Why Watch? Jiang Xuan‘s skilled approach to social observation is both firm and deeply moving. August 15th, her first and only directing credit on IMDb, is a narrative of group psychology the likes of which we don’t see very often. Its premise is simple. A young woman is riding a bus in rural China with her boyfriend, on their way to spending the Mid-Autumn Festival with his family. As the bus heads down the road, a ruckus erupts and two thieves jump up with knives to rob the passengers. The resulting conflict between the headstrong criminals and their mute victims quickly turns to tragedy. While it wouldn’t be quite right to lay it all out in detail, I will warn you that the second half of this film does include an upsetting instance of sexual violence.

Jiang’s primary interest here is in the reluctance to act, the human tendency to stare blankly out the window when something terrible is happening to a stranger up the aisle. August 15th is about finding the breaking point of indifference, or rather determining whether one even exists. It can be a bit of a rough watch, but its commitment to both narrative and aesthetic exploration of empathy and apathy makes it worthwhile. The drab blues of the bus’s interior and the costumes of its passengers both contrast and complement the dramatically empty landscape, adding some allegorical significance to an already psychologically ambitious story. Meng Tinyi‘s stolid performance is the final piece that pulls it all together and drives home Jiang’s outraged and wise social critique.

August 15th won an Honorable Mention at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and the Audience Award in the Asia International Competition at the ShortShorts Film Festival in Tokyo in 2010. This week, the ShortShorts Film Festival is celebrating its 15th Anniversary.

What Will It Cost? Just over 20 minutes.

Keep Watching Short Films

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