In a sea of inky darkness, a tungsten light flickers on and illuminates the familiar sight of a bus stop. A lone, wiry human figure anxiously sits and waits, but the bus isn’t coming. Then, we hear a sound like rocks grinding against teeth, and the misshapen head of a dog slowly rolls into the light. With a creeping sense of horror, we realise that this uncanny scene is a nightmare come to life.
So begins Acid Green, the latest experimental multimedia animation by rising artist Exyl (Elizabeth Xu Yuan Li), which will be screened at the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) today as part of their Southeast Asian Short Film Competition. Although having only recently graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, Exyl’s works have been featured in festivals across Southeast Asia and the world, such as LINOLEUM (Ukraine), Encounters (UK), Thai Short Film & Video Festival, and Minikino Film Week (Indonesia). Earlier this year, their work Conversations with a Koel Bird won the Terry Schwartz Asian Film Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, the world’s premier experimental film festival.
At first glance, Conversations and Acid couldn’t be more different from each other. Unlike the haunting stop motion dreamscape that opens Acid, Conversations begins with a montage of live action footage of birds in trees that could be mistaken for a nature documentary. While Acid is set to haunting, ominous ambient music, Conversations begins in serene silence, and predominantly features a recorded phone conversation between Exyl, in Rhode Island, and their brother, in Singapore, about the titular koel bird.
Yet, as both films progress, it becomes increasingly clear that they share a common artistic project – one that unifies the eclectic and experimental range of Exyl’s films.
Over the course of Conversations, the various elements of the film begin to degrade and break down before our eyes. Looping, animated geographic diagrams about Singapore’s climate begin to collapse. Text intertitles devolve into illegible, smudged incoherence, and the film’s audio decays into glitchy, distorted sounds. The recognisable and familiar visual and aural language of the film slowly becomes alien and strange, and we begin to doubt that they were ever really real. We begin to realise that even the film’s opening shots have been playing tricks on us the whole time–given the film’s title, one might assume they depict koel birds, but Exyl shot them in Providence, where there are no koels to be found. Yet, in a sly act of shadow puppetry, those inky bird-like silhouettes come to stand in for this missing koel bird.
Conversations, then, is not about koel birds; rather, it is about the absence of koel birds and failure of the film’s various representations of them. This failure becomes a moving metaphor for the gulf of distance that separates and alienates one from one’s family, whether because of language, migration, or a hurtful kind of love.
Based on this, we might be tempted to box Exyl in as a pessimist, bemoaning the loss of truth, the impossibility of representation, and the failure of human relationships. Yet, something shocking happens in the film’s climax that upends all this. The very surface of the graph paper that Exyl has been animating on crumbles as its grid lines split and drift away. The blank paper folds up into the silhouette of a bird, melding into live action footage underlaid beneath it. As we witness the pale paper-koel flap its way onto the tree, we’re flooded with a sense of catharsis, a strange, poignant feeling of liberation.
On their website, Exyl’s artist statement comprises a list of definitions of “Animation.” Fittingly, these definitions change and shift as you go down the list – as if an animation changing from frame to frame, depicting a fluid range of possibility instead of any one single answer. Three in particular resonate with me:
Animation is transformative potential
Animation is movement is visceral is physical empathy
Animation is time passing is transition is change is epiphany
To me, these statements encapsulate the emotional arc that unifies all of Exyl’s works. A set of images are introduced to us, but they quickly become overrun by an elemental force of entropy that drives them toward chaos and self-annihilation. Images and bodies writhe and morph anxiously, as if unable to contain the contradictory feelings and forces that they represent. Finally, in a cathartic climax, the world splits and comes apart, and from the wreckage, something new emerges.
This theme of transformation in their work speaks toward multiple axes of mobility that have shaped their life. Immigrant histories form the backdrop of films like Conversations and 饭香, which draw from the alienating experience of their family moving between different cultures, languages, and class positions, trying to find a place to belong. The metamorphosis enacted in their works also feels unmistakably reflective of the shape-shifting urban landscape of the Singapore they grew up in.
Simultaneously, a deeply embodied sense of gender and sexual fluidity pervades films like Dinner’s Ready and Breaking Bread. A sense of dysphoria slowly erodes and tears apart binaristic gendered imagery of bodies in these films, as if each image is incapable of containing the thing it attempts to describe. Likewise, the desire for rebirth evoked by their films articulates a yearning for a queer, trans liberation outside of the confining norms of gender and sexuality.
What threads all these concerns together is the idea that identity is relational: one’s sense of self is not stable, but formed out of a difficult entanglement of bodies, places and images, and the struggle to figure out how to be in relationship with others. Breaking Bread comprises a montage of shots of people coming toward each other yet always cutting before they fully embrace, until a final image of flickering, pulsating bodies dancing together. Likewise, in Sweat, two feminine figures in a ghostly white kitchen encircle and chase each other in a frenzied choreography of care and anguish, articulating the paradoxical way in which love can become a bind, and the cyclical way in which patterns of care and trauma are passed down. To be close to another person is to transform the other and in turn, be transformed, in ways that can at once be tender and vulnerable, or violent and threatening.
All of Exyl’s formal experimentation and thematic exploration culminates in the delirious absurdity of Acid Green, in which a wiry human figure finds themselves trapped in a horrific, anxiety-inducing cycle of care and violence, attraction and repulsion. Much like their other works, Exyl stitches the film together from seemingly disparate imagery from their daily life: memories of trying to brush their dog’s teeth, of waiting at bus stops and taking long bus rides in Singapore, and even a shaky video of a dark interstate highway that Exyl took spontaneously while driving home one night.
From all of this emerges a film more emotionally harrowing, violent, and visceral than anything Exyl has ever made. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, the moment of catharsis that comes at the end of the film moved me all the more. The human figure, who has been desperately seeking a means to escape the purgatorial cycle they are trapped inside, the entire film, finally transforms into the bus they have spent the entire film waiting in vain for. In a beautiful, breathtaking shot, Exyl animates the body rippling and writhing as it transforms, each tiny wave of flesh bearing the indent and press of Exyl’s fingers as they carefully sculpted the figure by hand in each frame.
The bus then transforms again into a screen, on which we see grainy video footage of a passing highway. In many ways, this moment feels like an inversion of the final moments of Conversations, in which the screen becomes the bird. Through the metaphorical figures of the bus and the bird, Exyl transforms the seemingly stable screen of the film into a vessel of flight.
In a way, it feels like a self-conscious commentary on Exyl’s own artistic practice. It is as if, by making these films and enacting that transformation over and over again in their art, they seek to find that same freedom in their own life. The freedom that they yearn for is never found in some final, stable form or identity, but instead in the feeling of flight itself – an inarticulable sense of self that one only finds at the limits of a metaphor, beyond the surface of an image, in the motion that elapses between one frame of animation and the next.
Acid Green will be screened on the 8th of December, at 6:30 PM, at the Oldham Theatre, as part of the Singapore International Film Festival’s Southeast Asian Short Film Competition Programme, along with a Q&A with the directors of the films featured.
Header image: A human and a dog wait for a bus in the darkness. (Film still from Acid Green, 2023) Image courtesy of the artist.