As I’m sitting here writing this review, I stare out at a vacant suburban street.
Australia is in the midst of yet another lockdown, trapping us in our homes, making us all the more aware of the silence of the world when we’re removed from it. Cars infrequently make their presence known, usually being an aspect of normalcy, now becoming an aspect of irritation. Local public ovals that once filled the air with the sound of growing athletes finessing their chosen sport now have socially distanced pedestrians taking themselves and their overjoyed dogs for their prescribed ‘one hour’ of exercise.
After watching Neon Across the Ocean on a dreary, wet winter day, I listened to director Matthew Victor Pastor’s interview with Maridel Martinez on SBS Filipino, where he mentioned the joy of knowing that someone, somewhere, was going to see his film in a cinema. I’m writing this review for Perth’s upcoming Revelation Film Festival where it will screen. The festival has already had to cull its opening night and second day of screenings due to Perth’s lockdown, with the looming threat of more days locked down.
All of this familiar isolation lingers over every frame of Neon Across the Ocean, a film made during the 2020 stretch of the Covid-19 pandemic in Melbourne. Pastor’s camera focuses on Mandy (Waiyee Rivera), a 17-year-old Filipino Australian who is trapped in the crux of the fallout of the pandemic, with her final year of high school looming, alongside the separation and eventual divorce of her parents, her desire to travel back to her mothers homeland of the Philippines acts as a possible tether to pull her loose from this societal malaise.
Neon Across the Ocean opens appropriately, with the rain soaked streets of Manila embracing the reflection of the sugar-soaked glimmer from the neon signs of the convenience shops, bars, and bordellos, highlighting the beauty of the manufactured world around us. Here, we meet a youthful Gerald (Gregory Pakis), an Aussie bloke perusing the bars of Manila and searching for someone to take home with him. Pastor casually moves us forward in time, picking up with Mandy’s story and teasing the relationship between her younger father and the divorce that has separated her family.
Waiyee Rivera’s subdued performance as Mandy helps carry the thematic heft of Neon Across the Ocean, with her internal conflict writ large over an empty city. Like all the characters in the film, Mandy sits on the precipice of her emotions. They equally hold back from truly engaging with their emotions for fear of it spilling over and drowning their lives. Mandy’s own life issues and concerns are amplified by the pressing detritus of the catastrophe that has changed the world. Yet, at 17, she’s clearly awaiting the moment that she is free to change into the person she should be, free from an enforced world of education and isolation that has been holding her back.
Mandy yearns to reconnect with Manila, a place where positive memories that linger grew from, a possible home, whatever that may be. In her birthplace, Australia, she is continually othered, made not to feel like she is Australian. She talks about walking over a crosswalk, where white Australians expect her to move out of her way, but Mandy pushes back, making sure that she will move out of the way for nobody.
Later, Mandy comments: ‘my dad sleeps a lot, I think he’s depressed’, with her friend replying, ‘all adults are’, in a manner that suggests that depression is an inevitability when it comes to the ageing process. Through Gerald, we see the impact of the pandemic on the already financially-strained. Mandy lives with her father who has seemingly collapsed into a state of disrepair. He complains about her lack of eating, all the while his diet consists of beer upon beer upon beer. The sound of a microwave heating upon yet another frozen meal is accentuated by the sight of a kitchen bench draped with quick-eat food wrappers and a pile of oranges that are destined to never be eaten. Within this home, life has given up on living.
Mandy’s brother, Marc (Corey Reason), has moved into his own apartment. The pandemic has allowed him time to comfortably stretch into the creative energy within him, as he finds his voice through rap. For Marc, moving in with his partner has allowed his own personal freedom to be who he wants to be. While we don’t spend much time with Marc, his presence helps highlight how much Mandy wishes to grow into who she feels she wants to be.
Pastor masterfully uses each setting to inform his characters. Within Marc’s home, we see the reflection of Manila in a neon lit cross, strung up safely in his rented apartment. On his windowsill, a house plant sits awaiting its full potential. The quick-removal hooks remind us of how renting in Australia has changed over the decades. Underneath the same bleak hog bristle white sheen that covers rental property after rental property, lies the feature walls of freedom that renters once had. They were free to live in a home that reflected their personalities, but now, they’re restrained by property owners who are terrified that their investment properties will be tarnished by a misplaced hook, or an off-beat paint choice.
