Written and Directed by Cai O’Leary
Produced by Amie Nash
Starring Stephen Hoo, Cai O’Leary, Bruce Wang
Cinematography by Kieran J Simpson
Editing by Jonathan Fidler
Action Co-Ordinated by Leo Au-Yeung
Short film review by Euan Franklin
Good, Evil. Yin, Yang. Heaven, Hell. Positive, Negative. How is it that opposite concepts, objects, and people find themselves sticking together? Opposites attract is a phrase derived from the actions of magnets, but could easily watermark Cai O’Leary’s magnificent Man is Beast.
The first shot sweeps across a party of eager spectators in somebody’s back garden - chatting, laughing, dealing out cash. The camera ceases at a suited Chinese man, wearing no perceivable expression as he stares at two men preparing to fight. One’s Chinese, the other isn’t. The scene pulls us in with a simple premise, yet the film proves to be more ambiguous, more chilling, as it continues.
The film cuts from a well-choreographed punch-up scene to some documentary footage showing interviews with the opponents before the fight. Fiction, Reality. Sun Hui (played by O’Leary) lives in a rough neighbourhood, kept inside a grotty room with his brother, Fang (Rory Finn) – the “runt of the litter”. Hei Xiong (Stephen Hoo) resides in a picturesque mansion with his Daddy (Bruce Wang) and his trainer (Clynton Henry). Rich, Poor. Both discuss their situations and their motivations for fighting, to a camera handled by an invisible operator. We soon realise that reality does not come simply, but through absurdity.
The fight scene between Hei Xiong and Sun Hui was a brave and ambitious step for a short film to take. In action cinema, there are good fight scenes and there are bad ones. Good, Bad. There’s no grey area in the middle. Many action sequences in box-office blockbusters look terrible, so to attempt it in a short film has all the signs of a barmy idea. However, O’Leary and the action co-ordinator Leo Au-Yeung have made their fight pack a punch - not only on the fighters, but on the viewers as well. It’s not perfect, some shots aren’t correctly synched with the sound and the blood has the consistency of thin ketchup sauce. Nevertheless, the choreography was outstanding and works well with Kieran J Simpson’s kinetic cinematography – owing a great deal to O’Leary’s personal experience as a martial arts expert.
The simplicity of the documentary sequences is matched perfectly with the ambiguous nature of the story, echoing Michael Haneke’s style in its soft, striking approach. However, this beautiful sense of uncertainty is short-changed with the explicit realisation invading the final shot. It pushes for an answer when it doesn’t need one. All the absurdity we’ve already embraced has been lost to reality. The audience can guess and interpret, but confirming it rips away the short’s initial attractions.
The most enticing character isn’t either of the two leads, despite the fullness of their characters. The one who attracts the most questions is the suited Chinese man at the beginning, who turns out to be Hei Xiong’s “Daddy”. He says nothing and maintains an uncomfortable stare – one you can’t lock into without flinching away. This is more than a Terminator performance by Bruce Wang, because his stare is too full with meaning. There’s a backstory behind his eyes. A traumatic event. Notions of joy or sadness have long been abandoned.
The film has its imperfections, yes, but there is something special about it. It lies, it confuses, it evokes sadness and hate, but it’s the humanity that throws us the most. We are told that man is beast, but the terrifying conclusion is that man both is and isn’t. Beast, Man. Man, Beast. Make of that what you will.