What the Key Locks Away

By Morris Yang

In David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, we are presented with the key to unravelling it all in the form of a mysterious blue box. Once opened, however, the box unravels not just the identity of its holder, but the very basis of narrative reality itself: a dream-world still rife with the search for meaning potentially awakens to a world of dead and dying dreams, and in this latter world, it is meaning which engulfs and overwhelms the intrepid dreamer. The mystery, then, is not so much solved by the turning of the key as it is threatened with the ultimate dissolution—the revelation that it covers for its lack thereof, and is therefore nothing but its own negation.

In other words, we can imagine the proverbial riddle that contains the whole truth which, once uncovered, collapses upon itself. The key to the riddle thus operates on a similar logic as nuclear proliferation: one has to stockpile and bluster indefinitely, without quite matching rhetoric with action. Instead of reaching for the kernel of stockpiled truth, the key serves to contain and preserve it whole, immune to worldly vicissitudes and the sobering instability that frequently intrudes as we seek to undress the figures and wounds before us. And often, all the talk that comes with sleuthing belies a greater, more insecure silence; what cannot be said finds expression in what we tacitly acknowledge.

Even in fantasy, turning back is more common than confrontation. Gurmit Singh in Treasure (2023, dir. Benjamin Ang).

On the surface, this Lynchian analogy appears contrary to the literal premises of conventional narrative cinema. In Stanley Xu’s A Day, That Year, a boy quarrels with his mother on a shopping trip; in Benjamin Ang’s Treasure, a young woman confronts her father whom she has not seen for twenty years. Neither film purports to solve anything, and in fact their denouements stand on solid, unambiguous ground. The quarrel is resolved offscreen and the boy returns to his mother safe and sound; the conflict between the woman and her father, on the other hand, escalates to a painful end. But look closer, and threads of doubt soon emerge. In both scenarios, something appears incomplete and amiss—a metaphor partly sketched, wanting for elaboration.

A Day, That Year starts out simply enough. Five-year-old Yang (Ray Liao) is in a car, driven by his mother (Eliza Peng). He has just finished school, and dutifully reports his good behaviour—an award for badminton—to her. She agrees to reward him, displaying softness (permitting him instant noodles for dinner and a television binge thereafter) amidst an ostensibly routine strictness. The camera is trained on Yang, foregrounded by the blur of passing buildings; his mother, off-screen, remains a voice. Their plans to head home, however, are disturbed when she receives a call and promptly decides to take him along for a shopping trip. The unbroken shot is cut, succeeded by several discrete sequences that culminate in a grating and seemingly unprovoked temper tantrum by Yang. His mother leaves him where he is, and as he tries to look for her, he trips, falls, and scrapes his knee.

Duty is rewarded with duty—maternal affection for filial performance. Ray Liao in A Day, That Year (2022, dir. Stanley Xu).

This bruising incident does not get the resolution we might expect. Xu cuts back to the car where we see, this time in three shots: the wound, Yang (his profile partly obscured), and him facing us, staring out the car window. At the same time, this resolution is innocuous enough. His mother comforts him with the promise of a dinner treat, treating the wound, and the camera cuts to black. The reconciliation has taken place, although how and where, we cannot be certain.

Or has it? The climactic moment in A Day, That Year is marked by its elision of what comes after. Precisely because we do not see the dressing of the wound or an explanation for Yang’s rapid frustration, the wound becomes a stand-in for the unrepresented and perhaps unrepresentable crux of his experience. His mother shops for clothes to meet her significant other’s parents “for the first time,” while Yang is to stay at her mother’s when that time comes. The suggestion that she’s a single mother with a new boyfriend is subtle but strong; what’s more thinly implied are the strands of neglect and dysfunction in their parent-child relationship.

What the camera does, then, is to crystallise this relationship through its snapshots: a woozy, oneiric mise en scène—exacerbated by the film’s monochrome—percolates throughout the film, situating the viewer some distance away. True to its title, A Day, That Year invokes the vagueness of nostalgia as defence against the specificity of memory; the unsightly reality of a possibly absent father makes way for the son’s fantasy of humiliation, which is itself shorn of its immediacy by reducing his outburst to a snivelling utterance of the same line over and over: “I don’t care, I want to go home now!” Home, in this case, isn’t quite how Yang imagines it, but it’s easy to forget this when the afternoon’s warmth is seared into all that remains, is remembered, of an otherwise ordinary day.

