What does it mean to lose a loved one? How do we encounter the world and ourselves differently when our loved ones pass away? These questions underscore director Maximilian Liang’s Home Planet (2022), and directors Lim Hok Lye and Tai Binquan’s where are you now (2022), as they confront their audiences with landscapes of inconceivable grief.
Marked starkly by loss, estrangement becomes a central preoccupation in both films, as their characters attempt to re-discover their bearings with/in a world altered by grief. Breaks in communication are also multi-layered: on one level exists the literal divide between the living and the departed, and on another are the schisms that emerge between surviving family members who flail and fail to find words to account for such gaping loss. The former level is felt palpably and immediately in both films—the absence of a loved one looms large and consuming, colouring the contours of everyday life: Home Planet’s warped temporal landscapes speak directly to how losing a loved one is necessarily a traumatic experience. As a result of traumatic loss, time stretches endlessly in Home Planet, as each frame is painstakingly drawn out—the camera lingers painfully on Liang’s young astronaut as he slowly approaches his father upon his return, it lingers on his mother’s hands, on the drawings in his childhood room, on his deceased brother’s belongings…
In all these moments, time is endlessly suspended, and the film, rendered in black and white, is further imbued with an ‘unreal’ quality, such that the everyday is defamiliarised as a result of grief. As ordinary moments are stretched to their breaking points, Liang’s audiences witness the effect of trauma on the experience of temporality: it roots its victims in stasis, uprooting them from ‘normal’ rhythms of life.
In where are you now, the days after Loo Lay Yen suffers a stroke blend together and become indistinguishable, as her surviving family members—her husband and three sons—grapple both with the suddenness and the extent of tragedy they find themselves confronted with. The film’s chronology—running backwards from the moment of Lay Yen’s death to different key moments in her life, as well as its fragmentary nature—stitched together from raw documentary footage, old family videos, and retrospective interviews with her family members, compound the traumatic distortion of time to form a painful mosaic of memories that have no end and no beginning. Trauma again distorts narrative, disrupting the ways in which time is both perceived and experienced. For the film’s characters and audiences, time no longer makes linear sense. Within the disorienting timescapes of both films, in which time seems entirely to lose meaning, grief, then, becomes the only measure of time.
In the two films, the departed, gone on to some unreachable place, remain entirely inaccessible to the living, as their belongings, memories, and even physical bodies begin to lose meaning. Silences mark both films—in where are you now, Lay Yen’s family members, attempting to hold onto some semblance of normality, continue conversing with her while she is in hospital, unable to converse back. They never receive a response.
Communication breaks extend to those between surviving family members in Home Planet, where we watch Liang’s young astronaut eat in excruciating silence at the dinner table with his parents. His strained relationship with his parents speaks directly to the difficulty in navigating familial relations after the demise of a loved one. Indeed, following devastating loss, family dynamics are upended and the notion of ‘home’ is irreparably altered. Liang’s astronaut’s departure at the end of the film bears a haunting resemblance to his journey home at the beginning of the film—as ‘home’ is reduced to a foreign concept, leaving and returning become one and the same.
where are you now similarly asks us to consider what happens when a key pillar of the family unit is lost, as we watch Lay Yen’s family grapple with the unimaginable reality of her slipping away—but more than that, the film asks how we may do justice to the lives of our departed and their memory. Shot by her eldest son, Tai Binquan, the film, which includes vulnerable and intimate footage recording the aftermath of Lay Yen’s stroke, engages in a piercing inquiry into the realities of caregiving, and the ethics of representing end-of-life experiences. The film opens with Binquan in the peace room, alongside Lay Yen who has just passed on; he tells the camera: “I’ll probably never show [this footage] to anyone except myself.”
To then witness these private moments as the film’s audience is to be moved towards the questions we may ask at the end of our loved one’s lives: How can we honour their lives, preserve their memory? How can we let them leave with dignity? The unique positionality of Tai and Lim’s end-of-life documentary also directs us to grapple with what it means to ethically write and witness end of life experiences: At what point should a private moment become public tribute? What about questions of consent, of privacy, of power and of responsibility?
It is undoubtedly difficult to watch some of where are you now’s scenes, which almost seem unfiltered in their presentations of death and dying. As audiences, we are forced to interrogate our own discomfort—are we uneasy about our position, about the potential harms of our gaze, or are we merely inclined to turn away from portrayals of death to protect ourselves? In a time of more death awareness movements and more open conversations about dying with dignity, where are you now, in its unflinching portrayals of death—what it is, what it does to a person and their loved ones—offers ways in which we may have productive end-of-life conversations. Living in a society with an increasingly ageing population dealing with the pressures of caregiving, the film hints at an alternate approach to managing death—one that is entirely intimate, vulnerable and honest. In fact, it is significant to position where are you now as both a mourning and a celebration. Lay Yen’s life and death bear equal weight throughout the film: we experience as much of her life—its joys and proudest moments—as we do her death.
Further, the beauty of both films lies in their willingness to ‘let go’—or to resist fixity and permanence. Even in their deepest griefs, never once do they ask their loved ones for the impossible—to stay and not leave. Instead, in where are you now, Bing En tells his mother, “These days I no longer wish you a good recovery, or for you to wake up. I won’t say these anymore because I heard you were going to pass” and Home Planet’s father figure whispers a prayer to the skies for both of his departed sons: “Wherever they go / May they be safe and happy.”
So, when Binquan asks his mother, “Lay Yen! Are you still okay?”, as she lays unresponsive in the peace room, we know that at the heart of both films are these lines: Wherever you are, wherever you go, I wish you well. Wherever you are, it’s enough that you’re okay. Wherever you are, I’ll think of you, I’ll save a seat for you.
About the Writer
Laetitia Keok is a writer and editor from Singapore. Currently based in New York City, she is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at New York University.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.