Warning: There are spoilers in this article
In one of the early scenes of Ho Thanh Thao’s Muộn or Ephemera, Quang runs back to his table of friends after spectating a bloody street fight. He compares it to an action movie, and excitedly narrates the scene in terms of dragon sabers and scimitars. When Ho’s protagonist berates him softly, “next time don’t sneak to those places anymore” he replies flippantly, “But it’s fun!”.
In watching the fight, Quang incurs no personal consequence. For him, the spectacle is as good as play, he frames the matter as entertainment to consume. After the fact, he can simply exit the scene untouched. Ho Thanh Thao uses this sequence to introduce the irreverent lightness the three supporting characters exhibit when engaging on issues of love and violence. When the protagonist’s boyfriend suggests, “Isn’t love like that fun? There’s nothing to be bound to”, love “like that” is framed as a form of play, for enjoyment without commitment nor consequence. We can therefore use play and its relation to performance as a lens to consider the strategies Ho’s protagonist uses to play games of power and express agency in a situation where she feels cheated by her boyfriend.
My favourite part of Muộn is when our protagonist returns from another trip to the desolate one-cubicle bathroom with her new friend, Mr. Thuy (or the “big boss” as he is later referred to). When she first sees him in the dark alley, washing the bleeding gash on his arm at a drain faucet outside the toilet she is understandably very frightened. She peeks at him through the sliding door of the toilet and the scene cuts. Next, we see her walking towards her friends, accompanied by the large man. We have no explanation for how they have become acquainted or what expectations their relation entails at this point. Confident and flirtatious; she invites him to join the table. Her friends fall into a heavy silence, their eyes communicating disbelief and disquiet. No one is in the mood for the juvenile antics of before, no one dares to pick up their towel phallus for another metaphorical cockfight over the dinner table. Ho’s protagonist, who is a little too much at ease looks across at her new acquaintance with a smile, and raises her beer to him, “cheers”.
Our protagonist has transformed from someone utterly disinterested in the childish banter and table games of her three friends to someone who takes her own game to the table, with rules only she and Mr. Thuy seem to understand. In bringing Mr. Thuy into this game, she uses his stature and intimidation as strategy. The clear discomfort, alarm and eventual exclusion of the other players can be read as points on her scoreboard.
When her friends try to get her to leave, the protagonist insists she will stay on with Mr. Thuy. Successful in provoking her boyfriend and defying expectations, it would follow that Ho’s protagonist wins at her own game. Resentful of her boyfriend unfaithfulness, the protagonist spites all possible colluders by performing assured familiarity with a man who has obviously just participated (and won) in the fight Quang narrates. Mr. Thuy is a bigger, more powerful player who represents consequence, someone with real experience in games of violence and not just a spectator who finds it “cool”. Mr. Thuy’s ambiguous relationship with the protagonist emasculates her boyfriend – his previous slickness is all but gone. However, when her audience of friends exit the performance, our protagonist is revealed to be reserved and rather frightened of Mr. Thuy, her supposed accomplice. If it once seemed that she was driving the game and its hidden rules, the viewer begins to realize that the protagonist has made herself a victim to her performance. When Mr. Thuy invites her to drink more rice wine with him, reassuring her that he’d carry her home. She reluctantly downs the cup. When the boyfriend appears, revving his motorbike engine because he is afraid to approach the pair, she scoots forward and leans in eagerly to admire Mr. Thuy’s bracelet. Once he leaves, her smile drops and her eyes drift downwards, the Big Boss mistakes this for her having lost something under the table and sends his “sidekicks” to go look for it.
With this shifting of power relations, Ho Thanh Thao depicts the consequences of reality played with the lightness of a game. The boyfriend returns for the protagonist twice, trying both to reclaim her and to provide a means of escape. The first time he tries to signal, the second time he tries to forcefully extract her from the scene. She refuses and cusses him, shouting “Who needs you to care? Go take care of that bitch Linh. Let her show you how to be a pimp.” Mr. Thuy’s posse laugh as the they watch on, spectators of the lovers spat on show. Again, the scene cuts – another gap in time. Back in the desolate toilet cubicle, the protagonist stares down at an unopened pregnancy test, leaving us wondering; through all the games and strategies employed, what was she really playing for? We are as lost as she is, when the screen cuts to black.
Catch Ephemera (Muộn) by Ho Thanh Than at the National Gallery Singapore, 1 December 2017 at 9:30pm as part of the SEA Short Film Competition: Programme 2.