To say the least, Gek Li San is a curious character; at the start of her seminar ‘Rhythm in Editing’ she informed us that she “wears many hats” which is a very humble self- description for a woman of so many talents and interests. She is an editor, a director, a writer, a meditator and a dancer with a predisposition for the surreal and a keen eye for rhythm and pace. All these practices feed into her filmmaking from the start of her career in an enchanting darkroom, prepping and loading analogue film into a flatbed editor in a job that she describes as being “love at first sight”, acting as a decompression chamber into the world of filmmaking. From there she paints the world of professional video editing as being that of breakneck speed, having to run from point A to B with film-reels in hand seconds before a deadline. She explains that such a pace can be blinding and advised us as film students to be guided by the quieter, calmer moments we have in our lives such as sitting down at the coffee shop or taking a relaxing stroll since such moments are often when the brief sparks of inspiration strike.
After viewing her experimental short film U R NOT ME it becomes apparent how she dissolves all of her experiences into the filmmaking process. Described as a ‘dance film’ it is clear to see how her background in dance has left her with a talent for choreographing her actors in such a way that their movements feed the central themes. Her meditation practices may be in part responsible for the surreal nature of the story (which she says was plucked from a dream) as well as the ethereal atmosphere that the space and camera work creates. She is quick to describe the influence of her editing days as being both a curse and a blessing while in her directing shoes as she’ll be editing her films on set while shooting. In some aspects it may help to enhance the vision of the end product while it also can restrict the imagination of the director to only what can be used in the cutting room.
It came to our surprise when she screened her next film, Primal Fear, that there were no cuts at all. The film portrays a woman moving from one pose to another over the course of 12 minutes and was a one-shot, one-take job which may seem to someone with a background in editing like the product of a feverish nightmare. Li San explained to us the laborious process that was involved in bringing the project to fruition. The idea was conceived from the Japanese Butoh dancing technique which focuses on using slow, subtle movements to evoke the feelings of pain and despair. After the conceptual stages of the films development Li San camped in the performance space for three days with her actress while keeping to a strict regime of yoga, meditation and vegetarian dieting in order to ‘slow down’ the mindset of both herself and her actress before the shoot. The result is a remarkable dance piece in which the actress is able to move with scalpel-like precision to create the evocative feeling of an eerily lucid dream. And while the editing in nonexistent, the pacing is integral.
Li San says that she does not dare to give herself any praise for her work as she views her films as a form of therapy, and that she likes to address the theme of fear in her work so naturally she sought to cap off these films as a trilogy with the last, “Fear is a Habit”, being a resolution to Li San’s meditations on fear. The film is a collaboration between Li San and a troupe of Finnish dancer’s while also being a combination of both a video directed by Li San and a video created by the troupe. It also sees Li San gracefully returning to the familiar territory of video editing which she described as being a very natural transition with all her rough cuts hitting the right marks. She emphasises the importance of feeling the ‘pulse’ of the footage in editing and that rhythm is key, not only in the editing room but with leading our daily lives.
Much like the films she creates, there always seems to be more underneath the surface with Li San. She can sometimes seem like a walking paradox as she describes herself as being well-behaved on the exterior and rebellious on the interior, being impatient while also an avid practitioner of meditation and being lazy while working tirelessly on an endlessly impressive body of work. Perhaps if there could be one thing to take away from the short amount of time we had with her it could be that while it may be difficult, the only way forward is by walking to your own beat.
Charles Packer is an aspiring screenwriter, currently in his first year at the Puttnam School of Film. His favourite pastimes include (but are not limited to): Watching good movies, reading a decent book or two and sitting down to drink a damn fine cup of coffee.
Film stills were kindly furnished by filmmaker, Gek Li San.
Seminar images were captured by Level One student photographer, Vaishagh Sabu.