Playing With Power

By Andrew Kirkrose Devadason

Everything is about sex, goes the truism often apocryphally attributed to Oscar Wilde, except sex, which is about power. Signifiers of sex and sexuality are at the forefront of both Jacen Tan’s Roach Love (2022) and Calleen Koh’s Hot Buns (2022). These depictions provide the staging ground for explorations of power and its potentially abusive excesses, on the level of the individual in Roach Love, and on a societal level in Hot Buns.

Roach Love is a black-and-white silent film, dubbed with wordless but recognisable sound. In both its format and its specific images, it invokes vintage iconography to create a distanced and distorted version of the world we recognise. It is an analogue alarm clock whose ringing the protagonist wakes to, its numbers picked out in an elongated grotesque font. The protagonist’s well-oiled but sloppily laced leather boots are reminiscent of the tropes of old-school leather fetish subculture, their celebration of appropriated military and carceral aesthetics.

Before the black screen resolves into its first recognisable image, we encounter the protagonist of Roach Love aurally: through his heavy breaths, the insistent thud of his boots hitting the ground. As his face becomes visible, his footfall is joined by the soft squelch of the cockroach bodies he deliberately crushes underfoot; the eerie sound of horns accompanies our first sighting of these flattened corpses. His groans intensify, then taper off, somewhere between sounds of pleasure and pain.

Still from Roach Love: Boots and Dead Cockroaches

At first, the protagonist is the only human in sight in what seems to be an abandoned urban space, past barbed wire with the shadow of a chain-link fence in the background. Small insects join a tally of little deaths beneath his soles. This is not a consensual power exchange between equals as the fetish imagery might seem initially, but an orgiastic frenzy of destruction. As he chases his own petite mort, the protagonist revels in his own brutal force, his mastery of the environment he has brought himself into.

All this is thrown off balance, however, with the sound of a second pair of shoes. Lazily distorted notes from a guitar herald the arrival of a mysterious woman in black heels, apparently engaged in her own act of cockroach-stomping. The man and the woman’s eyes meet, and she swaggers over. A military snare drum accompanies a first, aggressive stomp in the protagonist’s direction, beginning a strange, ecstatic dance, ending with a kiss. Love, it seems, has triumphed.

The kiss marks a cut to a domestic space with nary a cockroach in sight. Here, the woman calls the shots, pushing the protagonist down onto a bed where he gapes at her with fear and desire as she undresses. She rides him, clean white bedding cut neatly by the parallel shadows of a window grille. As the protagonist’s mouth widens with pleasure, we see the silhouette the woman casts against the wall morph between human and oversized roach.

Still from Roach Love: Cockroach Silhouette on the Bedroom Wall

The scene shifts as the protagonist gasps in a postcoital haze. Still naked, he finds himself glued spread-eagle to a warehouse floor, surrounded by six lit candles. The military snare drum returns as a procession of hooded cultists enters. The cultists lift their robes to reveal high heels, ready to trample. The reversal of the protagonist’s ritual of destruction seems imminent.

The mysterious woman appears, now hooded and cloaked and sporting a large pair of curved horns. She holds up a handful of crushed cockroaches and weeps along with the other cultists. Bodies begin to slip through her fingers towards the protagonist’s head; some glance off, others land in his wide open mouth, and one rests on his cheek.

Still from Roach Love: Protagonist’s Mouth Agape with Cockroaches Inside

The film ends with the woman and the other cultists lifting their heeled feet, seemingly to crush the protagonist as retaliation for the lives he so unrepentantly took. A gasp after the screen goes black, however, suggests that this landed not so much as a chastisement, but apotheosis of the sadomasochistic act. The protagonist has found himself on the other side of the imbalanced power dynamic he so enjoyed.

Roach Love plays with conventional romantic and sexual scripts, moving between paradigms of dominance. The high heels of the cultists and the mysterious woman are as much symbols of sexual power and ownership as the leatherman’s boots. The mysterious woman draws on stereotypically feminine forms of power to great effect, from the invocation of witchcraft to care and custodianship of the marginalised lives of the cockroaches. When the protagonist and the mysterious woman first meet, the viewer might assume that they have each found their perfect match; by the end, it is clear that this is true in more ways than one.

