From the opening moments of Leanne Bailham's absolutely lovely 11-minute short film Mei, one absolutely falls in love with the Mei in question. We are mesmerized by Mei's face as personified by Mia Foo. It's a face that wears both tenderness and wariness, a face that has obviously practiced its many masks over and over and over again and is now preparing yet again to perform the act of a happiness that doesn't exist within.
Mei is a recent college drop-out, a young woman struggling with depression but who is trying so hard to live up to the standards of her conservative mother that she dare not admit her struggles. Her mother, played with great elegance by Michelle Wen Lee, is exasperated by her daughter without possessing insight into the inner turmoil and depression in which she is immersed.
As a film, Mei is sublime. Co-writer and director Leanne Bailham, who recently graduated from Raindance Film School with an MA in Filmmaking, has crafted a film of uncommon intelligence, sensitivity, and tenderness. For anyone who has ever struggled with mental health issues, Mei is going to look and feel familiar and remarkably de-stigmatizing.
It helps, of course, to have an actress the caliber of Mia Foo in the lead as Mei. Foo embodies both the beauty and the struggles of this young woman. From her opening moments, Foo lures us in and makes us feel everything that Mei is feeling and we follow every tic, every facial distortion, every physical movement, and everything else that unfolds on the screen whether spoken or not. Most known for her work on the Eastenders series, Foo's performance here is the type that should have studios at her door. She truly immerses herself into everything that Mei is and feels.
As Mei's mother, Michelle Wen Lee offers a quiet, dignified performance that resonates precisely because she avoids the usual histrionics we see with this type of character. We feel her complete lack of understanding what Mei is experience, yet we don't hate her for it. Instead, we spend a good majority of the film simply hoping she'll get it. Watching her transformation over the course of Mei's 11 minutes is a masterclass in disciplined acting.
Nicola Chang's original music is simply extraordinary, a quiet companion to an intimate story and one that surrounds us as we travel along Mei's journey. It's the kind of score that makes you anxious to hear other work by Chang.
Lensing by Ufuk Gokkaya is similarly emotionally resonant and stunning in the ways in which it captures Mei's emotional shifts over the course of the film. Gokkaya captures the film's vital moments without ever feeling overly obvious. Kudos as well to Quynh Nguyen Dieu for editing that captures with hypnotic precision the heartbreaking unpredictability of Mei's depression.
Co-written by Bailham, Cat Watson, and Barbara Vonau with intelligence, insight, and sensitivity, Mei is simply a lovely short film that one hopes will find the audience it deserves.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic