Six short films by Southeast Asian women filmmakers were screened as part of New Waves 2019, organised by the Singapore International Film Festival. Vinegar Baths, directed by Amanda Nell Eu stood out, right from its opening shot.
The film opens with a closeup of a pair of feet. It’s the point-of-view shot of someone looking down at his or her own feet. You hear the sound of a drop. You see ripples fill up the screen from the bottom, caressing the feet. You realise that the feet were immersed in still water all along. You hear a few more drops. Slowly, very slowly, from the bottom of the screen, you see the water turning red. You realise the sounds you heard earlier were those of drops of blood. Once the blood fills up the screen, we cut to a naked lady (we see her bare back) sitting on the edge of a bathtub, her head bent, looking down at her feet inside the tub.
This opening shot should tell you that Amanda’s short is a kind of slow horror that wraps its tentacles around your neck. You sit motionless, unable to move a muscle or scream. It’s also a delightful film: a lady who eats foetuses, also eats salad and noodles while trying to mimic the dance steps in an Instagram video.
During the post-screening Q&A, Amanda spoke about her fascination with body horror. She also spoke of taking phrases literally and pushing further. “If a woman is angry we say she can tear your head off. What if we show her literally doing it?”
Here we are with an interview, where she talks about her inspirations for horror, her obsession with folk tales, and the monster she’d like to be after death!
In many Indian films, female ghosts are usually out to avenge a wrongdoing that killed them. It’s as if they’re powerless to do it in real life. Are there any such stereotypes of female ghosts that irk you the most and why?
I love all kinds of old folk tales about ghosts and monsters, I don’t think I would ever be annoyed by any character and story. Instead, I like to break down why certain characters exist. Why does she want revenge? Why does she have certain powers, deformities or weaknesses? What caused her to be this way, what made her so angry? Most of the time it isn’t so black and white that she is just out for vengeance. I think these old folktales are more layered, and beneath these simple stories is something larger about society and culture as a whole. What I find interesting is that these themes still resonate so clearly today.
When did you first become acquainted with body horror and decide to engage with it in your cinema?
I was really into horror from a young age, and even though I was terrified, I still couldn’t keep my eyes off the screen. I think the first time I came across this subgenre was when I watched Tetsuo: The Iron Man, and David Cronenberg’s films, of course. I don’t only engage with body horror in my films, but it certainly is something I am obsessed with at the moment. I do think that we often forget to listen to our bodies and because of that we end up fearing them.
Two of your short films seem to be inspired by folklore. Vinegar Baths deals with the myth of penanggalan and Lagi Senang Jaga Sekandang Lembu with the myth of pontianak. Why do you engage with folklore through cinema?
Folk tales have survived for centuries, being passed down from generation to generation. The fact that they still ring true to society means they are the best stories ever told. My medium of storytelling is cinema—it’s just my way to continue to pass on these stories.
It’s clear from your short Vinegar Baths that you’re not after jump-out-of-the-seat scares. What is the ideal reaction you anticipate from people watching your horror films? Also, how do you judge while shooting a scene if it has come out as scary as you wanted it to?
I don’t think that I make horror films, or at least films that typically scare an audience. I love my monsters so I’d rather the audience empathise with them instead, empathise with the horror and darkness. I’m trying to convert everyone to love monsters as much as I do! Haha! Mostly, people feel more disturbed than scared when they watch my films. Also, to me, there is a difference between ghosts and monsters. Just in how I define it, ghosts have a more personal link to the living world while monsters have a social link. This is really just my own definition, I’m sure many will disagree and say they are the same thing! I haven’t made any films with ghosts yet.
I don’t intend to make any scene scary. On set, you shoot and collect and shoot and collect, so you have enough material to edit and tell a story similar or sometimes completely opposite to what you had in your script. I never try to get what I want when I’m shooting a scene, I think it’s impossible. You can try your best to do everything as planned, but there are so many compromises, and different days have different problems. Sometimes you just have to change all your plans immediately on the spot. I just try to be in the moment of the scene and shoot what feels right.
Do you think the glut of horror films today have made people numb to what they watch on screen?
