[Monographs 2023] Missing objects, or feeling for companions in unfree terrain

By Ryan Lim
Image still from Flooding in the Time of Drought (2009, Sherman Ong)
  1. Recognition

“The knowledge that results from recognition… is not the same kind as the discovery of something new; it arises rather from a renewed reckoning with a potentiality that lies within oneself.”

(Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable)

By now, we know that what we call cinema is a moving centre. If it’s an industry, it booms and busts. The writing of its history speaks of avant-gardes followed by main flanks. When the Golden Age of Malay cinema recessed here in Singapore, it left behind a cultural desert and approximately five years ago, everyone was talking about our new wave until it was not.

This nation is an amnesiac one, where our public memories seem less like storage devices than they do a stuttering processor, a point within a system that remains off-limits and opaque to us but one we are nonetheless custodians of. Film is no exception, even in its scattered examples: the slow restoration of our cinema’s transnational, archipelagic origins, the discovery of Rajendra Gour as the first filmmaker of an experimental tradition, the stream of cinema’s exiles making their way home (the recent 2020 screening of banned lesbian mini-documentary Sambal Belacan in San Francisco (1997) — albeit to a quarantined reception — comes to mind). New exiles take its place too, from Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore with Love (2013) and most recently, Ken Kwek’s #LookAtMe (2022). [1] [2]

The “movements” of these films, to be certain, are not facts of any nature. We cannot fully know what currents they belonged to, simply because of heavy-handed bureaucracies and vexing myths of nationhood, and so on. But in that, we acquire an object lesson that burdens us: the fact of belatedness, that regardless of our best intentions, our films often feel like actions one step too late. Snippets of the past are received by the present for mourning and, without intervention, a future of unwilling forgetfulness.

I have been wondering if such a fact that we habitually experience as a curse might also be acquired as a form of parallel wisdom that requires its own maintenance. The curse: belatedness has seldom been a happy affair, and tends to reveal an ugly head but no body. We’re prone to underestimating just how unable we are to transcend our crises or their persistently bad-faithed agents. As a queer person who was present to view Sambal Belacan at its homecoming, we were certainly part of a moment more liberated than those before. But would the position of a queer life necessarily be freer, or would our oppositional habits and selves punch up higher? If it were, we might now, say, know how to skirt censorship (our own too) better, instead of being dealt better cards.

Belated films or late legacies may have been part of actions stopped prematurely, but they do not have to bind us to starvation. I’m keen on a set of tactics that attends to what’s in nearer sight, rather than resting amidst forward predictions and banking on the unwitting take-up of new burdens. While we continue to anticipate the moment of happening and hedge that against the frustration of delay, maybe with improving odds, something else is taking shape — a second recognition. Another object lesson: images often do not endure, but infrastructures perform slightly better.

I am writing this in a moment when the crises above are differently scaled, differently suffered through, and at a moment when the naked breakdown of the world has been belatedly recognised as its own crisis by the state after so much evasion. With a productive yet morbid vigour, that moving centre generates a new list of responsibilities—writing, producing, critiquing, programming, administrating—even as we are only faintly comprehending the instances where those responsibilities have been stubbornly ignorant of, and sometimes cruel towards, our collective wishes. What I try to describe are the things I have so far found at a slight remove from that abundance of attachments but feel common and faintly responsive, humming beneath the surface in a subcultural shelter.

 

  1. Resentment

“[…] contrary to what might seem as common sense, quiet must not be conflated with silence. Quiet registers sonically, as a level of intensity that requires focused attention.”

(Tina Campt, Listening to Images)

By now, we know that visibility is a trap, and few films here testify to that as vividly as Kan Lume and Loo Zihan’s Solos (2007) did. The story of vexed relationships between a student, his male teacher and his mother would make its world premiere at that year’s Singapore International Film Festival. Shortly before the date, the censorship board announced that it would be passed only with cuts and the organisers pulled it from the line-up, though it remained in competition. The board’s reason was singular: the offending scenes included, foremost, two men in the midst of anal intercourse.

Amongst other arbiters, Solos’ thematic slant developed an imaginary heart. “Going Solos,”[3] a journalist wrote in her headline, and when asked about Solos’ eventual lack of awards in the competition, a jury member felt that “the film was trying to draw attention to itself.”[4] A pervasive media code will make certain categories feel exceptional in the way a gimmick is labelled as such, but that sort of visible scale-making has a counterpart too in critical tendencies. One of the few academic takes on it suggested that “[that] scene posits itself as an event that could take place between any two men in any bedroom in Singapore.”[5] “Could” here is eyebrow-raising, and I might understand if the casual slippage there led one to think the film would somehow activate the homoerotic desires of any “man” “any[where]”. In what was known about Solos’ perceivable heart, there were at once banal facts, virile prophecies, and outsized ambitions (“Subtlety wins big at film fest,” the post-festival coverage read [6]). Here was the thing: Opposition was spectacle and the spectacular was oppositional, both facts folding into one another without ground and into its own thing.