Hot Buns creates an exuberantly technicolour world, filled to bursting with visual and verbal puns and flitting between media formats. After an initial shot that reveals what seems to be a planet occluding the sun to be the shape of a limbless derriere, the film presents a television advertisement with a cheery jingle. Against a background of mountains and wheat fields, we see disembodied butts frolicking under the care of oversized hands, cut off at the wrists. It’s a booty-ful day, goes the jingle as it becomes clear that the butts are being raised as chattel, albeit free-range, under the product name Buttock Brothers’ Butts.

Still from Hot Buns: Butts frolic

As the advertisement segment ends, it is decontextualised as a video on a streaming site. Its closing shot ironically contrasts the tagline The Taste of Freedom with images of the butts in constrained styrofoam and plastic packaging. The video has received sixty-nine thousand ‘likes’.

The next video on the streaming site autoplays, a cooking segment presented by celebrity chef ‘Handsay’. Here, a hand in a sterile black examination glove demonstrates the way to prepare the film’s titular dessert, ‘hot buns’. The hand caresses and gropes a trembling butt, lubricating it with butter and covering it with white frosting, before applying a blowtorch to it. The entire segment proves controversial; we see segments of the video remixed on HandTok, hear it discussed in a podcast hosted by a pair of hands called The Bro Fists. This turns out to be a world in which hands are culturally dominant; even discussions of the welfare of butts happens without any butt involvement. As the Bro Fists put it, “I’d love to ask a butt what it thinks…”/“If they’re even capable of thinking, amirite amirite??”. Even a video with the logo “BUTTuber” has a hand for a host.

Still from Hot Buns: Bro Fists

Where Roach Love draws on the distance of bygone eras, Hot Buns is insistently a creation of the here and now, in spite of its fantastic premise of a world in which both disembodied hands and butts are individual creatures. This is a world in which the practice of cancel culture is alive and thriving, and inane online chatter about the plight of the disprivileged without direct consultation of those being discussed abounds. The clear structural inequality between butts and hands is epitomised by the death of 8-year-old butt Asstrid Bartok, who is sent into space against her wishes by a crowdsourced make-a-wish programme.

Hot Buns offers an indictment of callously ingrained societal prejudice, of self-aggrandising performative allyship and the ways in which tokenistic acts of nominal support for the marginalised can be actively harmful. This is a world in which very little changes. The Buttock Brothers advertisement plays again in the background of the film’s closing scene, in which we see Asstrid’s mother, Fanny, sweeping in a nail parlour which clearly only exists for the benefit of hands. In an upper floor apartment, a pair of hands toasts with champagne; outside, next to a shrine of commemorative gifts left in Asstrid’s memory, a pair of homeless butts huddles for shelter from the rain.

Still from Hot Buns Nail parlour scene

The sheer richness of references and witticisms made through the course of Hot Buns softens the blow of its sobering messages, and broadens the ways in which the central conflict can be seen as allegorical for real-world issues. The exploitation of livestock animals, the sexualisation of women’s bodies, and the mistreatment of racial minorities can all be easily read into this film, and in a sense become illustrative of a broader narrative of power and its abuse.

In both Roach Love and Hot Buns, depictions of sex become grounds for interrogations of power, inequality and control. They are not didactic. Rather than proposing ways of overcoming these imbalances, they explore ways in which the exercise of power can easily turn to harm. What can or should come next is left to the viewer.

About the Writer

Andrew Kirkrose Devadason (he/him; b. 1997) is a Singaporean poet and student of linguistics. Under his birth name, Devadason contributed the winning piece of the 2019 Hawker Prize to the journal OF ZOOS. His work has appeared in journals including Cordite Poetry Review and PERVERSE, and anthologies including New Singapore Poetries and EXHALE: An Anthology of Queer Singapore Voices.


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