I don’t think it has become more difficult to scare people now, I think many horror films today are just not that scary. Something that consists purely of jump scares and some blood will never be effective enough. What people are most afraid of is themselves, and each other, and the acts they have done. Successful horror films are the ones that play with the human psyche using genre elements, and that will freak the shit out of everyone!
I really don’t intend my monsters to be scary since I love them and empathise with them. I want my audience to feel the same way too.
Your first short film was screened at the Venice Film Festival (shortlisted for the Orizzonti Short Films Competition). What did it feel like to be at the festival as a debutant short film maker? Tell us about your experience.
I had made short films before, but when I graduated from film school, I decided to accumulate work experience for a few years instead. It was by chance that I was given the opportunity to direct It’s Easier to Raise Cattle; it was exciting to jump back into directing. So it wasn’t my first short film! But still… being in Venice was definitely an experience I will never forget. It was the first time I ever attended an A-list festival so I was just enjoying the whole experience and watching as many films as I could.
Do you think film festivals around the world and the kind of films that win prestigious awards influence the style and content of films by budding filmmakers? As a filmmaker working on your debut feature, do you consciously try to avoid being influenced by this?
I do see certain patterns occur in films from certain regions. I guess it can’t be avoided sometimes. If an important voice manages to do something successfully, it opens up a new way for younger filmmakers to explore that voice. Of course I urge everyone to find their own voice. I think it’s natural to be influenced by style and form, but the most important thing is to know who you are and what you want to say. This is the toughest thing that a filmmaker goes through, but that is inherently what makes your films who you are.
When and how did your obsession with cinema begin?
Honestly it was through the horror genre. Since young, I would hide while my older sisters watched films that were probably not suitable for my age. I’d have nightmares and sleep with the lights on but I still kept going back, it just fascinated me! When I got a bit older I would sneak out of school to hang out at this video store in Camden, London. I’d keep coming back for more, from black and white, to cult to gore and slasher films… I still have all the VHS tapes from that shop!
You graduated from the London Film School. How would you describe your experience there? Would you say it is necessary for someone to have that education in order to make films?
I think going to film school gave me the confidence to work in the industry. Not everyone needs to go to film school, not everyone should go to film school. What you essentially learn at film school is craft and technique, which you can learn from other places such as working on set, or shadowing someone more senior in the field. I go back to the fact that you can only be a strong filmmaker if you know yourself, and this cannot be taught anywhere. But film school opened me up to a world of collaboration and friendship. I started not just falling in love with cinema but also the process.
Outside of cinema, who or what are your strongest artistic influences?
Everything. From books, the internet, visual art, theatre, music, and all the people and places that I experience around me.
You were born and brought up in Malaysia and migrated to the UK at the age of 11. Now you’re back in Malaysia, making films. How have these different spaces and sensibilities influenced your filmmaking?
I think I really found what I wanted to say when I moved back to Malaysia after being in the UK. I always felt like I never belonged anywhere, I was too Asian to belong in the UK, I was too white to belong in Malaysia. But when I started to look back at stories about women in Malaysia, especially these stories about monstrous women in folktales, I suddenly felt like I belonged. These were women who didn’t belong anywhere either and I wanted to find out why. I felt like I could relate to their stories.
After death, if you could haunt people by becoming a ghost figure from folklore, which one would you choose and why?
I think it would be sad to be a ghost. Too much emotional history that can never be answered. I’d rather be a monster, maybe they can have a little more fun. Really though, I’d like to be one of those burial pods that make trees.
During the panel discussion, you mentioned Lucrecia Martel as the person you’d love to “smoke cigars and drink whiskey” with. What do you like about her work?
I just think she’s a really cool person, that was me fangirling!
Could you tell us what your upcoming feature is about?
An eleven year old girl reaches puberty, when her body begins to morph at an alarming and horrifying rate. In fear of being labelled a demon, she struggles to maintain being normal at school by trying to conceal her grotesque self… that is until she decides she no longer wants to hide from the world.
 A personal essay that examines the themes of the short films screened at New Waves 2019, including Amanda’s Vinegar Baths. Available here. Accessed on September 9, 2019.
All images belong to Amanda Nell Eu. They may not be reproduced without permission.