Quietly, Pastor makes us ask ourselves: what is a home?
Is it the land our parents came from? Or is it, as the saying goes, ‘what we make it’? Or, is it the people we surround ourselves with?
For much of the film, Mandy’s mother, Anna (Rachel Javier), is absent. Mandy yearns for her presence, and for her support. With Gerald failing to give Mandy the support she needs, Mandy finds comfort with her tutor, Serena (Chi Nguyen), who helps guide Mandy through the difficult final months of her high school studies. To Mandy, her comfort and companionship becomes its own pseudo-home in a way, with the two visiting a makeshift hut on the docks of Melbourne. In a moment of nurturing and care, Mandy and Serena share a meal with one another, looking over the waters and contemplating a future that may swerve and change at any moment.
Matthew Victor Pastor’s writing and direction is restrained and reserved, almost to a fault. He allows the quiet and the languid pace to permeate into the themes, reflect it into his narrative, and then to become and embrace his characters. Neon Across the Ocean has a calming vibe, that is powerfully accentuated by the stunning digital cinematography that captures the blazing neon at night, and the mundane dreariness of the Melbourne weather perfectly. While it is a comfortable watch, it also asks a lot from its audience to weave together the themes and narrative, often making it feel like work to glean what Pastor is saying or working towards, rather than giving enough to allow the audience to feel like they’re participating in teamwork.
I do find comfort in films that make you work, that ask you to invest in their narrative and motifs and question what the grander theme or meaning of the piece is, but with a film like Neon Across the Ocean, while I found myself absorbed with its ideas after the film concluded, I often felt myself feeling despondent with the whole endeavour in the midst of it occurring. This may be Pastor’s direction reflecting how easily detached and shocked many of us were left – and still are – after the pandemic, with the oncoming gradual trudge to ‘normalcy’ allowing us to finally sift through our Facebook posts, group messages, and desperate diary entries to truly examine what we all went through.
In that regard, this is a film that thrives in my mind post-credits, and for that experience alone, I’m eager to absorb myself in the filmography of Matthew Victor Pastor, which is deep and rapidly amassing into a catalogue of varied films. Neon Across the Ocean is itself the first of a trilogy of films that will address the emotional resolutions of the pandemic, with A Pencil to the Jugular soon to come.
Neon Across the Ocean is explicitly a film about solitude, and as such, it finds itself alongside a deep brethren of Australian films that exist and live in isolation. These are festival films like I Go Further Under or Strange Colours, equally quiet in tone, and also profoundly isolated in narrative and themes. There’s an acquired audience for these kinds of films, ones that require an audience that will sit with the film and ruminate on the silence, not allowing themselves to be overwhelmed by the boredom that may arise. Many audience members may feel that to be bored by a film is a death sentence blow for the film itself, yet, in Neon Across the Ocean, boredom helps accentuate Mandy’s journey, allowing the audience to truly feel what she is going through.
I am greatly impressed by and deeply appreciate what writer/director Matthew Victor Pastor has done with Neon Across the Ocean, but I can’t truly recommend this film for every viewer out there. This requires that necessary patience that comes with quiet and slow cinema, a patience that many of us had to exercise as we waited in lockdown after lockdown during ‘our pandemic year’, where we either grew to resent that enforced quiet, or embrace it, letting it change us and morph us into new people.
It’s the same patience that I’m exercising right now, as I write this review in hope that it is not in vain. That Matthew Victor Pastor, and the Revelation Film Festival, are able to screen Neon Across the Ocean, and countless other films that cater towards a varied audience group who will devour these kinds of meditative fares this coming weekend. As news of each lockdown takes place, it’s hard not to feel as if we will forever be trapped, denied the chance and freedom to change into the people we should be, or once were.
Neon Across the Ocean doesn’t deliver hope of change, but it does provide familiarity and a recognition that we weren’t alone with feeling the way we did, and for that, I’m grateful it exists.
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