Friday, 6 July 2007

Cashback (2007)

Clerks meets science fiction

There is something about directors who graduate from other professions and training - often, they bring a radically different paradigm of filmmaking to their craft, and cross-pollinate their own trained sensibilities with those of film to create something new. Occasionally, like what happened over the last decade with music video directors crossing over to feature film (take Michael Bay and Len Wiseman, for example), they can even transform how mainstream movies are made. The there is something about the first film of every director - often, they either have some major obsession to get off their chest (like making the quintessential American/Singaporean/British/etc Movie) or they want to pull off all the neat tricks they've learnt in film school, showing off their technical proficiency and art design.

Now, knowing director Sean Willis used to be a fashion photographer and that Cashback is his first feature film, which is in turn an expanded treatment of his Oscar-nominated short film (also his first film project), everything becomes clear and understandable. Cashback is a romantic comedy that looks as if it's done by a very good first-time director: it's highly cerebral (jilted art student Ben Willis develops insomnia and the power to freeze time, the upshot of which he uses the extra 8 hours of his life to work for cash at a supermarket, and freeze time there), and full of shots, sequences, and special effects that show off the filmmaker's visual creativity and technical proficiency.

Normally, these maiden film efforts tend to reek of self-indulgence, superficiality and surface style, but Cashback manages to rise above all this into a class of its own, because behind the effects-heavy movie is a strong story laced with disarming humour. While it's true that the short film was just a showcase of Sean Willis's skills, and used the fantastic setup as an excuse of the special effects, the treatment in the feature film is far more sophisticated. For one, the theme of alienation of modern work and underemployment plays out more strongly, that Cashback feels at time like Dilbert or The Office (the UK version, of course) set in a supermarket. Willis also makes use of the additional hour of runtime in the movie to fully flesh out Ben's fantastic power of time-freezing, in a way that fully justifies the liberal use of speeded-up, slowed-down, and frozen sequences in the movie. And best of all, the sense of humour that was already evident in the short film is even more engaging and hilarious in this movie. Willis has managed to blend the dark cynicism of a movie commenting on the exchange of time for money in modern society and the witty satire of work-place comedies with his own unique, loopy and quirky style of narrative and observational comedy.

How on earth do you manage to make an Oscar-nominated short film into an even better feature film? I suppose only Sean Willis knows the answer, and we can only gape in amazement. After all, it's far too easy to do the opposite: I remember how Royston Tan's feature film version of 15 continued from the ending of the short film version, and how that extension of the story didn't quite feel as tightly-plotted and disciplined as the short film. In contrast, Willis wisely keeps the beginning and ending of the short film intact, with the feature film filling in all the scenes within, and yet writes with such economy and creative fecundity that every scene feels so necessary, that you can't imagine the feature film as a padding out of the original short.

Cashback is easily one of the better independent films to screen in Singapore this year, and my only hope would be for Sean Willis to make more movies.

First published at incinemas on 2 August 2007


boardrider said...

Anyone knows how the special effects in cashback were made ?
I mean, these sequences where the actore is moving around in a time freeze, 3D scene ?

Anonymous said...

wow great post thanx