By Euginia Tan
Loneliness unfurls like a yawn. It stretches inert, neglected muscles, pausing the impulsion to go forward. In both films, Uncle Goose Waits For A Phone Call and Reunion Dinner, we find our protagonists facing the inevitable boredom of retirement in their silver years. Death looms idly – be it witnessing the demise of their own state of being, or that of their counterparts. Yet the seemingly crucial tandem before death remains clogged with the most mundane of chores to do.
It is this perpetual need for honouring habits which plagues our two main seniors. In Uncle Goose Waits For A Phone Call (directed by Kew Lin), Uncle Goose constantly referees between his urge to tidy and hoard. Items are thrown but put back again, food is left awkwardly in the fridge. The television is switched on but unwatched. In the flurry of his self-imposed timetable, an unexpected call comes in. This is where the arc of the film’s premise begins: Uncle Goose’s quest to accommodate another person’s presence while remaining a stickler to the limited breadth of a day.
We see this same pining and urge manifesting to desperate extents in Reunion Dinner (directed by Danielle Koh Wei). Snippets of recorded home footage show Ah Ma’s perfunctory routine, sweeping the floor, tending to her plants, colouring worksheets haplessly. During a visit from her son, these worksheets are later revealed to be collateral for an upcoming election. Therein lies a brief, fleeting commentary of the distribution of political weight in Singapore. When Ah Ma is asked questions regarding her decisions, (“How many are there to choose from? Who are you voting for?”) one wonders if these questions are truly posed to her, or are they in fact, hinted as rhetorical?
This dialogue also begets another question – how much agency in decision-making do we afford our seniors? As Ah Ma and her son flit from topic to topic, we finally see the intention behind his visit. Ah Ma signs over her assets in a will, the visit concludes with her signature’s seal. As a younger generation consistently inquiring about our options for more autonomy, are we also leaving the perspectives of seniors behind? In the two films, we see facets of the seniors’ worlds fading. Speaking in dialect is reserved for what few family and friends are left, an obstinate corded telephone to keep in touch instead of a portable mobile line. As the world makes way for the young, the old make do.
It is in making do in old age which seems to reap both wisdom and absurdity. As Uncle Goose awaits his companion’s follow-up phone call, he tempers his impatience. He goes to greater lengths to keep himself occupied. The film succeeds in sluicing the monotony of his waiting with tender, comical distress. He begins chess games as the sole player, conquering the invisible opponents of the game and suspended time. The phone morphs into an increasing mockery of the lack between him and the immediate vicinity outside. The call’s signal for him to assert himself as remembered, heard and seen becomes disarmingly jarring. Deftly played with veteran actor Chen Shu Cheng’s afflicted approachability and unsaid stoicism, Uncle Goose simultaneously allows and falls prey to the environment’s gradual erasure of his being.
In Reunion Dinner, Ah Ma too, has an inkling that her child is not as transparent as he seems. Unlike Uncle Goose’s more humorous undertones, Ah Ma makes sense of the situation with a more sinister undertaking. This is where the film shifts quite erratically, unfortunately losing the grip it could have maintained with its horror slant. There is a lot to be said on the horrors of aging and the aged – in terms of aesthetic, story posturing, soundscaping… the list goes on. But because the topic of aging is so vast and nuanced, it sometimes pays to be precise. Perhaps the film could answer how pervasive the horror was intended to go: Is the horror in Ah Ma scheming a crime as the first instinct to her children’s impiety? Is the horror in Ah Ma’s crime being overlooked due to her perceived ailments? Or is the horror simply in Ah Ma’s identity as a whole –a charming matriarch, too ignorant for her own good?
Making work with and around seniors is humbling and tedious. It is humbling because it is easy to reach a common conclusion of permanent departure with how little we leave behind. It is tedious because we have to take precaution in the difference between honouring and infantilizing our seniors. As younger practitioners behind the lens, we cannot deny the chasm of a generation gap. What that gap provides are hard truths we absorb and learn from, idiosyncrasies we are glad no longer persist, topics which might be disorienting to bring up. It is perplexing to reconcile with all three. Both films have managed this effectively. Uncle Goose and Ah Ma both end up alone at a table, the former reeling in numb nostalgia, the latter basking in blissful denial.
In both of them we see that solitude reigns strong, the emphasis on societal connection wears thin as the end draws near. The discourse of mortality is faced head on with no qualms. Their characters remain flawed and steadfast – Uncle Goose will continue to stubbornly resist yet crave company. Ah Ma’s mind will continue to run amok. Placidly put, there is no turning back. What do we take away from them? Is it the futility of pride as we sober up to realizing that, at some point, we face plenty alone? Do we feel comforted that their mistakes are not acknowledged as a sum total of their lives, and hope that others do the same for us?
The yawn soon passes. In its place, the familiarity of empty tears.
About the Writer
Euginia Tan is a Singaporean writer who writes poetry, creative non-fiction, and plays. She enjoys cross-pollinating art into multidisciplinary platforms and reviving stories. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.