20 Oct 2021
Adam Taufiq Suharto
Adam Taufiq Suharto
Claustrophobic and catatonic, Malaysian production Sumpah Semalam (‘The Old Pledge’) is a minimalist short film that accomplishes a lot by doing very little. Its story is straightforward and short, but it’s visceral telling leaves a lasting impression on the viewer.
Following a questionable election, a young politician (Sam Victor) is facing a desperate choice: follow his colleagues in abandoning their now-opposition party to join the government, or hold true to an oath he made to the party many years ago. His isolation makes clear that this choice could mean his own life or death – and the consequences for his wife and family could also be dire. It is in this isolation that paranoia and madness start to descend.
In just a 5-minute runtime, Sumpah Semalam tells a traumatising and emotive story through impressive use of sound editing, minimalist shots and a fine performance from its only acting talent Sam Victor. Its premise is established within the first 45 seconds, with almost the entire rest of the film spent locked in with the protagonist. The decline of his emotional state is the film’s major theme, and this is brilliantly demonstrated without really giving any updates into events of the outside world. What is essentially a short and scary character study is accomplished by excellent cinematography, which director Adam Taufiq Suharto and director of photography Naim Aiman deserve serious credit for.
The film’s sound editing is its strongest asset, with excellent use of sound effects which will burrow into the audience’s soul. The simple use of a ringing phone, a ticking clock, or the sound of a drill outside become paralysing and psychosis-inducing – as the politician becomes increasingly agitated that his hiding place may be discovered at any moment. The noises pierce through the silence he so desperately seeks – and the audiences will feel the same disturbance due to the targeted sonic assault on the senses.
The film is however limited by its own minimalist approach, and there is really only so much that can be accomplished given its short runtime and modicum of actual filming. As an example of stress, paranoia and the dangers of isolation, the film accomplishes a lot. However, as an actual story or experience beyond emotional manipulation, the film comes up short. Its story establishes the necessary components, but doesn’t develop any further than the absolute basics. Viewers are also left without any resolutions to the plot’s story points, and don’t have much to sink their teeth into for a repeat viewing. And if you’re the type of person who can withstand the sound of nails on a chalkboard or a lot of flashing lights, the lack of emotional impact of the filming techniques and sound editing will leave you asking what the point of the film really is.
Sumpah Semalam is certainly worth the extremely brief time it takes to experience its all-out sensory attack. It will leave an impression on some, and leave others unmoved. But as an example of how to work magic with little more than a camera, a set and a sound board, it stands out as impressive work.