Saturday 6 July 2013

Pensil (2012)

Directors: Andrew & Elise Gooi
Stars: Andrew Gooi and Elise Gooi
This film was an official selection at the Phoenix Film Festival in Phoenix in 2013. Here's an index to my reviews of 2013 films.
Watching Pensil, I couldn't help but imagine this as being a school essay assignment. I got a heck of a lot of those, not just as regular homework for classes, but also because I became a master at getting into mild trouble. I never got into the sort of trouble that prompted a trip to the headmaster's office, but I was always answering the teachers back with just the right level of sarcasm to prompt another essay. The thing was that I enjoyed and fed it. I enjoyed the creative challenge of attempting to write about something I knew nothing about, often an abstract or generic concept, especially as I spiced it up myself with grammatical tricks like avoiding the letter E or composing the entire essay as one long but grammatically correct sentence. Then I read up on this three minute film and realised that I was a lot closer than I imagined. Apparently, this is a standard school essay assignment in Malaysia, called Aku Sebatang Pensil, a shared cultural memory that countless Malaysians have lived through.

According to the film's synopsis at IMDb, the usual translation of 'Aku sebatang pensil' is simply 'I am a pencil'. However, Andrew Gooi, the film's writer and director, changes that subtly but importantly as he starts to narrate the film. He drops a single word and, in doing so, personifies and claims the story for the title character. 'I am Pencil,' he says, 'a longtime companion.' Pencil has two friends, Tracy and Diary, making him a critical third of a trio who have shared much over years, and he tells a short story that involves this trio at a particularly key point in their lives. Gooi does very well with the narration, providing character without ever stealing the show from Pencil. Some of this monologue requires a particular tone to work; lines like, 'Words, thoughts and emotions conveyed through me, kept safe by Diary,' so easily lost into the realms of either cuteness or philosophy. Gooi stays in the middle, serious but light hearted, and his film follows that path too, avoiding the pitfalls and remaining memorable.
This may well be the most fun I've ever had with a blurry film. Naturally, the point (pun not intended) of the piece is the pencil, so we see him clearly throughout, which means that everything else going on unfolds in various shades of blur. This is appropriate, because the focus of the film, literally, is not on what it would usually be. The story that Pencil tells is a pretty basic one, as Tracy dances through life changing events, but it's told utterly from his perspective and we don't need to hear her laugh or watch her smile to understand it. As with almost all such school essays, there's not a lot of substance here but, as an exercise in creative filmmaking, it's an interesting piece. It's touching, poignant and quirky, told through a simple narration and with a soft but appealing score, Emmett Cooke's Healing Aura. It's constructed simply but professionally, with a neat twist, which I wasn't expecting in a three minute piece, and just the right amount of thought.

It's no surprise to find that Gooi Films doesn't usually work in fiction, concentrating more on the sort of film that even a review site like mine doesn't review, even with a focus that has become what other review sites don't review. According to their Facebook page, their specialty is in 'developing creative video content for businesses and organisations,' which means commercials, promos and other videos that we see so often but rarely think about from a cinematic standpoint. Their tagline is, 'Well crafted videos. Your best interest in mind.' Pensil could easily be read as delivering on that promise to a more surprising customer: the pencil at the heart of its story. They have made other dramatic shorts though: Bittersweet, Brother and Unchained an obviously related set of short, often shaky, voyeuristic looks at tough, emotional moments, like suicide, sacrifice, abuse, prostitution and death. In so many ways, this film could be seen as their lighter side, and in that sense, the best entry point to Gooi Films.

Pensil can be viewed for free on YouTube.

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