Using interview-based narratives, an observational approach, and the docufiction genre respectively, the short films Familiar Stranger, Sundays In-Between, and A Spider, Fever and Other Disappearing Islands afford their (im)migrant subjects agency through their presence on screen and depiction of their acts of reclamation and subversion. Together, these three works opine on the ways (im)migrants experience time, and the varied ways in which they may rely on community, and themselves, to survive, and even thrive in, their liminal positions.
Familiar Stranger: Moving in Multiplicity
Familiar Stranger opens with old photographs floating on water, voiceovers immediately calling to attention its subjects’ preoccupation with multiplicity: “…there are multiple people existing in my body in the same time.”
This contained body of water gently dissolves away to reveal gradually larger bodies of water—a river, and then the sea. These establishing shots that explicitly locate the film’s setting as Hanoi, Vietnam, even prominently featuring the country’s flag, seem at odds with the accompanying voiceover: “I didn’t know where is home for me before.” The still photographs are brought to life, agency breathed anew into them as their child subjects Lien and Trung, now a married adult couple, narrate in their own voices their memories and interpretations of what these pictures show and what lies obscured beneath the surface. As they discuss their experiences of marginalisation as Vietnamese kids raised in Ukraine and Lithuania respectively, filmmaker Adhishni Mathialagan manipulates these images gently, bringing their faces into focus while obscuring the background, or fading their visages away in reference to the erasure they faced as minorities.
For the protagonists, who had no say in where they were born nor their families’ decisions to later return to Vietnam, stillness was their younger selves’ instinctive, embodied form of protest to this mandated move. As their adult selves stand stock-still in front of the camera, facing moving scenes of the fast-flowing traffic that Hanoi is associated with, Trung recounts his first time in a Vietnamese airport: “I couldn’t breathe. […] the air was very thick.” Lien recalls a similar discomfort: “Mom told me, “Keep breathing, and keep walking.” Yeah. So I did it.” For the disoriented—and relatively disempowered, as children are—diasporic returnee, movement is an inevitable if tiring fact of life, necessary for survival.
From settings and scenes characteristic of Hanoi to even outsiders, the film ventures deeper and deeper into more interior spaces: Trung opens a door to a verdant courtyard, while Lien wanders through a covered market as her focus shifts from city life to discussing the expectations of relatives in her hometown.
It is in the exclusive spaces of “a school under the Russian embassy” and in the community of fellow Vietnamese born in Slavic countries that Lien and Trung first encounter the titular “familiar stranger”: reflections of themselves, in whom their experiences as third-culture kids were mirrored, their differences compared to native Vietnamese affirmed. Some might consider a romantic relationship—especially one between a man and a woman, made official through the social and legal institution of marriage—an exclusive (or exclusionary) space as well. However, as Lien and Trung grow from their teenage years into adulthood, encountering a “familiar stranger” has matured from the intense desire to see oneself in another, to a tender but no less life-giving companionship. As Lien says: “Being with my husband doesn’t mean I’ve found myself in this life, but he helped me feel… that I’m not lonely.”
As the film moves from scenes of the couple in domestic spaces to social settings with a group of friends, we see how community rooted in friendship as well as romantic partnership has afforded Lien and Trung a soft landing place to reconcile their multiple identities; from this place of calm and stillness, they are able to venture—to move in multiplicity—beyond the exclusivity of their third culture kid community and marriage to “seeing things from other sides of view better,” as Trung puts it. “Maybe I would never have the empathy I have now,” if not for these experiences, Lien muses.
Interspersed throughout Familiar Stranger is the repeating imagery of painted wooden Matryoshka dolls that are nested within each other. Is one’s authentic self the smallest doll at the core of the set? The film suggests that to be a third culture kid is to be able to represent and embody your multiple influences and identities all at once, represented visually by all the dolls in the set laid out side by side. Though each may look similar to its neighbours—a familiar stranger—standing next to each other, we see that they are distinct, but not alone. Though life must inevitably be experienced chronologically, our understanding and expression of ourselves may not evolve linearly. As we persist on the journey in pursuit of community, companionship and understanding, we transcend our loneliness by anchoring our survival in each other.
Sundays In-Between: Embodiment is Empowerment
Where Familiar Stranger is a journey of overcoming stillness as a physical state of stasis the diasporic returnee is trapped in, and reclaiming it as an emotional state of well-being, Sundays In-Between celebrates the embodiment of a community’s spirit in its individual diasporic member as the safest form of its preservation.
