This year, as Edinburgh Short Film Festival takes its programme to Shanghai, Abbie Saunders takes a look back at one of China’s most successful and poignant short films, Dayyan ENG’s Bus 44 (2001).
Formally, a short film cannot necessarily be considered ‘fertile’, particularly not when compared with the length and depth of a feature film. Traditionally speaking, there is no space for sub-plot, no room for embellishment, and little capacity for complex character profiles. Bus 44 initially seems to conform to short films’ formal criteria. It has a basic, linear structure, a definitive climax, and only a handful of protagonists.
Set on a barren, dusty road, the film follows Bus 44’s route down a deserted dirt track, lined with leafless, lifeless trees. The film’s colour palette of infertile sands and dusts gives it an ageing sepia quality, its substance almost enacting the sterility of its form. The infertile and fatal quality of the film’s form and setting is translated onto its subject matter; its fabric is pervaded by acts of violence, of rape, of threat, and, ultimately, of stasis.
The one thing that gives these fatal actions life is the act of watching. The viewer, and, in turn, the passengers are implicated in the voyeurism of this climactic scene. As the young female bus driver is dragged away to face her fate, the passengers of the bus watch through the glass, detached from the scene, mute and motionless in their lack of conviction to save the woman who served them so faithfully. They watch the scene in the same way as Dayyan ENG’s viewer is forced to watch the film: mercilessly.
The ironic connotations of such a climax characterise the binary relationship between fertility and infertility in Bus 44. With a sexual act comes connotations of mutual love, pro-creation, birth, love, and life; here, the act of rape connotes mortality, fatality, violence, violation, and death.
Dayyan ENG explores the fertile ground of infertility, using stasis to heighten action, using hate to heighten love, and using death to heighten life. Despite the form’s association with sterility and stasis, this short film has a lot to say despite its curtailed length. Ultimately, by using brevity, Dayyan ENG makes an impact, reminding the viewer, and the passengers of Bus 44, of the threat of mortality and the importance of morality.
Bus 44’s formal beginning and end are distinct; for a short film of only 11 minutes, it requires a tight structure, and proposes one that it conforms to. However, in many ways Dayyan ENG’s Bus 44 subverts out expectations of the formal qualities of short film: its beginning marks the end, and its end marks a new beginning.
Ultimately, despite its shocking content, Bus 44 speaks of hope and optimism; it communicates the notion that in the face of adversity, every person has the power to make a difference. The one passenger who attempts to save the female bus driver is spared from the film’s turbulent end.
Bus 44 provides a startling reminder of our own moral responsibilities, playing on the Christian ethos of loving thy neighbour and feeling God’s love in return, it suggests that when faced with the very worst situation, there is always an opportunity to do the right thing: to try to save someone, and, in turn, to save yourself.
Dayyan ENG’s short film Bus 44 won a host of festival awards including Special Jury Award at Venice 2001, Jury Honorable Mention at Sundance 2002, and Grand Jury Award at Florida 2002.
Abbie began writing as a freelance film critic after graduating from Cambridge University in 2013. Her interests include short film, Western perspectives on Eastern film and culture, and Norwegian modernism. Her favourite director is David Lynch. In September 2013 she won AltcineAction’s Best Film Critic Award and was later shortlisted for the Richard Attenborough Film Blogger of the Year Award. She currently writes regularly for Flickfeast and Kubrick on the Guillotine. She tweets @abbieaisleen.