Death exists as a yin to life’s yang. There is an inevitability of it that cannot be questioned—it happens to nearly every living thing, a sure end to a lifespan. Yet in a post-capitalist world, imbued with the medicalisation of ageing and the overall fear of death, of eventually being rendered useless—our present society is largely death-denying. Almost choosing to stubbornly stay in this present for as much as possible, no matter how much our bodies wither.
These conflicting ideals present new problems in dealing with death. On top of dealing with the grief of a loved one, death is now an expensive end of a journey. The average cost of a funeral can be up to $4000, a figure that gets higher depending on one’s religion. Grief seems to exist as a means for exploitation, whether it’s within family dynamics or financial costs.
The films Altar, Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and The 25th Filial Exemplar explore this morbid cycle of exploitation that exists within death, and all the stages that come with it. While Altar differs from Smoke and Exemplar, being the only film with the perspective of a brown father, all three films explore the ways grief permeates our lives—both domestic and social. Death, it seems, does not come as the definitive journey we fear it to be. Death, as shown in the films, toils and trudges into our bodies as we breathe alongside it—through chronic illnesses, strained relationships, and even in its unique form of capitalism: the funeral industry.
Alvin Lee’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes faces the capitalist nature of funerals head on with a grave mistake made by a funeral employee. After sending the wrong body to be cremated, a rather hapless employee tries to make amends to the grieving family—three estranged siblings who are at odds with each other in this precarious situation.
In this film, saving face is the driving factor. While understandably angry and frustrated at this employee’s mistake, there is a twisted sense of maintaining a reputation that still lives on as they deal with the situation. With the implication of their father being an important figure, the siblings are driven to make sure that the funeral is carried out with no one raising suspicions. So much so that they start taking the employee’s “performance notes”, just to make sure that other people do not know that the body in the casket is not their fathers.
When consulting a priest about the situation, the solution is passed: to upgrade the funeral package by $1000. This decision, spoken flatly and calmly through a phone speaker, asks its audience: What do we gain by having a funeral? What do we gain by pouring so much money, ritual, and people’s time into sending a person off to their afterlife—who will never know that you put in all that effort for them? Funerals, it seems, are not truly for the dead—but for the people they leave behind, and for an industry to prey on their loved one’s grief and sadness for profit. The grotesque situation Alvin presents is almost operatic, as the dramatic reality of the situation persists. Two people—unrelated to each other—remain dead, yet the living are left to pick up their ashes to send off to a heaven that is not seen on the horizon.
Leon Cheo’s The 25th Filial Exemplar picks up on familial dynamics and cultural traditions through Leung, a man who cross-dresses as his dead sister Ting Ting. At first glance, there is something almost genderqueer about Leung’s enthusiasm to dress up. In contrast to the blacks of his valet uniform, deadened eyes and bald hair, there is a life that returns to his eyes as the yellows and patterns of his late sister’s clothes are set on his skin. For a moment in the film’s beginning, I held out my heart to him, empathising with this form of coping.
But this liveliness only gets brighter as he tends to his mother, and we understand that this is not done by his own will. In coping with Ting Ting’s passing, Leung puts on a show for his mother—adopting her mannerisms, the life she left behind, and even her pitch and facial expressions. In taking Ting Ting’s form, it seems that with each passing day, Leung is erased from his own life, losing agency and a place in his own family. A sickly green ever present in the background’s colour palette, containing him within a box of jealousy.
Exemplar is a hard watch, because this behaviour is familiar in Asian families—a warped sense of codependency, abusive behaviours exhibited by parents to ensure their children are moulded to their visions as much as possible. These traditional values result in children like Leung—who grow up lost, with no real sense of individuality and passion for life. Even at Leung’s most vulnerable, parading as a completely different person—his mother still finds things he needs to fix about his dismal cosplay of his sister. You feel the wedge that cuts deep between Leung and his mother, especially with her insistence to speak exclusively in Mandarin. Not even grief, a shared sense of hurt over someone that was both dear to them could fix their relationship. If anything, it only furthers this abusive exploitation, 妈妈 (Mother), a looming power over Leung till he is fully and wholly erased.
In continuing sentiments of erasure and marginalisation, Vikneshwaran Silva’s Altar follows Gopal, an elderly man addicted to the lottery in hopes of escaping his dead-end security job. The film’s set up is unique—with only one angle depicting his HDB flat, the audience is Gopal’s altar. It’s an invasive sense of omnipotence, feeling the limited space of his home, but not being able to intervene as his problems begin to spiral.
There is a sheer sense of hopelessness in this film that cannot be ignored. Gopal is elderly and vulnerable, yet trapped within so many systems that keep him suffering. When he is eventually laid off due to his ailing health, the dread sets in—a result of capitalist systems that exploit workers and ignore their well-being. Altar is very much grounded in the present, and is a possible look into many of our futures—workplace deaths have a fatality rate of 1.3 per 100,000 workers. Soon, we have to start preparing for capitalism-induced deaths, our final moments may be spent working and toiling. Seeing Gopal’s situation in turn made me grieve—a haunting reminder of Singapore’s efficiencies, backed up by a population that is unable to retire. Money troubles loom over everyone till their death, making their golden years unmemorable and punishing.
Money is also a dividing factor in Gopal’s relationship with his son. It is a strained, transactional relationship—Gopal’s attempts to bond with him are consistently ignored due to work, and when his son comes back it is usually to ask for money from his father. Perhaps a small family unit comprising two of them might have fostered a patriarchal codependency over the years. His son, in spite of having his own wife and kid, seems to still turn to his father in times of need, instead of facing his problems head on.. When his money troubles reach a climax, and he turns to loan sharks—in the end, Gopal has to forsake his singular lottery winnings for his son’s safety leading to his inevitable death. Money ultimately prevails—over their relationship, Gopal’s life, or any semblance of contentment that both Gopal and his son so fervently wish for.
In her acclaimed novel A Tale For The Time Being, Ruth Ozeki writes: “Death is certain. Life is always changing, like a puff of wind in the air, or a wave in the sea, or even a thought in the mind.” This sentiment is pervasive in all three films, when modern life interferes with the certainty and inevitability of death. Where Exemplar provides us with a sickly green, haunting shade of grief and coping, Altar and Smoke remind us that life’s woes do not have an end even when our bodies are gone. In spite of our grief—whether through losses or unfortunate circumstances, all three films remind us that no matter how still we lay our bodies in the ground, life trudges on.
And in time, in a snap of a finger, just like that—you die.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.
About the Writer
dia hakim k. (they/them, b.2002) is a multidisciplinary artist engaging primarily with performance and the written word as material. their work is concerned with the intersections of race, gender and queerness, as well as the politics of visibility and identity. to date, they are also currently an active member of playwrights commune, an independent singaporean playwriting collective championing new writing for the stage. get in touch via instagram (diahckim) or email: firstname.lastname@example.org.