Directed by Hsiao Jung Chang | Reviewed by Rohan Bhattacharya
The pandemic had left most of us with scars; while some scars healed with time, the other scars remained and plagued our subconscious mind with nightmares or things far worse than that. Hsiao-Jung Chang’s short film, ‘Guanyin Can’t Help’ is about the latter of these two, and how these scars can twist our minds into believing in things that tend to curtain our eyes with the mirage of hope. Mr. Chang’s Schizophrenic daughter relapses during the pandemic; while he believes in his doctor’s advice, and the medicines prescribed by him, his heart tries to seek refuge in the arms of the goddess Guanyin, and her promise of compassion and mercy.
From the very beginning, Chang attempts to pull us into his vision of a dystopian reality. While our heart wishes to believe that ‘Guanyin can help,’ the truth is brought before us as “’t” fades in, bringing us to the title of the film: ‘Guanyin Can’t help.’ Mr. Chang sits on his bed, with his daughter lying beside him; he is speaking to his doctor over a zoom session on his laptop. We see them discuss Mr. Chang’s daughter’s mental health, and her worsening fits of schizophrenia. The doctor’s advice is to increase the dose, and to not let the daughter consume alcohol. The actor’s simple, yet impactful performance brings us into the director’s vision of hopelessness quite seamlessly as Mr. Chang closes his laptop and his gaze falls onto a picture of the goddess Guanyin, which reads: ‘Guanyin can help.’
The struggle between science and religion is one of the many themes showcased by Hsiao-Jung Chang in this short film. Mr. Chang was a witness to his daughter’s constantly degrading mental state, despite her consuming the medicines prescribed to her. While doctors could only reassure him, they couldn’t promise to cure his daughter of her illness; a promise that Guanyin claimed that she could make. From searching for a scientific cure, Mr. Chang went onto what looked like a quest for salvation; his visits to the monastery had increased, and so did the amount of donation that he made on each visit. It was almost magical when the monastery priest had made accurate predictions about his family and his daughter, and had offered to help his daughter free herself from her torment. To a man who believed that the world had given up on him, Mr. Chang had no other choice but to bet on the priest.
The director had quite brilliantly made us relate to the character of Mr. Chang on an extremely personal level; so much so, that the priest’s words and his promises felt real and believable to us, the audience. The execution of the narrative twist at the very end was captivating and quite unpredictable. The parallel between the first and the last scene is most fascinating. While watching the scene right before the end, one might believe that things had finally gotten better for Mr. Chang and his daughter; however, in the very next scene we see him having a zoom session with his doctor inside his dark room, while the daughter is lying beside him. At first glance, it felt like a repetition of the first scene of the film, but things were different.
At times, it did feel as if the director had wanted the audiences to dwell within the dystopian setting created by him in the film, not until one notices the glimmer of hopefulness that is subtly showcased by the character of Mr. Chang who, despite all odds, is ready to do anything for his daughter and her wellbeing; he will not lose hope. Besides the story, the cinematographer’s use of light, and the set designs were extremely commendable, and did fit in with the characters and the plot. The visual story-telling was on par with the well-written script. The cuts made by the editor went exceptionally well with the flow of the visuals. The short film was a visual and intellectual treat.
Rohan Bhattacharya is a video editor, filmmaker and writer. His film Komorebi won the second prize in ‘South Asia Japanese Language Short Film Competition,’ organized by The Japan Foundation, New Delhi and his latest film “Tsubaki” has been screened at the Tokyo Short Film Festival in Japan. His production house Sunkaku Productions makes movies in Japanese language to create a bridge of culture between India and Japan.