by Melissa Noelle Esguerra
Loss is a strange, surreal thing. From a young age, we find ourselves exposed to it yet we are never fully conditioned to contend with its implications. We read about it in fables and fairy tales, watch it depicted in films and cartoons, and witness others around us experience it. It manifests in varying degrees and in different circumstances: loss of a beloved item, a friendship, a pet, a lover, or a person. The notion of it stays with us and despite the exposure and being braced for it, we’re never truly ready. What comes after the loss? The act of letting go.
Of the 21 titles selected for Asian Film Archive’s Singapore Shorts ’19 programme, loss is a pervasive theme across four films, each touching upon the emotional and psychological complexity, each depicting the different ways in which loss is processed, at times with denial as much as with humour.
We begin with the lightest of the four, Carla Castillo’s Ah Beng in Wonderland (2019), that details a brief moment in the life of Hock Lin Chua, or ‘Ah Chua’, as he introduces himself, a stereotypical EDM-loving, scooter riding Ah Beng. The whimsically directed 13-minutes short film has a mysterious narrator , his British English accent contrasting with Chua’s Singlish. Delivered with a wry, sardonic sense of humour coupled with the film’s pastel hues and kitschy use of colour, Castillo stylistically references Wes Anderson and Marc Webb’s 500 Days of Summer: “This is a story that is ‘ordinary’. It is the story of the ‘everyday man’”, the narrator says as the film begins. Whether intentional or otherwise, the references are there and against the caricature of a character that Chua turns out to be, it only grows more apparent. Aesthetically driven at best, the film focuses on the mundane of the everyday––from the red plastic chairs one often sees at a hawker centre, the plastic canisters of cream crackers, to the mismatched bedding and mattress on the floor that reeks of early efforts of “adulting”.
When Chua learns that he has impregnated his girlfriend Jing Ying, his initial reaction is to run and finds himself in Malaysia seeking fatherly advice from his birth father, Hock Kow Beng. For all its quirks and off-kilter comedy, Ah Beng in Wonderland, functions much like a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age tale. A story underwritten by themes of agency and accountability, the loss is one that we encounter eventually––one of identity and the expectations that come along with it, whether it ties one to a specific past, a pattern of behaviour, or a predetermined future. Whether Chua’s eventual decision is for the better is arguable. That it is made of his own volition is what we are left with.
Similarly contending with the impact of the past on one’s present, Sunyi (trans. Still) (2019) directed by Khidhir Kassim, gives us a glimpse into the life of a Malay woman, depicting a view of life that often goes unnoticed in Singapore. Set to ‘Kau Tak Sendiri’ (trans. ‘You Are Not Alone), written and performed by Amni Musfirah, the five-minute film highlights the isolation of life for the unnamed protagonist, which begins at the crack of dawn as she sorts newspapers to be sold at different storefronts, the ink staining her fingers. From chopping what appears to be an endless amount of vegetables to clearing tables, her day is delineated by tasks which often leads to the perception that those who are needy have “nothing left to live for except survival”, as described by Zakat Singapore, the association for which the film was made.
Beyond the film’s purpose of highlighting what an average day would look like for a zakat beneficiary and the wonders that the charity can do for those in need, Sunyi, on a technical level, is a well-made film. How the film opens is crucial to its culmination, as the shot pans across the woman’s dresser, showing an old-fashioned television and radio, old photographs, and stacks of cassette types. Amid the repetition of her days, their inherent stillness, her past becomes essential to surviving in the present. Far from the distant voices of shop owners and customers, she seemingly appears elsewhere, and we later learn that there are reasons for this. As it becomes more apparent by the end of the film, a loss of a spouse takes more than just an emotional toll. In Sunyi, our protagonist surrounds herself in their shared past as a means of letting go, and eventually, she does so to the sound of her husband’s voice, listening to it now with a renewed clarity.
