by Jamie Lee
Kanina, her chee never bleed before meh?
Turn on any local television drama, and what maternal archetypes do you see? You have the tiger mom—now a worldwide phenomenon—along with the overly attached mother and their respective Oedipuses. Of course, don’t forget the classic—the doting, self-sacrificial mother, brimming with—no, radiating—maternal love.
For girls, a mother can be all these things, and more. Fiona A. Cheong’s Aunty CB is an anti-coming-of-age film, couched in the lessons that mothers can teach their daughters about self-worth, shame, sexuality, and their bodies. These are things mothers speak of in hushed tones, often accompanied by moralistic outrage, embarrassment, or a good dose of both. It’s the type of identity formation that happens at family gatherings, when little girls learn from their aunties just why they have to sit with their legs crossed.
The star of the film is its unrelenting narration, adapted from Cheong’s book of the same name and brought to life by theatre veteran Pam Oei, who supplies a bitter, poisonous delivery, ripe with a resentment that only years of bullying could breed. Cheong positions this pervasive fixation on the female body—simultaneously seductive, dirty, and commodified—as a phenomenon that goes beyond the individual; not once is the narrator’s mother named, and the film opts for the more generic phrase, “mother say”. Instead, the perversion of maternal love presented in Aunty CB has roots stretching deep into cultural and societal norms, crystallised over decades.
As such, although Aunty CB is marketed as a confessional, Cheong really speaks for those who were robbed of the freedom, experimentation, and growth typical of adolescence—a quality shared by another short film in the Singapore Shorts ’22 programme, Nelson Yeo’s Dreaming.
What kind of cigarettes are you smoking?
More importantly, what kind of middle-aged couple invites their bachelor ex-schoolmate to a staycation? Dreaming marks the return of Kelvin Ho and Peter Yu, who previously shared the screen in Yeo Siew Hua’s A Land Imagined. The duo portrays contrasting masculinities—Yu is the refined and sensitive Heng; Ho is the towkay everyman, or, that uncle who takes advantage of open bars at weddings and is the first to be found beet-faced, slumped across the table. The cast is joined by Doreen Toh, who plays Ho’s wife as melancholy personified.
Although longing abounds between the three characters, it is noticeably absent between the husband and wife, for whom romance has sounded its death knell. The wife mourns her life’s trajectory and pines for Heng; Heng himself struggles with unspoken feelings for her husband, who is nowhere near as oblivious as he seems. Scenes with the two are thick with palpable homoerotic tension—Ho’s character, while completely uncomfortable with connecting on a personal and vulnerable level, is more than ready to bro down, throwing out choice conversation topics, including how menthol cigarettes—Heng’s cigarette of choice—cause erectile dysfunction.
This idea of the body is handled more indirectly than in Cheong’s film; Yeo sets his eye on untangling the contradictions in male relationships—that is, the normalisation of emotional stoicism, all while the body itself is handled and referenced intimately. Appropriately enough, the first time I watched Dreaming was at the 2021 Singapore International Film Festival, when it opened for Edwin’s phallic-fantastic Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash.
Visually, Dreaming and Aunty CB couldn’t be more different.
Dreaming recreates the unabashedly pastel, soft-focus feel of city pop karaoke videos in order to transform the distant land of Changi Village into an alternate reality. Yeo invokes the area’s well-known history as a staycation destination and exploits its beachy, chalet-studded landscape to build a setting that’s different, but not unfamiliar. In this imaginary Changi Village, one can—even if just for a moment—live out deeply-buried fantasies, to soothe and distract from the monotony of everyday life. Even then, Yeo takes care to remind his characters of the pretense in which they are participating, through Lim Soo Ngee’s Inscription of the Island—a monolithic Bronze finger which either wags, beckons, or simply points at the sky, depending on how you look at it. The sculpture breaks apart the softness of the frame and silently insists upon its own presence, taunting the impermanence and illusiveness of the characters’ getaway.
Aunty CB, on the other hand, pairs its narration with grainy, under-exposed 8mm footage—a nod to the medium du jour of 20th century home movies—set at a low angle to mimic a child’s-eye-view. But the footage is devoid of the warmth and nostalgia typical of home movies; instead, the camera wanders aimlessly through Singapore’s streets while plagued by Oei’s voice. It embodies the headspace of someone who has dissociated—never once interacting with their surroundings and only occasionally stopping to rest on quotidian, unremarkable objects—a window, a pigeon, a rack of plastic hangers.
We are reminded that these are not the eyes of happy people. These are the eyes of people who have been broken, and forced into submission by expectations and norms. So, while Aunty CB and Dreaming are tonally distinct, they are conceptually allied in their expression of this home-grown brand of Singaporean misery—one which lingers and festers quietly, one which is worn on the faces of those we pass by on the street, but is still somehow never to be spoken about.
About the Writer
Jamie Lee is an assistant archivist at the National Archives of Singapore. At night, she dreams of intuitively organised records, but in the day you’ll find her cuddling with her two longkang cats, tending to her asparagus shoots, or scrounging for her next favourite cult film.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Film Archive.