Between Underworlds

By Ernest Lee

Grimy corridors, cramped dormitories and unwelcoming warehouses provide a spatial frame for director Nelson Yeo to explore the various tensions and contrasting worlds that transient, low-paid workers grapple with.

Here, a male Malaysian worker (Hong Yu Yang) and his colleague from China (Bobbi Chen) offer an entry into these bodily, class, and spiritual anxieties. What choice – if any – exists between home and host country? What values do bodies serve: mere conduits for profit, or the site of intimate, personal realms of experience and feeling? Amidst everyday conditions of precarity, how separate are the worlds of the dead and living?
The film opens with two paper effigies being transported on a truck. A dark-skinned, presumably South Asian, construction worker, and a mop-toting, songkok-wearing Malay cleaner are starkly racialized characters, their painted eyes staring blankly into the camera.

Paper offerings are a frequent sight, especially within the Hungry Ghost Festival when the short is set. Burnt for the deceased as a ritual of ancestral worship, they have become a common expression of filial piety, a gesture of material and spiritual comfort for souls of the departed to enjoy in the afterlife.

Yeo atunes us to the visual spectacle of burning: a more material, fetishistic, and one-way form of communication with the dead, the interstitiality of this process further emphasized by the empty roads and eerie tunnels that play witness.

Yet, offerings are more conventionally stacks of joss-paper money, cars, or other everyday comforts of life. Burning these caricatures gestures towards a form of modern bondage of the dead, a reproduction of Singapore’s own labour hierarchies in the underworld.

Unfortunately, Yeo seems largely agnostic towards these metaphysical, spiritual questions, opting to silently revel in the sheer visuality of flickering flames and floating ashes.
Amidst the harsh straight lines of modernist architecture, and an intimidating, blinking city skyline, any human would seem small. The film’s central conversation takes place here. Against the resolute concrete there is talk of the metaphysical, prompted by Hong and Chen’s own conversation with the ‘other’ – South Asian and Southeast Asian workers, who ambiguously occupy a position even lower in the social and economic strata than then.

“Comrade”, Hong sarcastically addresses an effigy earlier on: now he describes “them” as “modern slaves for Singaporeans”. She is doubtful: “Are we not the same as well?” The negotiation of their status continues, between two tiny individuals dwarfed by construction and the dark sky.
However, I wonder if Yeo successfully balances the intensely personal nature of romance with his efforts at a wider socio-economic commentary. The only time the camera’s gaze moves beyond the two main characters is when it travels from the building’s carpark to its interior, to cast a spotlight on other menial jobs.

“Whatever jobs that Singaporeans don’t want is an opportunity for us”, explains Hong’s disembodied voice over sympathetic shots on security guards, flyer pushers, and toilet cleaners. These characters – distinct and common in the sights of their uniform, or the clacking sound of mailboxes – are well-trodden shorthand for an underpaid, underprivileged underclass.