Do cinemas attract? More pointedly, do queer films exist in the shape of queer desires — be they political, ethical, material, amorous, sexual? There is something to be said about the default way we’ve come to make positive investments into cinematic containers and wait for them to mature into gardens. It is ironic that in Solos, desires deliver slim returns. Apart from those sensational, scattered moments, the characters remain virtually mute and those who desire, characters or audiences alike, find themselves in wait of a reply. But Solos is certainly not a silent film; it was only in one of the final cuts that Kan and Loo decided to excise spoken dialogue. What remained were sounds that linger within interior spaces. The two lovers brawl, household appliances work, they malfunction, the mother convulses, washes clothes after, crickets and air-conditioning stay noisy as ever.

For queer hopefuls looking for an aspiration of life, watching Solos offers a container, but evacuates it of its original contents before returning us its bruised remainder. The characters embody this principle well: their communication is devoid of interaction, unfolding in gazes that seldom intersect. But as the motley of sounds in the background alerts us, those gazes are always shifting somewhere else and in anticipation of something else. One could ask Kan and Loo what those others might be — we might be expecting the good life, stability, even liberation — and they would perhaps shrug their shoulders, for they likely know what something without its time in the sun is like.

Image still from Solos (2007, Kan Lume and Loo Zihan)

About the film, the jury member added to his above comment, “[it was] drawing attention to itself, by deliberately crossing perimeters.” I find it hard to disagree with the latter words, for while a cinematic puritan intends it as a disparagement of performance, it also works as an incitement to follow what the film leaves behind and to speculate on where the film might go. Pulling apart our perceptions also becomes an ethic: trained to see a body while invited into a negative space.

The story of Solos refers us to a bewildering archive of delay, frustration, and sheer boredom, as it ejects us from the sensorium and leaves us to our senses. Releasing us from spectacular visions, the film starts to admit the things in the middle that hold the promise of a future together, even if that does not seem particularly free or looks suspiciously like housework. Solos’ more quiet registers alert us to changes between states, normative as those states may seem; the student non-purposefully cuts mushrooms while waiting for his lover to return home from his work. These patient displays stage work to be done between sensual or exuberant commitments, and whose results are left up in the air. It is this “in-the-air”-ness that makes the attachments of Solos so difficult to pin down. The immersion of a swim is interrupted by banal rain right after, distributing our attention across its images like an atmosphere. It also makes a slight mockery of our own dramatic attachments to images. Plain sight finds it hard to keep up with the maintenance Solos performs on its own habitat.

Image stills from Solos (2007, Kan Lume and Loo Zihan)

Halfway through writing this, the state announced the repeal of Section 377A, an outdated colonial-era law criminalizing sex between men, whose constitutionality was becoming increasingly untenable. Amidst a sensual jubilation, the pall of a chronic degradation continues to be felt, both in the stinging material implications (in guarantees made by the government to further fortress the family unit), but also across an affective, glitching spectrum of injury and precarity. In a climate die-in at Hong Lim Park, global atmospheres begin to matter while local ones cut across lines of justice. And just like Solos’ processual practices, images of the die-in attract the spectacular, yet video footage is sonorous with the sound of nothing in particular.[7] Film, the ambivalent institution, seems to remain at the sidelines, but the moving image has its own infrastructures.

 

  1. Rehearsals

“Those who desire to invent a transformational infrastructure to shape the world that is in transition often look for something to appear more solid than it can be in order to anchor what’s emerging.”

(Lauren Berlant, On the Inconvenience of Other People)

By now, we know that we can’t live like this. Midway through Sherman Ong’s Flooding in the Time of Drought (2009), a woman speaks these words to her Filipino-Chinese friend, who has just confessed to having had an abortion, for fear of her interracial relationship being discovered. Her friend turns away, as another round of menstrual pains forces her back into rest.

It is a bad situation, but those words conjure reckonings with infrastructure too: being in a slump is not that different from living in a dump. Above hangs a more invisible crisis, devised for this two-part film (its parts are subtitled Drought and Flood). Singapore has run out of water and reliable information is nowhere to be found, though nobody seems to be in panic. This being so even for the sprawling cast of economic migrants, who mostly reside in functionally furnished public housing flats. The oddity only registers in the bulk of bottled water and minor flare-ups about bidet usage. Sometimes, the afternoon sun is bright enough to blind one to the very fact of drought or flood, leaving it up in the air as if it were the limit of a mise-en-scene.

Perceptual glitches cut across sensibilities. A denier might ask whether this is a new fact of climate or just a month’s bad weather, while the paranoid would ask if the drought is letting up or being covered up. The premonitions flash across a commons, but in Flood and Drought political desires remain fleeting. They are conveyed only through individual backchannels that render our attachments or responsibilities as something at most temporary: though not without function.