The rift that precedes the tears, embodied in its shadowy negative. Eliza Peng and Ray Liao in A Day, That Year (2022, dir. Stanley Xu).

In contrast with the economical narrative established in Xu’s film through its sparse rhythm and editing, the straightforward stakes of Treasure emerge through setting. An unidentified room provides the space for both the past and present: a woman (Iris Li) in her late twenties wakes up and is greeted by her father (Gurmit Singh) serving her an omelette. We learn from their brusque conversation that they have not been in contact for two decades—he had stabbed and left her, allegedly for dead, to go to prison and prevent his adversaries from nabbing her. Wary and resentful, the woman injures her father, rejecting his attempt at reconciliation; despite this he persists, calmly tending to his wounds as he proffers some justification for his betrayal. The air is thick with tension, fuelled by their mutual glares and barbs, as well as the long silences between.

“I made it just the way you like it.” Gurmit Singh and Iris Li in Treasure (2023, dir. Benjamin Ang).

Just as father and daughter appear on the verge of mending things, however, he enquires about a key he claimed to have passed her before leaving. She doesn’t quite register, and so he reveals what has lain at the heart of their conflict all along—he had stabbed her to place the key in her wound for safekeeping, and has now come back to retrieve it. As she pleads for him not to, mid-embrace, he pins her down and re-opens the gash on her shoulder. The screen cuts to black here (just as it opened with the gash on her recumbent form) as the faint tinker of a key confirms the reprisal of his betrayal; material gain for the loss of filial trust.

Treasure is ripe with metaphor: the key is lodged in the wound that not only was made for it but also has to be reproduced to retrieve it. Both key and wound share a symbolic affinity, but what do they fundamentally signify? Much like Xu, Ang suggests how parental neglect (and, in this case, abuse) exacts trauma in children. But while this provides a compelling interpretation, it may be overly literal in positioning the key as that which unlocks and uncovers. Interestingly, however, the film’s titular treasure is never once referenced by either father or daughter—taken to be understood as that abstract object of desire (for the former) and distress (for the latter). If we were to invert the key’s logic, then, placing it not in the hands of the explorer but in those of a custodian’s, we find its significance not in what it leads to, but that it leads to something. The key therefore locks away the father’s guilt by retroactively justifying the violence he inflicts on his daughter, both figuratively and literally as the wound’s raison d’être.

Why dress a wound when you must undress it later? Gurmit Singh and Iris Li in Treasure (2023, dir. Benjamin Ang).

Such retroactive justification breeds speculations of fantasy, and this is indeed hinted at by Treasure’s claustrophobic space. It’s suggested, by the woman wanting to leave it, that the space belongs to her father; her seeming ambivalence to both place and person upon waking therefore proves suspect. Her actions are stilted, her father’s address staged—as he half-jokingly admits. Additionally, the film’s gritty sheen (emblematic of Hong Kong procedurals) is tempered by the ominous sound design (a low but persistent humming) to produce an uneasy, purgatorial atmosphere which all but impugns the assumption of realism. The final shot—after the struggle—provides the thematic linchpin, with him embracing her lifeless body, Pietà-like, and returning to the same spot where he had abandoned her twenty years prior.  Here, the father imagines his daughter as having forgiven him.

For Treasure, the key and its wound are intertwined and interdependent; for A Day, That Year, the key is our very apprehension of the events that culminate in the memorable wound. In both films, the economy of their narratives conceals a reverse trompe l’oeil: behind their dimensionless simplicity lie the playful vagaries of fiction. Just as the boy’s childhood memories are inevitably refracted and condensed to that pivotal, shameful afternoon, so too does regret sweeten the daughter’s image in her father’s eyes. Our memories are fickle objects, as malleable and dispensable as we deem necessary. The keys which safeguard them only reinforce this.


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

Morris Yang is a film critic currently majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) at the National University of Singapore. He has written for Film Inquiry and The Parrot Review, and currently serves as Associate Editor for In Review Online. He also does film programming from time to time, having worked with the Singapore Film Society, Fantasia International Film Festival, and the International Cinephile Society, of which he is a voting member. He can be reached at morrisycy@gmail.com.

About the Writer