Reviews Short Narrative

Distance (2022) – 4 stars

Director: Thisen Umagiliya

Writer: Thisen Umagiliya

Cast: Dhiyana Silva, Luna Hug Castro, Moditha Dabare

Running time: 24mins

Thisen Umagiliya is a name long-time IFL readers may remember. On the basis of his latest film, Distance, it’s a name well worth remembering.

In 2020, I reviewed Umagiliya’s first firm, Catharsis – a courageous, if dissatisfying short film that encapsulated all of the best and worst traits of student cinema. Three years later, his second effort still features a couple of those vices – but more excitingly, it also displays a young filmmaker starting to deliver on their early promise.

That makes the film’s plot especially depressing, because it is essentially an ode to unfulfilled potential. Having come of age in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s most populous city, Tharini (Dhiyana Silva) finds herself at a daunting crossroads. While she dreams of a life creating and performing, the hectoring voice of her father – a nagging, omnipresent superego – hounds her every waking moment, berating her into the only two “real” options open to her: get an education, or get out of the country.

Throughout the film, it is reinforced that Tharini – and the generation she represents – have nowhere to call their own; not even their own thoughts, which are either colonised by imperious parents or the constant commercial churn of social media. The voice of her father even reaches Tharini while she is alone in the toilet, changing her sanitary pad – an unflinching signifier that she has reached ‘adulthood’ and that domineering representatives of the status-quo are going to spend the rest of her life invading her thoughts to define what that ‘adulthood’ should mean.

At the same time, the city she has called home seems to have become one of those representatives. During a televised news item Tharini watches early in the film, she hears an old man despair at the ‘future’ promised to Colombo’s residents. It’s a fine place if you are rich – like just about anywhere in the world – and if you can fit into the socio-economic system that creates them. But for the vast majority of people who don’t make it, “we are left to die in our dreams.” That particular line echoes throughout the rest of the story, as Tharini’s mind comes under ever-greater pressure.

To that end, even Colombo’s architecture seems hostile to Tharini’s hopes and ideals. As she heads to a party, where she hopes to cross paths with a young actress – who she evidently finds both attractive and inspirational – the city’s beige high-rises loom above her: giants glowering down at an insect, weighing up whether they should bother to swat it.

Director of Photography Palitha Perera’s cinematography does a wonderful job of highlighting Tharini’s utterly desperate position in this way. There is rarely a second body in-frame with her – and when there is, it is usually someone just out of reach. At the same time, every aspect of her surroundings seem too large, too close – closing in on all sides, and absorbing her in her isolation. Meanwhile, Sasika Ruwan Marasinghe’s sound design sees this amplified, with the dull buzz of the city – of building work, the construction of office blocks and high-income housing – creating a suffocating atmosphere, bereft of space to think or dream.

Oddly enough, the only place where there is the peace to escape that, however briefly, is the party. Amid the shimmering lights of the dark, smoky room, the blaring music helps Tharini tune out the world for a second – and to approach Sasha (Luna Hug Castro), an actress she has been following on Instagram. As anyone who’s been in this situation will know, though, striking up a conversation with the object of your desires is easier said than done – and the words just won’t come out. In this instance, that might be for the best – as was the case in Umagiliya’s last film, some unpleasantly tinny additional dialogue replacement is deployed to help make the dialogue clearer, and takes us out of things for a second.

This is emphasised when Moditha Dabare, the lead from Catharsis, turns up. But unlike Catharsis, his off-kilter, otherworldly delivery seems much less appropriate – showing up to badger Tharini in an… odd tone. It is a performance that might be more at home in a viral internet skit than a film about fading innocence and dying dreams – if indeed it is at home anywhere. The voice is not improved by the haphazard ADR – it is not well-mastered, and does not sound like it was blended with any music. As the sound chops and changes, Dabare sounds as though he is pestering Tharini from the drum of an empty washing machine.

The character seems to want our protagonist to pay him with intimate pictures of someone, but who of and how she got them are not really explained – and they aren’t really necessary. This character only really serves as a means for Sasha to speak to Tharini – slapping him and bellowing at him to leave, presumably because she thinks he is just a creep bothering another woman. To that end, that might as well have been the actual role, rather than whatever else Umagiliya had hoped to add to the story with this other more convoluted motive.

Even so, the sound continues to be a problem throughout the scene between the forthright Sasha and Tharini, and that’s a real shame. We had been watching a patient, visually poetic slice of life – a slow-burning portrait of social dislocation, and lost dreams. With the inclusion of this regrettably overt sound engineering, however, we are reminded we are watching something artificial, in a way that seems totally avoidable. This segment could have taken place silently – with the dialogue muffled beneath layers of booming music – and subtitled if we needed to know what was being said.

Eventually, the pair leave together; taking a bus to a remote beach, much to the fury of Tharini’s father. Having left the safety of the party, the outside world and its oppressive ‘realities’ quickly begin to encroach on Tharini’s hopes and dreams again – with her father bombarding her phone with missed calls; its vibrations quickly becoming a dreaded omen. At one point, though, Sasha decides enough is enough, picks up the phone and tells Tharini’s father to leave her alone in no uncertain terms. He is enraged – but doesn’t question who is apparently operating the phone.

It is at this moment; the movie’s destination starts to become clear. Another old man on the bus has been talking to Sasha, saying he recognised her – but we also recognise him, as he begins complaining that the city is only liveable for those with money. Disco-lights start to flitter around the bus, and the lighting of Sasha warps and fluxes through the spectrum.

As this gorgeous trick of colour and light continues onto the beach, even against the moonlit ocean – in one of the most stunningly constructed shots I’ve reviewed for IFL – we come to realise Sasha is being shown as Tharini remembers her from their brief encounter. She is the idealised version of herself; the assertive and successful performer who Tharini doesn’t only want to be with, but wants to be more like. But the night has left Tharini defeated. Unable to go any further, trapped between an endless sea, and a city bent on crushing her aspirations, there is nowhere left to go.

The film’s final shots once again revisit the theme of dying dreams – before that most dreaded sound, the buzzing of a phone, begins to bring us back to the hellish reality we hoped to vicariously escape with Tharini. It completes a remarkable, interwoven piece of storytelling – a lucid dream of overlapping context clues and disparate memories. And like the ending, there is also the aching fear that though it was not real, it is warning us of something that is missing from our everyday reality.

Where are our spaces for independent thought? Where are we left alone long enough to imagine new and better worlds? As we live our lives for rent, being forced to forgo the aspirations of our youths to survive in a world built for the rich, have we also been left to die in our dreams?

As he progresses from ‘student filmmaker’ to just filmmaker, Distance represents a remarkable statement of intent from Thisen Umagiliya. He remains a daring artist who is not troubled by breaking with convention where it suits him – and is happy to leave us with an uneasy feeling at the end of his open-ended stories. Yes, there is still some room for improvement; but there is so much more to love about that.

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