One could point to the mosaic arrangement of stories happening, and one could draw a shared axis through their gender troubles (a Thai man is asked by his aunt to ward off sleeping death syndrome by dressing up as a lady before bed), persistent racialization (an Indian couple whose caste difference is unknown to their in-laws), or intergenerational trauma (a daughter of a resettled Chinese Indonesian family runs out of money for university). Still, certain questions of structure block the provisional solidarity. How much of a commons can be plausibly put together from discrete affairs, separated by scene cuts or a change in language? What can come out of the relation between drought and flood, neither of which will reveal its full self? Sometimes, even a light pan is enough to reveal another inhabitant, but it is a gesture without consequence as she is plugged into her own computer. Elsewhere, a migrant speaks to a bilingual, but his reply is not received. What of the question of responsibility; can we expect them to pick up a common orientation or find ground, when the habitat has always already been engineered through their categorical exclusion?

An ideal habitat cannot be captured; a state of negativity cannot be critiqued. The habitat has to be built.

Image still from Flooding in the Time of Drought (2009, Sherman Ong)

Experiences are enchantingly restaged in Flood and Drought, but the subterranean hum that holds them together in ordinary life receives its reinforcements too. Migrants are architects who maintain a Möbius  strip between seeing and unseeing (themselves being seen and unseen), between chronic flare-ups and a relaxation of crisis. Such a position means that they speak only in asides: this is how we live, you can’t live like this. I am most interested in splinters like these, which are too formally or contextually fragmented to do the work of worldbuilding. It was never whole, not for all of us anyway. They loosen us, however. They may be unmeaningful, lacking a joint circumstance, language, backdrop, but it doesn’t mean there is nothing to focus on. It’s an environmental fact that Flooding makes a wager on, as it transits from one ignorance to another or from one injury to another. The Chinese Indonesian daughter relates the circumstances of her family’s move to Singapore, having lost their livelihood in the 1998 Indonesian riots, while her privileged relative hammers away at his video game. The message may be lost on him, but their senses make the slightest contact through attentive inclusions.

Violence indeed forms a spectre over these migrants, though it is not the kind that galvanizes them into an identity or a march. A Korean resident recounts a dream, in which she is her country’s last queen and is raped at a banquet by invading Japanese soldiers. The gay Japanese man to whom she tells this story feeds fish in his aquarium, and at the end of it, asks her to complete the story: did they really have sex? Filled with only a tentative curiosity, his remark does not divert or try to defuse the situation. It creates a new situation. In these traumatic visions, the force of violence could have been channelled towards an aspiration, but it is instead let loose for the establishment of partial reciprocity — a response-ability. Rehearsals are all about speaking into the air.

The circumstances these stories are told in feel too structural for any kind of repair, yet those stories come together under a filmic shelter that makes it impossible for them to remain entirely private. They converge around an unidentified point, be it wisps of cigarette smoke, an unknowable weather pattern, the seemingly real time. The missing object finds its pull still. It tugs at the corners of our sensing apparatus; it transforms our simulated surrounds into strange supports; it designates heirs to an objectless heritage.

Image still from Flooding in the Time of Drought (2009, Sherman Ong)

 


Bibliography

[1] To Singapore, With Love was classified as Not Allowed for All Ratings (NAR) by the Media Development Authority in 2014, which makes its public exhibition in Singapore legally impossible under the Films Act. A few days after the rating was issued, 350 Singaporeans travelled to Johor Bahru, Malaysia, for a screening of the film at the Freedom Film Festival. For a full account of the film’s movement, see Olivia Khoo, “On the Banning of a Film: Tan Pin Pin’s To Singapore, with LoveSenses of Cinema 76, September 2015. https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2015/documentary-in-asia/to-singapore-with-love-documentary/.

[2] On 17 October 2022, the authority announced that #LookAtMe would be refused classification. A joint statement made with two ministries cited the film’s “potential to cause enmity and social division in Singapore.”

[3] Jeanine Tan, “Going Solos,” TODAY [Singapore], February 28, 2007, 37. NewspaperSG.

[4] “Subtlety wins big at film fest,” TODAY [Singapore], April 28, 2007, 42. NewspaperSG.

[5] Oliver Ross, “Watching Solos in Singapore: Homosexuality, Surrealism and Queer Politics,” Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific 38 (2015): 1.

[6] “Subtlety wins big at film fest.”

[7] “Die-in at Singapore Climate Rally,” YouTube, uploaded by The Straits Times, September 23, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DK9GrRPpbWs.

All images used in this essay are courtesy of Kan Lume, Loo Zihan and Sherman Ong.


About the Writer

Ryan Lim is a film writer and MA student at the Department of Japanese Studies, National University of Singapore. His research work reads Japanese artistic production from the 1970s, as it relates to fragmenting political logics or emergent collectivities. In his other writing, he is interested in tracing the infrastructural lives of works, by moving closer towards critical moods and our attachments to objects.

 

 

 

 

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