Ye Thu’s short starts with a wide establishing shot of crowds in motion in front of shopping mall Peninsula Plaza’s modernist façade. The filmmaker quickly brings us into the building’s quieter inner spaces, following a solitary unnamed figure attired in a traditional top worn by the Karen ethnic group from Myanmar. This subject moves confidently through a logistics company’s modest office and an empty hair salon, offering little information about their identity or purpose there but lingering by the windows in each setting to leave what appears to be an offering or talisman of sorts resembling dumplings—a form of marking their presence in these interior environs. These scenes are overlaid with the word market and accompanying footage whose hustle and bustle stands in stark contrast to the singular subject in focus here.
As the film progresses, this figure ventures further into the depths of the building, moving from sunlit units into a secluded stairwell in shadow, where they seem not to be at unease but transition from motion to a moment of comfortable stillness. They take a seat on the stairs as they hum, wind cassette tapes that they then play on a pink portable player, and dance contentedly to the tune of Thingyan Moe before again sitting down to enjoy a snack of sunflower seeds while fanning themselves.
This segment is labelled performance stage. In this private spot hidden away from the wider world, the migrant subject is freed from external expectations of how to perform and conform, and is free to express and assert themselves as they wish, without being surveilled.
Then, just as suddenly, the film relocates this subject—and the viewer—to an exterior setting again, re-situating us clearly in present-day Singapore, immediately recognisable via the Singapore Flyer, the Esplanade, and Marina Bay Sands in the city skyline in the background. This rooftop carpark is presented as a parallel to street food carts; like the exposed wares displayed in such carts, the protagonist too returns to feeling and being perceived, demonstrated via a gesture of self-consciousness: checking their appearance using their smartphone camera.
Prior to leaving the space as the light changes, the subject creates a record of their presence in that space, in that moment, by taking a selfie—a deliberate and assertive act of self-expression—before leaving with their belongings, leaving almost no visible traces of them having been there.
In Sundays In-Between, embodiment is empowerment. Peninsula Plaza is a communal gathering space for Burmese people in Singapore, akin to Lucky Plaza for Filipinos, City Plaza for Indonesians, and Serangoon Road for South Asians. These spaces cited are especially occupied on Sundays by working-class migrant workers from these communities whose unfettered access to local spaces is restricted by deliberate design both temporally (with laws that mandate very limited time off work) and geographically (with conditions that forbid gathering freely or “loitering”); furthermore, as in many capitalist urban environments, disparity in spending power shapes people’s use of public space.
Under such conditions, the status of specific sites as hubs for specific minority communities is an exclusionary act as much as it is a practical one bringing together businesses and resources catering to the needs of each group. In addition to the pace of gentrification and urban redevelopment in Singapore posing a threat to the longevity of buildings like it, both the value and fragility of Peninsula Plaza in particular as a microcosm of Myanmar take on even greater poignance against the backdrop of conflict that has irrevocably shaped and changed the country since the coup d’état which began in February 2021. Ye Thu’s juxtaposition of the communal market, the performance stage, and street food carts against their imagined equivalents in and around Peninsula Plaza suggest that their quintessential spirit can indeed be evoked even in far more isolated foreign settings.
When both the homeland and the spaces in which its essence is imperfectly duplicated for its diaspora overseas can radically change and become unrecognisable, unfamiliar, unsafe, the body and mind of the community member are ultimately the only—or the most—impenetrable living repository of collective memories and individual expression.
Sundays are the transitional rest day separating one endless work week from the next; particular classes of migrant workers governed by certain schemes are themselves liminal beings shaped by both their country of origin and country in which they work; Ye Thu’s slight five-minute observational film is in itself a fleeting experience bookended by two longer documentary narratives in this comparative essay. Living between the rapidly-changing homeland and current residence, diasporic migrants—for whom a permanent move to the latter country is not likely or not even possible, as opposed to the immigrants of the other two films—are forced into a state of in-betweenness. They may seek to mitigate the sound and fury of the unpredictable, ever-changing external world by relying on their inner landscape, where their memories and experience of community meets their individual identity and self-expression.
A Spider, Fever and Other Disappearing Islands – Re-Enactment to Repair Rupture
Natalie Khoo’s docufiction short opens with a two-channel perspective whose view is partially obscured, revealing what is beyond a furry surface through eight circles: we, the audience, are seeing through the eight eyes of the titular spider. Like looking through a kaleidoscope that is somehow in soft rather than sharp focus, wisps of neon blue-green and purple smoke obscure and then reveal an older woman and a younger one, seemingly face-to-face but gazing not at, but past, each other. In an intimate if conspiratorial whisper a mysterious narrative is revealed to us, but only in bits and pieces: “The next morning [but when?] we woke up to find the main hall [but where?] filled with cobwebs [but how?]”.
