By Jamie Lee
A parent’s love for their child is unconditional – or is it?
Lodged like bullets in the middle of Singapore Shorts’ programme were two unforgettably stomach-turning short films dissecting the parent-child bond – Tang Wan Xin’s White Carnations (康乃馨) and Pavithran Nathan’s The Parchment (வரைதோல்). Asian Film Archive boldly threw a wrench into the works with their disruption of an otherwise light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek lineup. During the screening, I turned around periodically to register open-mouthed, dumbfounded faces from the audience and expressions which were gradually obscured by trembling fingers.
Both films centred on single parents at their wits end – in White Carnations, a mother (Karen Bee) is driven to extreme measures after countless frustrations with her special needs child (Jeffree Cheng); The Parchment is the story of a father (Sivakumar Palakrishnan) who kidnaps a young boy (Raghav Sriram) to use as a spiritual host for his dead son. The unforgiving on-screen depictions of parental desperation confronts the grim reality of the parent-child relationship which, especially in a Singaporean context, may only be digestible when peeped at through one’s fingers.
Tang’s graduation thesis film plays on the anxieties implicit in Singaporean Chinese culture, in which parent-child relations are to this day heavily influenced by Confucian thought, emphasising mutual responsibility. The frustration of caring for a child who finds it difficult to reciprocate pushes this idea of unconditional parental love to its limits. During a panel discussion, the director explained that she did not under any circumstances allow the actress to cry while filming, as the concealment or suppression of emotion was a crucial step in creating a cinematic powder keg which (very successfully, may I add) kept audiences on the edge of their seat.
The spark, then, is a scene where the mother returns home to find her collection of paper carnations destroyed, a superb climax which caps off the slow burn carefully assembled from start to finish. Earlier on, we see her bent over a workstation late at night, assembling delicate white flowers out of crepe paper with patience, dedication and an attention to detail – traits which have been all but stripped by the intensely trying experience of caring for her child. The scene sticks out as one of the few in the film devoid of repressed anger, keenly lit such that the workstation radiates warmth, creating a respite in an otherwise painfully lonely existence. Of course, this calm is soon interrupted by the child’s sporadic screams.
After an argument with her son’s principal at school, she returns to her apartment and ascends the stairs, noticing shreds of white paper on each step. Where previously her handiwork lay arranged in neatly labelled boxes, they now lay in dense piles, torn and scattered. Like the paper flowers, her love has been made irreparable, and this scene marks a point of no return, a descent into the dark and unspoken possibilities of parenthood. It is this careful, intentional approach to the crafting of suspense that allows Tang to pull off a taboo subject matter with aplomb.
Fellow Lasalle alumni Pavithran Nathan takes the ball and runs the other way, expressing the boundaries of unconditional parental love in a brave and unrepentantly gruesome film – which was nominated for numerous awards at the 2018 National Youth Film Awards (among those: Best Picture, Best Direction, Best Screenplay, Best Lighting and Best Editing). Applause has to be given for Nathan’s daring foray into the spiritual horror genre; not often do we see a well-executed horror film (especially one with heart) in local cinema. In contrast to Tang’s film, the father in The Parchment is prepared to exchange a life for a life, spurred by a deadly mix of love, desperation and selfishness.
It is not love that is irreparable in Nathan’s film. In this case, it is the physical body – taken apart and unsuccessfully put back together – practical effects achieve a nauseating disfiguration of human flesh accompanied by an abundance of blood. Gore is often used to achieve shock value and elicit emotional response from an audience; in The Parchment, this could not be further from the truth. Nathan’s manipulation of flesh and blood accentuates the gravity of the situation and the ends to which a parent’s love can be taken.
The moment that the father’s blade touches the skin of his victim, we know that this is the point of no return. Blood transforms this point from a metaphorical one to a physical and visual one. The father promises to take his victim home after completing the ritual, and the audience knows that this is a promise made in bad faith. We know that the boy will never return to his family and yet, our eyes are still glued to the screen. It is an on-screen catastrophe from which we cannot look away. This response, which I witnessed firsthand, is a testament to the director’s skill at creating suspense, and it is this sensitivity to suspense and tension which unites White Carnations and The Parchment in their portrayals of parental love. The parent-child relationship has been done to death in local media, and has also been adopted as a subject matter by other films screened during the Singapore Shorts ‘18 programme (see: Mark Chua and Lam Li Hsuen’s Blue in D-Flat Major and Michael Kam’s Melodi). However, Tang Wan Xin and Pavithran Nathan stand out in their readiness to plunge themselves into taboo territory with their work, engaging with and exploiting deep cultural fears of parenthood to construct a raw, gritty, but skilfully measured experience for viewers.
About the writer
Jamie Lee is an undergraduate at the National University of Singapore who is pursuing a major in Southeast Asian Studies and a minor in Film Studies. Apart from having an interest in Asian cinema, she practices film photography, visual art and Balinese dance.
The views set out in this article are those of the author and is not representative of AFA’s official opinion.