Tang Kang Sheng’s Siblings (2019) is my favourite of the four as it hits closest to home, recognising these characters and personalities with my own recent encounter with grief. Shot entirely in black and white and opening with the ambient sounds on a hospital floor, we hear the steady beat of a heart monitor as we are introduced to the eponymous siblings, Ling and Jun, and their story that takes place over the course of an evening.
Dealing with the aftermath of their father’s hospitalisation, Ling and Jun are forced to settle his affairs until he is released from the intensive care unit. The film captures the nuances of a sibling relationship while navigating the sensitivities of caring for an ailing parent. . An example of this occurs early on, as Ling eyes her brother from across the corridor as he requests a change of deadline from a client before playing a game on his phone and she takes it from him with frustration.
Interested more so in establishing the tasks that need to be done, Ling takes the position of responsibility, while Jun takes the position of denial, putting in minimal effort in the task of searching for his father’s identity card and staring blankly at the TV. Ling’s frustrations culminate when she realises that her brother and father have been living with a broken toilet, unwilling to take on the costs of fixing it. A blame game ensues as more details come to light about their father’s hospitalisation, as two siblings struggle to care for an ailing parent while trying to establish their careers with one seemingly succeeding at the expense of the other.
All the while, the past coalesces with the present, as scenes from their mother’s hospitalisation are interspersed. There was a reversal of roles in the past, with Jun struggling to gather the family together to see their mother. With these two juxtaposing narratives we see the ways in which people cope, manifesting as either denial or profound grief. Loss here is complex and painful because of what it leaves in its wake and how those left behind are to cope with a new reality.
For Ling and Jun, now bound by one loss and a sibling relationship strained by unequal circumstances, they need to learn how to move on from that, as they look to likely confront another loss together.
Similarly, confronting the realities of loss and letting go are integral to Vios (2019), a short documentary film by Ler Jiyuan and Wendy Toh about their dog, Vios, who passed away in 2014 due to osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer. Shot over the course of six months with their DSLR and their smartphones, the result is a deeply personal treatise to the love shared between pets and their owners, and how the loss of a companion––human or otherwise––takes its toll all the same. Low perspectives allow us to see the world through Vios, which begins with familiar surroundings: the common areas on the grounds of HDB flats, beddings and tiled flooring, and the curves of clouds to the rushing waves at the edge of the shoreline. The film starts where it ends, at Vios’ favourite place.
Edited to resemble a collage of home videos, the footage is narrated by Ler and Wendy, beginning with how Wendy first came to own Vios as a three-month old puppy. Amidst the footage is the tacit reminder that sickness, though inherent to life, is something that we never anticipate, and as the couple describes it, it happened “suddenly”. The news of Vios’ illness is met with disbelief and before we know it, we see her on screen, with a patch on her hip that reads “Fentanyl, 50mg/hr” as the staff teaches the couple how to administer her medicines. Often interspersed by a soft piano score and Kermit the Frog’s The Rainbow Connection, any added production to the footage is minimal. The narration is the star here, switching between English and Mandarin, as the couple reflect on each stage of Vios’ illness as it progressed, voices defiant at times, sometimes cracking with emotion.
From the surgery to medication, water therapy to even a dog whisperer, the couple seek every possible solution in the hopes that Vios will somehow walk again. With no control of the lower half of her body, the couple must help Vios urinate and defecate. Captured fully on camera, such scenes convey an equalising, human power––in one, a near lifeless Vios is in Wendy’s lap, a stray tear rolling from her eye. Shots such as a chew toy gathering dust or an empty bed where Vios used to sleep, to one of her ceramic urn, the images are stark and rich with meaning as they convey the sudden stillness and loss of life in their home, despite having another dog. A testament to loss and an exercise of letting go, Vios shows that loss is a process and that sometimes, it never truly leaves you.
Though not screened in this order or together, for that matter, the films carry a similar pattern and weight, as they all explore the impact of loss in the family unit. Despite coming in all shapes and forms, enduring different circumstances and at different times––loss and grief, it seems, are the only constant, and how we move on, how we let go, are what sets us apart.
About the writer:
Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.