Born as a project designed to showcase the new Lumix GH6 camera, Kai Blamey Nguyen’s experimental short Feel is as much an impressive technical showcase as it a humbling drama about the inner workings of contemporary male mental health. Nguyen tells a story of intimate vulnerability through the medium of dance, settings his performer’s graceful yet frustrated movements against the backdrop of a working-class gentleman’s club. This juxtaposition of thought-provoking and interpretive imagery is one of many ways the film engages with a clash of sensibilities that have come to define modern masculinity; the harsh with the soft, the light with the shadow, and the aggressive with the empathic. DN caught up with Nguyen as Feel arrives online to discuss his thoughtful short, the deeply personal and familial story at its core, and the innovative technicality behind his gorgeous silhouetted photography.
How did Feel, as a project, come to fruition?
The whole thing initially kicked off when Lumix approached me to make a film of my choosing with a new camera of theirs, they would fund the project and the only requirements were that I had to shoot on the camera they gave me. Consequently, the film was shot on a small micro four thirds camera, the Lumix GH6. I paired that with some Cooke Xtal Anamorphic lenses courtesy of Panavision. We shot the film in one day and cut it in three. The score was made over a week, with some back and forth, and finally the project was coloured in a day.
At what point did centring the film around male mental health arise?
In brutal honesty I made this film out of necessity, it’s a process I had to undergo for my own wellbeing. The concept arose at a time when I had been struggling to express certain frustrations in my personal life and I found myself doing so in destructive ways. That winter my mother was diagnosed with cancer, news which affected my father particularly. I saw a similarity in his dealing with the news which I believe I inherited in a sense. It opened up a lot of trauma from his childhood which he had never expressed or dealt with so to speak, a reaction I believe a lot of working class men are guilty of. The rubber band scene is actually a homage to him. He’s an artist himself and in 1995, a few years after my birth, he had a show called Rubber Bands. I used one of those bands in Feel.
The film is rather abstract and open to interpretation, but I still wanted it to have a coherent rhythm to it.
The project really is a personal one conceived to raise awareness about men’s mental health. The film was imagined as an invitation to start a wider conversation about how men struggle to express their emotional vulnerability.
Your background is predominantly in cinematography, does that affect how you plan for a film? Do you tend to start with the project’s visual language?
Being a cinematographer working predominantly in commercials and music videos, I’m used to breaking down scripts or ideas into imagery, and that’s just how I crafted the look and themes I wanted for Feel. I built up various mood board of sorts for different scenes. Each scene with the sole purpose of engaging the audience emotionally. Of course, the film is rather abstract and open to interpretation, but I still wanted it to have a coherent rhythm to it and make some sense.
The camera is close in on the movement but it also manages to present the men as silhouetted. What inspired that decision?
Set against the backdrop of a workingmen’s club, I chose to employ intimate silhouetted photography of a central male protagonist as he struggles alone with his own mental wellbeing, and publicly in the midst of a group of other men. The soundtrack cuts against the grain of my theme insomuch as it invites contemplation rather than underlining a particular message in any obvious way. It was important for me to use gentleness as the carrier of an idea that is so often characterised by aggression.
What was it about the mode of dance which made you feel that it was the correct form of expression to tell this story?
In tackling a subject that isn’t spoken about openly dance seemed like the most sensitive form to mirror how I feel. In hindsight, the whole process served as a surprisingly meaningful therapeutic experience for all involved. In the uniquely intimate setting of our location emotional boundaries quickly melted away. The theme seemed to bring us all closer together, men and women alike. We found ourselves talking to one another about the pain that we had experienced in silence. In a sense, I will cherish the memory of bonding with my crew and collaborators as much as the final piece we have made.
How did you find the process of developing choreography to convey your narrative?
Dance has always been a medium I’ve been drawn to, for the same reasons imagery speaks to me more than dialogue, I find it a lot more visceral. Being an intimate project I knew I needed a choreographer I could be honest with, someone I trust immensely and was comfortable being vulnerable around. Mikey and I would talk at length about the topic of masculinity and how we interpreted each scene visually through movement. After some back and forth on references I had quite a clear understanding of what I wanted to feel watching each section of the film, building the crux of the movement had to be workshopped by him and the dancers over two days. The film was cast to have dancers that could each bring a unique style of movement. It was clear we wanted the inclusion of an energetic Krump in contrast with the smooth elegance of Contemporary dance. Much of what we see in the final film is structured improv of sorts, each dancer knew the themes we wanted to convey and it was up to them to bring them out on set.
It was important for me to use gentleness as the carrier of an idea that is so often characterised by aggression.
How does your work as a cinematographer influence your creative approach as a director?
As a DP I’m obsessed with imagery, it really does consume my creativity. On Feel I felt I leant into my strengths, keeping my approach as visual and visceral as possible. Really giving meaning to the light and contextualising every creative choice. Focusing on the significance of the details to achieve something raw but not too blatant. Since I was directing and shooting, I really did have full creative control. I’m a firm believer that less is more in cinematography, I like lighting that is emotive but feels natural and effortless. I think that ethos carried itself over.
Similarly, how has directing this short affected your approach to being a cinematographer on other projects, if at all?
This project really forced me to contextualise my thoughts and creative decisions. Far too often when shooting projects we get trapped in what looks good and not why it looks a certain way. I’ve built my career so far mainly on fashion and commercial projects, making things look stylish and pleasing feels second nature now. Directing and shooting Feel has reinforced my need to search for meaning in my photography.
Speaking of, what’re you working on next?
At the moment I’m still shooting commercials and music videos, jumping from project to project. Although this year I’d love to push the boat out into some drama-based work, looking for narratives that speak to me so to speak, somewhere I can bring my sensibilities to a longer formed project. Will I direct another piece anytime soon? Perhaps. When Feel was released I got asked a lot, “Are you a director now?” To that I would reply “The next time I have a deep urge to express something personal, I will”.