In A Spider, Fever and Other Disappearing Islands, uncertainty, multiple perspectives, and the blending of dreams, myth, and reality are facts—where much else isn’t—of existence. In this work, where Khoo occupies the dual positionalities of filmmaker and protagonist appearing on screen, she directs the film’s three female subjects (including herself). They switch between multiple roles, re-enacting intertwined stories of Khoo’s grandmother’s autobiography of migration between the Riau Islands of Indonesia and Singapore, the mutable tale of a spider spirit, and an anthropological ethnography.
Through the spider spirit’s eyes we continue to see verdant greenery like a rainforest canopy, and flowing water like that of a river, suggesting a journey—perhaps one that transcends not only time but space. The film’s subjects are constantly in motion, temporally even if not physically, as in the scene set in a cluttered workshop or studio where Khoo’s grandmother reads aloud her handwritten memoirs. Khoo repeats the lines as she transcribes them into her laptop, paying close attention to details right down to the accuracy of the punctuation marks to be used.
The film depicts several journeys, including the ability to re-traverse the migratory route of the past, as Khoo’s grandmother does. To be able to revisit the site of one’s origin as an adult woman—a luxury not afforded to the women in this narrative who died prematurely—is to do so with more agency, and greater ability to make sense of the unresolved questions of yore, or to come to terms with the uncertainty. Khoo’s grandmother’s retracing of her family’s history is thus an act of repair to heal the ruptures in their story.
As Khoo’s grandmother recounts this tale, colourful animations spring to life over this narrative of supernatural encounters, death, illness, and loss primarily experienced by the women in the family: Khoo’s grandmother sighting her little sister’s ghost “crouching behind the dragon urn”, aunts who saw “a plait of human hair falling down from the rafters”, and “a woman’s leg jutting out from under the wooden bed” in their house built on a disused cemetery.
The broken maternal lineages caused by the deaths of women in the family are contrasted with the intimacy of Khoo’s grandmother recounting this story to her granddaughters. The tenacity and strength of the deceased “little sister”, whose grave location remains unknown, to break out of isolation and obscurity and remain connected to her family is conveyed in how she “seemed to be following [them] around” even when they crossed oceans to arrive in Singapore. After ensuring she was perceived by them a couple of times, she never revealed herself to them again.
Drawing from an anthropological ethnography, A Spider, Fever and Other Disappearing Islands discusses the association of Singapore with death, accompanied by aerial-view shots of harsh white light amidst cold, concrete landscapes entirely devoid of human presence, warmth, and life. In these terms, Singapore is the site of dashed hopes and unfulfilled potential, such as the “little sister”’s marriage that never happened, could not happen due to her untimely death.
“She never grew up of course,” says Khoo’s grandmother. The dark visions of red rice and purple rivers in the city associated with death are reclaimed here in the form of neon lights recalling clubs, as the camera shifts back to shooting at eye-level, getting up close to and panning around scenes of sisterhood. In surreal costumes invoking a bride and a spider, the film’s younger subjects play with fire, sing, dance with carefree joy in an almost rave-like atmosphere. This multisensory celebration of life, of the freedom to be oneself, the reverie of adulthood as extended adolescence—an experience that would have been less accessible to earlier generations of women—is a re-enactment that allows for repair and healing on behalf of the ancestors who could not do so for themselves.
The film ends with the narrator recounting the death of the spider spirit, which conflates unexpectedly with the aforementioned murder under the Elgin Bridge. Their next encounter is supposedly when the narrator is aged 80, but the spider spirit ignores, or does not notice her: “She walked right by me. When I looked again, she was gone. But in that moment seeing her, I knew that she would find her way. And for me, that was OK.”
Where Familiar Stranger offers the promise of lasting and expansive community that enables the well-supported immigrant to extend empathy to others, and Sundays In-Between takes the realist stance that the migrant’s embodiment of their homeland may survive where even the source is compromised, A Spider, Fever and Other Disappearing Islands embraces transience and possibility, and the co-existence of dark and light: we are all individual spirits traversing time and space, passing each other in the dark, but connected by a delicate web of threads. With each fleeting encounter that affirms our identity and experiences, we leave a little stronger as we continue on the journey of life.
About the Writer
Aditi Shivaramakrishnan is an editor and writer from Singapore with an interest in intergenerational conversations that surface immigrant experiences and ideas. Her collaborative, interview-based pieces on this topic have appeared in Portside Review and SEASONINGS Magazine. A former manager at Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, she has also moderated Q&As for the Singapore International Film Festival and contributed to its annual festival guides. Her arts writing has been published in ArtsEquator, Esplanade Offstage, SINdie and elsewhere. Find her at aditishiva.com.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.