directed by Benteng Ma
Childhood is the time when one statistically has the most friends. It is because during that particular life stage, very little is politicised, ideology-filled or future-oriented – there is an overarching similarity between one child’s needs and wants, and another child’s needs and wants, which makes grouping together and befriending each other easy. As life unfolds and reveals its complexities one by one, diverging pathways open up and start dividing what was before a cohesive group. It is then when ‘best friends for life’ pacts start losing their mystique and, likewise, their viability. In a nutshell, this is what ‘Waterside’, a short film written and directed by Benteng Ma explores.
The film revolves around a group of three friends: A Jie, A Shui and A Jiao. They left school at an early age, and now find themselves in a vicious circle that involves drugs, cigarettes and gambling card games. While we never, as an audience, get a detailed peak into their subconscious to see whether or not they are content with the status quo, they find comfort and safety within the group, alongside a sense of belonging. However, once the unlikeliest of the three to break away finds an ad in a newspaper and decides to leave the town where he lived his whole life in order to attempt a fresh start, the dynamics of the group is not only endangered, but its very existence is threatened.
The message of ‘Waterside’ is delivered in a very metaphorical fashion, which fits very well within the context of the film, given its very proficient art direction. The medium of water brings along familiarity and comfort, representing the assurance that present circumstances are perpetuated indefinitely, and no change is necessary. Fire, by contrast, burns initially, but can also spark a light which could not be previously lit: it is a risk, an escape of one’s comfort zone that can be rewarding, but could also be devastatingly damaging, with no going back. Benteng Ma juggles with these metaphors very proficiently, building a picture that is not only beautiful, but actually makes sense and has deeper implications.
As mentioned before, the artistic sense of the director translates very well into the context of the film, and ends up being consistently value-adding. The shots and camera angles chosen are technically proficient, although the decision to use a handheld camera is questionable, as the structure of the film does not necessarily demand a ‘sneak-peak’ view of the events. The acting is pretty good from all three main actors, while the soundtrack, although generic, is well-dosed, and does not become pervasive and is impactful. Characters tell more from their actions and exteriorisation of emotions rather than direct dialogue, which is a good stylistic choice, and is complemented by the narrative monologue.
All in all, Benteng Ma has done a remarkable job with ‘Waterside’, and sends a strong message that many will resonate with. It tackles the ‘should I stay or should I go’ debate very intriguingly, and does not offer any results, but prefers to provide open premises – a very good choice. Its lack of general coherence might be a bit off-putting for some, and some of these scenes seem to drag on a bit longer than necessary to make a point, but this does not distract too much from the final success which this production achieves.