Joel is a British man who can’t quite shake the memories of a passionate holiday romance with a foreign woman named Jing Fei. But weeks after their tryst, he gets a voicemail message from her. The problem? Because she doesn’t speak English, he can’t understand a word that she says.
He attempts to hunt down the woman and find a way to translate the message, a quest that takes him on an odyssey across the city. But as his hopes look increasingly futile, his journey turns philosophical, as he makes peace with the fact that he’ll never see her again.
Written and directed by James Soldan, this short comedy hits almost operatic notes of grandeur and romance as it follows a twenty-something layabout on his quest to find the supposed love of his life. Though it’s less than eight minutes long, it travels a great distance, both narratively and emotionally speaking, as Joel confronts the sorrows and joys of love.
The tone is exaggerated, almost satirical, echoing Joel’s increasing desperation to find out exactly what Jing Fei is saying and where she possibly could be. The writing is nimble, and the pace is constantly moving, with Joel’s narration touching on the ebbs and flows of his emotions and thoughts as he tries to find Jing Fei.
The storytelling pokes fun at Joel, who goes through great — and sometimes ridiculous — lengths to decipher Jing Fei’s missive, including ordering food from Chinese restaurants in the hopes that a delivery person will help him translate the message. There’s also gentle fun poked at Joel’s cultural stereotyping and over-reliance on tired romantic tropes, which the writing hits upon with a light hand (and which will get Joel in a bit of trouble eventually). Likewise, there’s an almost documentary-like look and feel to the camerawork at first, capturing Joel in his mundane environment.
But as Joel’s quest gets more desperate, that naturalism falls to the wayside, and the images and editing become more expressionistic and exaggerated. In some parts, the film even resembles a music video for an 80s power ballad, to humorous effect. The clever, intelligent performance becomes like a wild-eyed Byronic romantic hero. It culminates in a wistful moment of contemplation, which allows him to finally let go of the thwarted romance and make peace with never seeing his great love again.
“Semi Skimmed” ends with one final twist of a punchline, which allows one last hearty laugh but also reframes the film. Not to give it away, but it allows viewers to examine the relationship between mental projection and love, and the gap between the great emotion and connection in our heads versus what exists in reality. It’s also a wry commentary on how this also intersects with Joel’s blithe cultural ignorance, which backfires on him at the end. That Joel is blissfully unaware of all of this is perhaps the final joke of the film, though we can’t help but hope he figures it out sooner than later.