The Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism is a thought-provoking and boundary-pushing experimental short film that passionately champions the cause of gender equality. Helmed by MAO Yu Lynn Yuan, who is also known as Lynn Yuan, this cinematic creation transports viewers into the enchanting setting of a serene garden, where a young girl, skillfully portrayed by actress Gloria Gao, rests upon a tablecloth. However, the tranquility of this idyllic scene is abruptly shattered by the intrusion of a haunting voice that plunges the once-peaceful garden into a nightmarish realm.
Yuan’s directorial vision draws notable inspiration from the acclaimed filmmaker David Lynch, infusing the film with an aura of enigmatic ambiguity that leaves ample room for diverse interpretations. With each transition between scenes, the audience is beckoned to delve deeper into the film’s abstract nature, unraveling new layers of meaning and inviting personal introspection. This captivating aspect of the film deserves particular recognition, as it engages viewers on a profound level and encourages them to discover their own unique insights upon subsequent viewings.
One noteworthy artistic choice in The Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism is the inclusion of text at the film’s conclusion realized through the use of an AI voice. This skillfully executed decision adds a final touch of depth and resonance, leaving a lasting impression on the audience. The film stands as a testament to Yuan’s skill as a director, showcasing a strong and cohesive design that supports the narrative’s themes while maintaining an effective pacing that captivates and sustains the viewers’ attention.
We had the pleasure of interviewing her.
Tell us about the creative process in the making of your film.
MAO Yu Lynn Yuan
Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023) is a film created without a set of storyboards.
In common, we start with a story converted into visual breakdowns on a storyboard and plan everything on a production call sheet with the crew. That’s what I’ve been doing over the past ten years as a creative director: producing motion content with a systematic mindset. It’s a very different and opposite story in this film. It is born without much planning. The starring actress, Gloria, is an experienced theatre drama performer and also a close friend. Her expressions in the scenes well follow my given directions, which creates ambiguous moods for the audience. Leaving room for the audience to imagine the story associated with their feelings and perceptions of the subjects through metaphors in different movie scenes. The use of AI voiceover also came as a coincidence for time-saving purposes at the beginning. I chose a Silicon Valley startup called LOVO AI for the AI voiceover duties and edited the sounds into a vocal harmony piece. It turned out well as an ironical aspect of the film, highlighting the perceptions of voice as a reflection of the lack of voice of women within a patriarchal society. Long story short, the film was made without much planning. The awards are also surprisingly unexpected. Maybe it is being a blessed offspring of the times I started reevaluating my existence and the world as a female film director.
What were your cultural, literary, musical, film, and philosophical influences in general and for this specific work?
MAO Yu Lynn Yuan
I was born in China and raised in Canada. Eastern and Western cultures both draw significant lines in my vision of aesthetics and my xperception of values. In my eyes, no culture is superior to another. They are just different in some ways, which sometimes collide in perspectives but coalesce into one of the human values on earth. We see artificial intelligence, or, in other words, AI technologies, booming as human beings and machines meld together in society. Maybe when you see humanoid robots greeting you on the streets the next day, you can’t tell whether they are robots or humans. In my film, Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023), voiceover work is done by female AI purposefully chosen from different ages and cultures, which audiences don’t recognise without checking the credits. Each of these female robots even has her own cultural accent. In contrast, the beautiful-looking mermaid woman speaks no lines in the movie scenes, as an ironical reflection. It creates profound questions in the audience’s imagination about where her voice is and why she is not speaking.
The mermaid is a special character in literature. I chose the poem The Mermaid by Lord Alfred Tennyson for the voiceover script, which ironically depicts how a beautiful-looking mermaid was chased by males on the land with male gazes in ancient times as a sexual object or as a symbolic social status trophy. A signature scene in the film is a beautiful-looking mermaid woman lying on a white picnic tablecloth in a man’s oversized white shirt without pants, as an ironic metaphor for imagination. Everyone may have a different perception of it. The inspiration originates from a Japanese custom, Nyotaimori, where food is served on a naked virgin female’s body to please males. In that sense, the value of the mermaids is similar to a rare delicacy of gourmet food under male gazes with an expiration date or as a social trophy, like Gatsby’s obsession with Daisy (The Great Gatsby). Such obsession is deeply associated with appearance, social class, and values intangibly constructed in a patriarchal society, which creates demanding dialogues for gender equality.
How do you think AI can be positioned and evolve in contemporary society?
MAO Yu Lynn Yuan
AI is an unstoppable technology, similar to the fast-growing Web 3.0. We can’t say, “Let’s stop it.” It’s more about how fast we can come up with effective regulations to draw the boundary lines. My film, Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023), is a pioneering one using AI for voiceover. The selected female artificial intelligence robots with first and last names are credited in the IMDb database as voiceover artists. These female AIs are not called robots. They have their names.
What do you think a viewer might first perceive and then think about in front of your film?
MAO Yu Lynn Yuan
I don’t like drawing boxes to limit the audience. Every scene in the film comes with unique reflective metaphors for the audience to imagine and explore with their perception. And that has a lot to do with their gender, culture, experience, and anything else that constructs their value. In the last movie scene, the mermaid woman is with herself in a garden of escapism away from reality, where values are not constructed externally but internally within herself. The jewellery, clothes, living spaces, and all other materials that once defined her identity to others turned out to be question marks to be reevaluated in her self-reflection looking in the mirror. The values are not a set of answers in my film but a question for the audience to explore by themselves.
Do you consider your films cinema or video art? Where do you draw the line? Where do you find more freedom of expression? Is a definition really necessary in these visual arts?
MAO Yu Lynn Yuan
I tend to leave it for the audience to define it themselves. It doesn’t matter to me whether it is called a film, video art, or a cinema piece. Defining a category is like seeing the controversy around works by David Lynch, Woody Allen, and Wong Kar-wai. Similar to the arguments around artists like Andy Warhol, Kaws, Yayoi Kusama, and Damien Hirst. A line here in terms of definitions doesn’t make much sense to me, as we do not need to limit the audience inside a box. The best way for one to create is also so much about jumping into the unknown, which brings out your fears while breeding the potential inside your brain.
What are your next projects?
MAO Yu Lynn Yuan
Another film about gender equality is on the line. In my first film, Mermaid in the Garden of Escapism (2023), we explore the reconstruction of women’s values in association with gender equality. The next film will draw attention to men and explore the social gazes on males as they grow up in society.