Two films with two girls and two perceptions of reality.

In a time when short films before the feature presentation are, Pixar excepted, a memory of a distant past we had the pleasure of seeing a feature preceded by a short film, both of which were exceptional viewing at the Asia House Film Festival. Both films centre on the strange lives of two girls, the Japanese anime The Case of Hana & Alice (2015) and the Saudi short With Time (2014).

With Time (2014)

Set in a single room, the Saudi short With Time (writen and directed by Malak Quota) is the story of two young sisters (played by Horiyah Ahmad and Hager Zaid) who are trying to come to terms with their sheltered, trapped existence, locked away from the outside world where they are struggling with both survival and their perception of reality. Fantasies and nightmares form part of their day-to-day existence in this claustrophobic space. They dream of normality, perceived here through stunningly animated cut outs that invade their rubble room, 3D paper ghostly apparitions of an unseen world where their mother may demand that they ‘wake up sweeties, so you are not late for school’, but this is internalised imagination such that when reality strikes them hard, they can only declare that they ‘want to be with mom’ or that they ‘want to get out of here’. The links between fantasy and reality extend to their perception of eating as food is given to them through a hole in the skirting board under the wall, but they imagine scary hands presenting their meagre rations and demonic apparitions of horned horrors. This splendid film (inspired by a true incident which involved two little girls being locked up by their brother, for their protection) is utterly invigorating in its fantastical depiction of claustrophobic nightmares.

The Case of Hana & Alice (2015)

Realism has a strong aesthetic in the anime landscape and characters of The Case of Hana & Alice but perhaps less so in revelations that approach the film’s titular teenage girls in their middle-school years, coping with confrontations in their lives and investigations into those of others. Shunji Iwai’s anime debut is a remarkable achievement on a number of levels. This is the prequel to Hana and Alice (2004) but do not worry if you have not seen that film as this stands confidently on its own. What is remarkable is that ten years later the leads from the original teenage drama play their younger selves. This time-warp is achieved by the use of rotoscoping to convert the actresses into the anime incarnations of their previously live-action selves whilst remaining true to character. The rest of the scenery, the layer work, the occasional CG perspective on cel illustration makes for a unique technical experience in addition to the intriguing narrative which concerns issues of coming of age, transferring to a new school, peer pressure and revelations of the past in an occasionally bizarre present.

Tetsuko (Tetsuko Arisugawa) has had to change her name and move from her previous school into a new one following her parents’ divorce. All is not well in her new environment as the fashionistas and regulations collude against both her and her unfashionable/non-standard school uniform. The class environment is divided and individualistic, especially when she is told to sit a particular desk, an action that causes consternation amongst the other students in an almost occult ritual of classroom ignominy. Back at home she seeks sights and signs beyond her new environment and finds indications of other existence who may, perhaps, be like her, as one of her neighbours, the reclusive Hana (whose name means ‘flower’), keeps observing her from the window of her horticulturally resplendent house across the road. As Tetsuko’s desk assignation in class appears to be a spiritual sign of increasing supernatural insurgence she wonders about her place in the school and the classroom leader tells her ghastly stories about former pupil Judas and… his apparent murder. Tetsuko decides to confront her secretive neighbour, who may be a friend or a problematic foe, to discover the truth about the boy who may have died. Hana and (now) Alice (from her new name Arisu) strike up a begrudging friendship and set out to discover the truth.

The Case of Hana and Alice is a curious film, the murder case plot actually secondary to the burgeoning friendship between the two girls. Its style is not typical anime, the character depiction is far more realistic due to the rotoscoping technique, and the ‘camera-work’ dominates the screen with its extreme angles and colourful mise-en-scene. Engaging and charming, it is a coming-of-age film that depicts all the serious whimsy and random choices of teenage friendships.