Last Breath by Mak Ying-Ping was his graduation film from from the Royal College of Arts in 2012 and it’s an interesting example of animation.
For one thing, I really dislike this aesthetic. It’s not an uncommon one, but it’s one of my least favorite styles of animation. It feels messy and lacks the kind of beauty I typically look for. If you’ve been reading my almost weekly discussions of short films, you’ll know how often I talk about the beauty of animation. Animation is better than real life.
There, I said it.
I think I really feel that way, and I don’t care if you disagree. Animation is more beautiful, more perfect. It’s our dream made real. It’s our real turned dream. It captures so much of what I love about being alive, and it’s as diverse as any other form of art. I prefer the beautiful, but there are those who want the gritty, the ugly, the coarse and messy.
Art is an act of rebellion, of revolution.
Animation is that same rebellion and revolution. Especially for those who make animation designed for adults. There’s an awful article in Slate that I won’t link to because it makes me too angry, but its purpose is to tell you, adults, that you should not engage with art made for children or teenagers. In fact, you should be ashamed!
This attitude extends to animation extremely often. In the west we think of animation as something purely for children. I know people who tell me they hate animated films or that they won’t watch cartoons. I’ve talked about the way we’ve ghettoed anime into a niche category for weirdos and shutins, but we’ve done the same thing for western animation. We’ve decided only children need animation, and so we ignore animation when its presented to us.
Last Breath gives us an ugly and coarse and messy style, and it relates to us a terrible world. A totalitarian state where breathing’s outlawed.
Because why not?
It seems absurd and silly, but Last Breath takes it very seriously. It reminds me of My Sad Face by Heinrich Boll where a man is put in prison for having a sad face. Though also absurd and silly, it’s a very serious problem in the world Boll presents. He lived under a totalitarian regime, and we often believe that we’ve moved into a free and beautiful world.
Of course, this is largely untrue, especially for us in america where we’ve being spied on by our government, by our fellow citizens, and everything we do is documented, categorised, stored. And so much of our life has turned into categorising who and what we are. Every behavior is catalogued under this title or that title. We’ve exchanged real critical thought for Buzzfeed and Thought Catalog, which are among the saddest places I can think of on the internet. Or there are websites like PolicyMic, which appears to be the kind of political blog we’ve all been waiting for. Unfortunately, as popular as it is, I’ve constantly found it so misinformed or biased that it fills me mostly with rage. Especially when they attempted to discuss Venezuelan and Ukrainian politics. But we won’t get into that. Maybe I’m making enemies just by saying all this.
Totalitarianism and fascism are on the rise, worldwide. We’re being trained to accept authority, to be watched, to be told who and what we are.
So what do we do about this? How do we fight the fanatical fascism of the world? How do we find peace in a world that hates us? We’re even training our children to be helpless, to be afraid, to bend to authority at all costs. It’s actually a criminal offence to leave your children unattended for even a few minutes, and all the friendly faces surrounding us are waiting to document our vile behavior.
What will humans be when they grow up in a world that demands they explain every single action, every aberrant behavior? It’s hard to imagine, but art will probably be the only act of rebellion left to us, to break us out of this crushing capitalistic ideology.
Last Breath deals with this in a concrete way. Like My Sad Face, our most basic behavior becomes criminal. Go to prison for frowning, for breathing.
In Last Breath, our protagonist takes a hallucinogenic escape and what he finds inside is hard to explain. But it’s clear that the brutality and absurdity of the world he lives in has forced him outside of it.
I fear often for the world. I fear for humanity’s ability to survive the coming ecological cataclysm and I fear because of our willingness to destroy one another, how we forget the brutality of the world we grew out of. I think of Palestine, of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, I think of Somalia, I think of South Korea, I think of the Irish, I think of South America, and I think of Ukraine, of Russia, and the role america plays in the world.
Last Breath isn’t a call to action or a declaration. It feels more like a statement of frustration. There’s no escape for our protagonist. Not really. He falls into a hallucinogenic ocean and we fade out before he steps into the real world again.
Perhaps he’s dead, and that’s the only real escape here. Perhaps he wakes in a kinder world, in one more beautiful.
And so the question becomes: how do we escape?
But it should be: how do we make this world better?
There are no answers in Last Breath. Just the mirror reflecting the world we must live in, the one we built around us.