Slow Takes: “Shangri-La” and What Makes a Great Short Film

This essay is about Isabel Sandoval’s ten minute short film Shangri-La. You don’t need to watch it before reading, but you can!


The first short film I ever made was better than the next three.

Inspired by the fact that I was a 12-year-old boy and watching 12-year-old boy movies, the short was a crime story about a drug deal gone wrong. I made it with my friend Tyler, an actual 12-year-old boy, and decided the only way to pull off an adult story with kid actors was to not show our faces. All I had to work with was a camcorder, a metal poker chip case, a fake arm from my previous year’s zombie Halloween costume, flour, and a kitchen knife.

Due to the constraints of not showing our faces, the camerawork was inventive. Due to the limited storyline, the short was very short. Due to Tyler’s skills as a musician, it had a bouncy score to fill in for the lack of dialogue.

This film no longer exists. I carefully preserved my subsequent shorts — the ones I considered art — but this was just made for fun. And yet, those next shorts made a couple years later are unwatchable. They have intricate plots and a thematic weight; they have planned out shots on a better camera; they have reference points like Kurosawa and Fellini. But if you asked me to pick the best short from my early work — A Confession of Pain, Entirely Strangled, The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue, and, the first, One Way Deal — the answer would be easy.

Sometimes all a young filmmaker needs is cocaine you can bake a cake with.

***
Short films are hard.

As I write this, I’ve just finished being on the US Narrative Short jury for Outfest 2022. I watched 77 shorts in a couple weeks, and that was my main takeaway: Making short films — good short films — is really, really hard.

It’s not just that shorts often have fewer resources than features. In fact, some of the worst shorts I’ve ever seen were ones with stars and ad tie-ins. It’s more that telling a cohesive story in a short time is challenging. It’s more that so many filmmakers approach shorts like mini features rather than their own medium.

And yet, shorts have always produced some of the most exciting cinema. Because they require less resources — and less audience attention — shorts are often able to be more experimental than features. Just think of the first narrative film ever, Alice Guy-Blaché’s minute-long The Cabbage Fairy — a woman stands in a field of cabbage plucking little babies from the ground. Or think of Barbara Hammer’s four-minute long Dyketactics — a sensual collage of lesbian bodies and formal invention.

Just like there is no one way to make a feature, there is no one way to make a short. The shorts that win major festivals may be more conventional. The shorts that get turned into features may feel like hints of a longer work. But my favorite shorts feel true to their form. My favorite shorts use the expansive tools of cinema to tell a personal story in the time a feature might take on the credits. My favorite shorts are like Isabel Sandoval’s Shangri-La.

***
Isabel Sandoval made her first feature in 2011, but it was her masterful third feature Lingua Franca that confirmed her title as Queen of Sensual Cinema. Since Lingua Franca arrived on Netflix in August 2020, Isabel has experienced an international auteur status granted to few Asian women and possibly no trans women before her.

In addition to getting her next feature greenlit and directing an episode of the Andrew Garfield-starring Under the Banner of Heaven, Isabel has been on a tour through the film culture she clearly loves. She’s visited the Criterion Collection closet, programmed events at the Alamo Drafthouse and Metrograph, and been an absolute delight on Letterboxd and Film Twitter.

These achievements aren’t just fun — this trajectory is a reflection of her work. Discussions of trans representation over the past decade have largely been distanced from actual cinema. The most exciting work made by actual trans people has garnered less attention than identity landmarks like first trans Emmy nominee and first trans superhero.

These pop culture advancements are important in their own ways, but I have hungered for trans artists — ambitious, unique, visionary trans artists — to actually get the resources they need to make films on their own terms. Isabel does just that. She writes, directs, edits, and acts in her films, and her work feels uniquely her own.

It took ten years for fashion brand Miu Miu’s short film series Women’s Tales to sponsor a film by a trans woman. But there’s been no one else with the status, acclaim, and vision to be added to a list that includes Agnès Varda and Lucrecia Martel. It’s an impressive group of filmmakers and films — Isabel’s may just be the best.

When most trans filmmakers still only have the access to make shorts, it’s worth studying what makes Isabel’s such an achievement.

***
Shangri-La opens with three misdirections.

The first title card provides context about California’s anti-miscegenation statute from 1850 to 1948. The second states this was made for Miu Miu. Technically, these are accurate statements. After all, the film takes place in California during the Great Depression, and the film was made for Miu Miu. But it’s so much more than a historical snapshot, so much more than an ad.

