The act of connection is a constant theme in director Platon Theodoris’ filmography.
In his 2010 Cambodian-shot short film, Sunrise, Chim Sokheang’s oldest child steps in as a surrogate father to his two younger sisters when their mother has to leave to work on a cucumber farm to earn money for the family. Tender scenes of the brother sitting in a hammock as he tells his sisters stories or singing and dancing for them as they clap along, are contrasted with dinner preparation scenes, showing the young boy connecting with adulthood and maturing into the role of primary carer for the family.
That familial connection continues in his 2019 short, Wine Lake, where a chance encounter between two strangers reveals their Irish heritage, providing answers to lifelong questions they both have. Ailís Logan’s script gives her the space to imbue her character, Peg, with the notion of floating through life untethered, and within her poems, she seeks to ground herself and gather the sense of family and purpose that seems to elude her.
In his 2015 feature Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites, Platon Theodoris held a kaleidoscope up to the light, and invited audiences to peer through the lens into an apartment full of panda-shaped absurdity in an occasionally surreal, continually thought-provoking indie film that proudly defies genre-trappings. Over a brisk 73 minute runtime, we follow the titular Alvin (a captivating Teik-Kim Pok) as he works from his secluded apartment, never straying into the outside world, until he’s forced by the outside world that starts seeping through the ceiling of his trinket-laden sanctuary.
When we first meet Alvin, we’re presented with an immediately conflicted image. Crouched over a hole in his floor, we witness him peering on his downstairs neighbour going about her day. He watches her busywork, and when he is seemingly content, he puts a cover over the hole and carries on with his day. (Slightly misguided) filmic tradition suggests that we should be able to empathise or relate to the lead character of a film, utilising them as an audience surrogate of sorts and finding some kind of commonality with their narrative, but within the construction of Alvin, we’re presented with a prime contradiction.
Instantly, we’re searching for that connection point, yet, watching a grown man peer on his female neighbour, watching her get dressed and live a life, causes us to instantly be distanced from Alvin. It’s a risky move to start a film on a tone of unease, especially for one that seeks to put the audience firmly in its lead characters mind.
Yet, Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites is a film that delights in contrasting complicated ideas and themes. While never excusing Alvin’s behaviour, the film reveals him to be less of a predator, and more like an anxious dog, monitoring the parameter of their home for threats or issues. In his isolated apartment life, Alvin maintains a strict, comfortable routine, which includes monitoring the actions of his neighbours however he can. Teik-Kim’s innocent expression as Alvin goes a long way in carrying the energy of how harmless a figure he really is.
Platon presents Vashti Hughes’ Virginia as the delightfully extreme opposite of Alvin. As Alvin’s neighbour who lives directly opposite him, Virginia is everything Alvin is not. Virginia is Alvin’s foul-mouthed, bitter neighbourly Karen-figure, eagerly engaging in occasionally racist behaviour, and simmering with extreme paranoia and distrust for her neighbours. As the ultimate-Karen, she even pulls the ‘I want to see your manager’-card when she complains about the neighbour beneath for Virginia’s perceived notion that she has brought fleas into the apartment complex. Vashti Hughes revels in bringing Virginia to life, adding extra pepper to each barbed retort and insult, utilising them as weapons to tear down the world around her. Equally, the look of joy that flashes across Virginia’s face after her constant abuse brings about an instant reaction shows how much she feeds off how unsettled and little she makes her victims feel.
Virginia’s interactions with Alvin are limited, but they occur frequently enough to remind Alvin why the boundaries of his apartment are sacred and must never be breached. Her appearances become pronounced, interrupting his work-from-home routine and daily meditations, almost threatening his 18-month long sojourn from the outside world. Watching Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites through a 2020’s lens means viewing it through a pandemic-informed eye, and it’s never been more relatable than to see Alvin create his own makeshift faux-office background when he Skypes in with his work colleagues.
Alvin works as a translator who frequently liaises with Angela (Platon’s frequent collaborator Ailís Logan), an authoritative figure who frequently questions his word choices, pushing Alvin to explain his decisions of why he chose this word over the other. On the surface, Angela likely considers her line of questioning as a form of ally-ship, ensuring that the translation of texts is done carrying the correct authorial intent across, never considering that her amiable prodding instead acts as a manner of questioning Alvin’s identity itself. And it’s within these questions and Virginia’s aggression that pushes Alvin further into himself, seeking the inner peace he so desperately desires.
The thematic relevance of Alvin’s translation work sits on the same line as his creepy spying of his downstairs neighbour: he is taking what is not his – the language of others, a strangers privacy – and making it his own. He’s not doing it for outward pleasure, but rather to satiate the worries of the mind.
As Alvin embarks of a solitary life and frequently mediates, he amasses a wealth of nostalgic trinkets and toys from online purchase, each one bolstering the aesthetically pleasing nature of his apartment. His bed positively overflows with stuffed pandas, with each of their doe-eyed faces adding an element of charm and whimsy to the production design. For filmmakers who want to learn about how great production design can bring a films personality to life, then they should look no further than the work that Mas Guntur and Shin Shin did on Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites.
It’s best to go into a film like Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites knowing as little as possible, which means that discussing the second half of the film, where the magic and wonder of Platon Theodoris’ mind is truly let loose, becomes complicated. If what you have read about the film so far has peaked your interest, then seek it out and be rewarded with a quirky indie film that pushes the boundaries of charming into complicated areas.
