It can be tough being a short film. While shorts act as valuable opportunities for filmmakers to hone their craft or experiment with technique, there are precious few outlets for audiences to ever see them – usually premiering at a few festivals before sinking into obscurity. Very lucky shorts might make it onto a DVD or bluray – if their director is a particularly famous one – but most simply vanish, with the only trace left being a listing on someone’s filmography or an entry in the Internet Movie Database.
The Fantasia International Film Festival does a stunning job of introducing genre shorts (science fiction, horror, fantasy) to a Canadian audience, and with access to several key films being showcased this year I wanted to give the better and most interesting examples a modest showcase. I am aware that finding these films to watch for yourselves may be hard, but it would be even harder if nobody told you that they were out there. I am only planning to provide coverage of good examples as well – short films are more often than not the work of early and first-time filmmakers, and they don’t need me actively discouraging their viewers.
Double Helix is a 26-minute science fiction film from Chinese writer/director Qiu Sheng. His 2018 feature debut, Suburban Birds, was a subtle and understated film with a growing sense of magical realism. Double Helix absolutely feels like the work of the same filmmaker. It is a quiet, sombre, and oftentimes worrisome piece. It follows teenager Yun and her younger brother Yuan as they creep through the countryside, hiding from view and sneaking into the luggage compartment of a bus to secretly move around. The circumstances that led to their escape, told in flashback, form the bulk of Qiu’s film. As the film progresses, it rapidly becomes apparent that the siblings are not human and are, in fact, some form of artificially intelligent machines. You could call them robots, but they simulate human beings so effectively that the term feels insufficient.
Despite centring on one specific and violent tragedy, Double Helix is a distinctly low-key work. Emotions are widely kept in check. Like numerous science fiction films before it, it takes time to contrast and compare the difference between real and artificial life – and to ask what, if anything, is ultimately the difference? Strong acting and well-composed photography (by Xu Ranjun) enhance its impact wonderfully.
Its key drawback is its length. There are big, smart ideas here – and one oddly silly one – that deserve more room to be properly explored. Double Helix feels like a proof-of-concept sketch for a longer, more involved feature. Hopefully such a film eventuates.
Double Helix had its international premiere at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click here for more information.