After an image of Isabel lying down is superimposed onto her lover, the film finds her in a confessional. “Bless me father for I have sinned,” she begins. Again, the film teases convention. Isabel is playing a woman from the past who will provide exposition acting out the long-used film trope of a confessional. The superimposed image is the only hint at something more.

Even working within convention, Isabel’s filmmaking is electric. The camera slowly pushes in. Isabel is lit in a golden darkness, a sharper light from the confessional making a pattern on her arm. She talks about a farmhand she was drawn toward. She describes him in sensual detail, and we see an image of who she is describing. “And then what?” the image says.

A close-up on the woman’s face as she betrays a smile. This isn’t a confessional. The man listening is her lover. It’s a role play. “For some reason I couldn’t stop thinking about undressing him,” she says. The score shifts, and we see close-ups of their sex, their love-making, their fucking. The golden hues of the confessional give way to a soft blue light as a hand slowly strokes a chest.

The woman lets go of the game as we go to a close-up on her lips. “Your body makes my lips want to be the earth so that they kiss you every time you touch me,” she says. We return to a variation on that first abstract image. “And I feel so close to you that I begin to meld into you. I feel at home in your body, my soul overtaking yours, possessing it. I do it for the thrill of moving under the sun, loose and carefree as you do, simply because of the color of your skin and your sex.”

There’s a brief interlude where the film returns to convention. The two lovers discuss having broken into the church. It’s as if Isabel is acknowledging an audience’s expectations of structure — maybe the brand’s expectations as well. But then the woman says, “Shall I continue?” and we hear and see literal fireworks.

The rest of the film is something between a memory and a dream. Striking image after striking image. The two lovers on the ground with fireworks superimposed over them. Isabel wearing Miu Miu clothes in her character’s fantasies. “I find myself in an enchanted place adorned in finery,” she says. The film adds a metatextual layer to itself. We are not just watching the woman’s fantasies unfulfilled but Isabel’s fantasies coming true. Not only has Isabel achieved the opportunity to look beautiful in designer clothes — she has achieved the opportunity to look beautiful in designer clothes through her own gaze. She is the object and objectifier all at once. And no one could capture her beauty quite like the Queen of Sensual Cinema herself.

The film is about the time it’s set in and the time it was made in. It’s about this one love story and a grander desire to have access to love, to freedom, to beauty. “Then I realized I’m one with the stars,” she says in the film’s final moments. We return to the image of her on the ground, fireworks superimposed — but this time she’s alone. “I’m the moon and the sun. I’m the whole universe. I’m magnificent, invincible, sublime. I will love who I want to and I’ll be loved right back.”

The fireworks vanish. There is just Isabel, not adorned in finery. There is just Isabel cloaked in darkness. There is just Isabel at peace.

***
The reason my first short film was better than my next three is not because it was simpler. The stories I wanted to tell about depression and school pressure and misguided love were raw to my teen self and deserved the ambition I brought to them. The reason my first short film was better is because I didn’t have the resources or skillset to imitate so overtly. Those later films may have been more personal in narrative, but One Way Deal was personal in form.

It can be useful for young filmmakers to try on other styles. Even seasoned filmmakers continue to have reference points. But there’s something special when a filmmaker follows their own cinematic instinct rather than trying to fit within someone else’s style, or, even worse, fitting into the style du jour.

It’s easy to say that Shangri-La is personal because it’s about a woman from the Philippines and centers Isabel’s own trans body. It’s more difficult to describe the cinematic ways it feels like it could only have come from one artist.

A great film, a great short, requires both. I’m inspired by Isabel and inspired by Shangri-La, because it is personal in narrative and personal in craft. Even within the confines of a branded short, Isabel created something sexy and playful and layered and true. She created something only she could make.

Queer cinema is so much more than queer bodies on-screen. It’s about — it should be about — approaching filmmaking in ways that emerge from your singular queer self.

Since the rise of video, “just go out and make something” has been a rallying cry to young filmmakers. I would add not to lose yourself along the way — in content or form. Be your own artist. Be like Isabel. Make the films you have to make the way you have to make them. Whether they’re self-financed, crowdfunded, or sponsored by Miu Miu.

You only have ten minutes to tell a story. Why make someone else’s film?


Slow Takes is a series of “belated” reviews by Drew Gregory of queer art released last year that Autostraddle didn’t cover.


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Drew Gregory

Drew is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. Her writing can be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Thrillist, I Heart Female Directors, and, of course, Autostraddle. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about trans lesbians. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @draw_gregory.

Drew has written 288 articles for us.

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