But, if you’re like me, and follow the mantra of April Wolfe when it comes to film spoilers – “It’s not what happens, it’s how it happens that matters” – then carry on.
As we know from countless isolated stories, no secure vessel on film is ever a sanctuary for too long before something comes along to disturb the peace, and for Alvin, his domestic paradise is upturned by the presence of a curious black goop that starts seeping through his ceiling. Initially, he wipes it away, removing its presence, only for it to come back twofold the following day. After he asks for the assistance of the building manager to find the problem, and they come up with nothing, Alvin is forced to take the matters into his own hands, leading him to climb into the crawl space in his ceiling and find where the black goop is coming from.
Emerging on the other side in a different land, Alvin encounters a world full of little people, all working together to operate a soy sauce factory. Labels on the soy sauce bottle hold pictures of Alvin’s face, like he’s this worlds version of Paul Newman with his own line of sauces. In this world, Alvin has become a literal soy boy.
Confused and perplexed by his rise to condiment-level infamy, Alvin stumbles around the world with Dessy Filtri’s wonderful Vilna by his side. In an abandoned carnival, the two share a tender moment, an aspect of his life that has been absent for far too long. It’s here that Alvin’s centred mind and sense of peace is restored, an aspect that helps him finally breathe with calm when he finally manages to return home.
Platon shot Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites in three cities – Sydney, Kalgoorlie, and Jakarta – and by doing so, he amplifies the feeling of distant lands united that runs as a thematic constant throughout his work. In Wine Lake, the distance between Australia and Ireland becomes negligible in the shadow of a laundromat, with time equally becoming irrelevant as the moment exists with vibrancy between the characters on screen. In Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites, separate universes become close neighbours within the immediacy of an edit, Jakarta and Sydney are side by side, accessed through a hatch in a ceiling.
In the safety of his own home, Alvin stands like a burden has been lifted. There’s a lightness to his step, and in an act of closure and comfort, he tapes over the hole in his floor, no longer needing to monitor the actions of his neighbour. When Virginia knocks at his front door, instead of steadying himself for the anger that he is about to endure, he simply stands in her tidal wave of hate and abuse, never giving an inch to Virginia’s cruelty. Alvin endures. Recognising that Alvin has become unperturbed by Virginia’s aggression, she amplifies it, leaving the last line of the film of a heightened moment of racial abuse. Knowing that what Virginia is saying has no consequence to him, for it’s only what is in his mind that matters, Alvin’s response is to smile. Responding in kind, Virginia realises that her words no longer sting, and now the two are on even ground, she smiles in kind. This is Alvin’s harmonious world of opposites realised in a charming moment of finality.
And yet, as I write this, I can recognise the absurdity of calling a note of racist abuse and the lead characters response to it as ‘charming’. It’s as absurd as understanding that Alvin’s snooping on his neighbour is less predatory than it may seem. And yet, with Platon’s expressive dialogue and joyous plotting, we’re encouraged to revel in the absurdity of our existence. We’re also invited to strip back the notion of what our ‘self’ is, and how that ‘self’ interacts with the world around us.
Within Alvin, we see a figure who is learning to pull back on the anxieties that erupt within him from external forces that are out of his control. It’s only when he finally realises that he cannot change Virginia’s behaviour by being defensive and caring about what she says that her behaviour truly changes. It’s clear that Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites is not a ‘life lesson’ film, but it is fascinating to see how Platon presents the result of being able to differentiate between ruminating on an issue, and actually problem solving an issue. Equally so, while Alvin isn’t consciously concentrating on his influence in the world, it’s clear through the soy sauce cult that has made him their brand icon of choice, that his actions have subliminally impacted external forces.
For me, watching Alvin’s Harmonious World of Opposites at a time where my home state of Western Australia has gradually opened back up to the world after almost two years of being in state-wide lockdown has made me appreciate the eccentricities of the world I live in. Alvin’s bed of pandas reminds me of a nearby house which still houses a mask-wearing teddy bear in their window, forever bringing passer-by’s and kids a smile and a heart-warming burst of joy. Through a simply act of putting a teddy bear in a window, we became connected to one another in a time of need.
It reminded me of how small actions can create curious changes in the world around us, a notion which is so familiar to many of us, but easy to forget its impact on our greater global community. The sisters in Sunrise will grow up with tender memories of the bond fortuitously forged with their brother at a younger age. The newly discovered familial relationship in Wine Lake has transformed the lives of two relative strangers completely. And, for Alvin, a chance encounter with the outside world brings him the greatest connection of all: with himself.
The Lonely Spirits Variety Hour is Platon’s latest film – debuting at Perth’s Revelation Film Festival 25th edition – and sees him connecting with actor/writer Nitin Vengurlekar to bring to cinema the existential comedy of a radio host whose show is overrun when he goes into hospital. If it’s anything like his previous work, then we’re once again in for a unique, quirky, and delightfully absurd film that might just connect us odd-bods who love this kind of film.
Director: Platon Theodoris
Cast: Teik-Kim Pok, Vashti Hughes, Ailís Logan
Writer: Platon Theodoris
Producers: Sinto Nawangsari, Arief R. Pribadi, Platon Theodoris
Music: Donald Baldie, Dimitri Vouros
Cinematography: Hari Bowo, Vanna Seang, Platon Theodoris
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