TIFF 2013: A Grand Canal – Short Film Review

Director: Johnny Ma
Writer: Johnny Ma
Starring: Mei Song Shun, Wang Hong Sheng, Du Xiao Min
Runtime: 19 min
Rating: 14A

Although quite a challenge, it is possible to create a comprehensive portrait of an individual within the confines of short film. Director Johnny Ma proves this feat feasible with his piece A Grand Canal, featured in this year’s Short Cuts Canada program. Ma uses sweeping cinematography and emotive performances to create a simple yet hauntingly beautiful tale of a Chinese sea captain willing to go to any lengths necessary to protect his family and his fleet, and who finds an escape from the grind of his everyday life in 90s Chinese pop music.

Although A Grand Canal opens with a home-video style appropriate to the initial scene, the filming increases in sophistication as it begins to include stark yet stunning shots of the shipyards and the waterfront. The story is narrated mainly through a voice-over by the son of the protagonist, explaining his actions and offering an interesting perspective on the ensuing events. Although the acting is simple and straightforward, the performances are earnest and display the clear desperation and familial love felt by this individual.

It is impressive that, in less than twenty minutes, Ma is able to paint a portrait of a life so convincing that an audience is able to become emotionally involved. The final scene reveals the true purpose of the film in a way that surprises and has a lasting impact. This simple story of a man willing to sacrifice everything for his family is told in an unconventional way that will stay in one’s memory long after the brief film has concluded.


Direction: 4
Acting: 3
Screenplay: 3
Cinematography: 4
Music/Sound: 4

Overall: 3.6 / 5