Nervous Translation

Review by Matt Turner

Directed by

Shireen Seno

Starring

Angge Santos Jana Agoncillo Sid Lucero

Anticipation.

Good title, eye-catching stills and an intriguing synopsis.

Enjoyment.

An effective representation of living too sensitively and feeling everything too strongly.

In Retrospect.

An intelligent and idiosyncratic film that lands on the skin, then lingers in the mind.

Shireen Seno’s striking second feature explores a period of social change from a child’s perspective.

Many films adopt a child’s perspective, yet few truly see the world as a child would. Shireen Seno’s striking, scintillating second feature Nervous Translation burrows deep inside the head of its main character, eight-year-old Yael (Jana Agoncillo), showing what a strained, senseless place it is to be.

Yael lives in Manila with her mother Val (Angge Santos). Her father works abroad, and is present in the film only as a voice on tape recordings. They are played mostly by Yael, who rewinds and replays them like puzzle loops, searching for something inside the words. To Yael, her mother seems frigid and remote, drilling her daughter with maths problems or demanding silence. Displays of affection are rare and abstract.

Solace arrives only in ceremony, via small acts of order made in resistance to a world without any. Yael retreats into herself, practising her handwriting, meticulously cleaning the soles of her shoes, or prepping miniature dishes for a tiny oven. Agoncillo’s introverted performance is minutely detailed, an over-sensitive child with a permanently troubled face who betrays the inner turmoil her few words avoid expressing. Things feel tough too.

Yael’s frayed nerves and constant confusion are translated into harsh noises, bright colours and fragmented information. The cinematography vibrates with nervous energy; the sound design is wiry and extreme. The fabric of Seno’s film shudders with the state of the character it is embodying.

When everything is so internal, it’s easy to miss what is going on outside. This is the Philippines in 1988 – overheard conversations, news snippets and furniture-fittings reveal – and the country is in disarray. Freshly freed of a 20-year dictatorship, an air of uncertainty presides. No child is entirely oblivious; and nothing happens in a vacuum. The country in Nervous Translation is anxious, it seems fitting that its main character would be too.

Published 5 Apr 2019

Tags: Shireen Seno

Anticipation.

Good title, eye-catching stills and an intriguing synopsis.

Enjoyment.

An effective representation of living too sensitively and feeling everything too strongly.

In Retrospect.

An intelligent and idiosyncratic film that lands on the skin, then lingers in the mind.

Related Reviews

Nostalgia for the Light

By Carmen Gray

A stunningly original, poetic yet unpretentious film about astronomy and the trauma of military dictatorship.

review LWLies Recommends

Meteors

By Thomas Nguyen

Turkish filmmaker Gürcan Keltek uses a meteor shower as a metaphor for human conflict in this docu-fiction hybrid.

review

An Elephant Sitting Still

By Matt Thrift

Hu Bo’s search for hope and humanity in present-day China is a monumental debut tinged with tragedy.

review LWLies Recommends

What are you looking for?

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design

Sign up to our newsletter to hear more from team LWLies