2015 Oscar contender Butter Lamp plays out not like a typical narrative, but a slice of life remnant of classics such as Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. Where Butter Lamp strays from the pack, however, is in its presentation. Unlike typical films, Butter Lamp is presented 15 minutes straight in a single fixed wide shot. All that is there to set the scene is a series of photo shoot backdrops and occasional cuts to a black screen to camera flashes. Butter Lamp is a marvelous experiment in filmmaking and a brilliant exploration into Tibetan life by director Hu Wei.
A young itinerant photographer and his assistant suggest to Tibetan nomads to photograph them in front of various background.
A common theme in this year Oscar nominated shorts is simplicity, from nominee The Phone Call which has its plot occur primarily off screen and leads the audience through the narrative through its main character’s phone conversation, to nominee AYA which takes place almost entirely within a car. Hu Wei’s Butter Lamp follows suit, with its simplistic camera work, but a heavy encompassing story.
Hu Wei’s Butter Lamp is reminiscent of a documentary in its execution, the character’s react realistically and there are no examples of forced expositional dialogue. In fact, Butter Lamp is so realistic in its execution one can argue if there was any narrative at all. Hu Wei story is extremely large, and deals with concepts such as what is Chinese culture, the transforming effects of Globalization, and the impact of westernization.
Essentially Butter Lamp asks its audience to think and to think HARD about its narrative, and to derive the messages from the tiny slivers of exposition it presents through seemingly irrelevant character dialogue. Butter Lamp is a film that does not pander to audiences or to the cultural norms of filmmaking, it instead presents itself as an art piece, and allows audience members to be its interpreter.
Hu Wei is a filmmaker that is truly taking an artistic approach to filmmaking, it is observed from Butter Lamp to him, filmmaking serves a higher purpose. Not just to entertain, but to inform, challenge, and to cause its audience to think. In Butter Lamp specifically, themes of cultural identity and subjective perceptions of beauty set the tone of the short and lead it to its surprising ending that is truly awe inspiring.
Butter Lamp is a short film to watch and in comparison to the other Oscar contenders, a tough competitor.