room.
JANE CAMPION, A GIRL’S OWN STORY (1984)
Jane Campion’s A Girl’s Own Story is a dark and esoteric examination of the twilight zone between girlhood and womanhood, set in 1960s Australia. Made while the Australian filmmaker was still at film school, it follows three adolescent school friends as they navigate a world that is inherently repressive of young women – especially within the confines of their strict Catholic education – and simultaneously on the brink of a countercultural revolution. The mixed messages the girls receive have troubling effects; Campion takes no prisoners while exploring the boundaries between desire and trauma. Early teendom is often lonely and confusing, and the director plunges us right back into its icy depths, preempting her later studies of the female experience (think: The Piano or Top of the Lake) with equally compelling results.