Let Us Put Ourselves to Rest: SGIFF 2020 and Explorations in Repair

By Wong Kar Mun Nicole

This has been a year of bone-deep weariness. In a pandemic as far-reaching as this one, there are constant reminders of the body’s physical fallibilities and how it can unwittingly be caught in cycles of disease. Such anxieties too have reduced our bodily characteristics to medical binaries: masked or not, symptomatic or not, positive or not, alive or not.

At this year’s Singapore International Film Festival, I found myself attentive to the ways in which the films of the Southeast Asian Short Film Competition could offer momentary escapes for our bodies, shedding them of exhaustion and unfettering them from such binaries. Of the seventeen films, a few stood out by providing spaces to examine the spectrum of afflictions that can affect a body, the systemic origins of these maladies, and most importantly, insights into repair.

I.

Tulapop Saenjaroen draws inspiration from the German silent film Menschen Am Sonntag (1930) for his film People on Sunday, a literal translation of the title. Menschen Am Sonntag is notable for being one of the first films “with no actors”, employing only amateur-actors/non-actors, and hence shooting only on Sundays. For a film ostensibly about leisure time in 20th century Germany, the very act of filming negated the authenticity of its subject matter. Saenjaroen’s People on Sunday leans into this paradox, layering narrative upon narrative to challenge the way we understand the performance of leisure.

Initially, the film appears to be an exploration of tranquility and wellness. The soothing voice of the editor greets us as the film opens, colours swirl on the screen, actors are captured in enviable postures of repose and the viewer is lulled into a deceptive calm. 
We are unexpectedly yanked out of this with reminders of the artificiality of what we are watching. Our perspective of the opening scenes expands, going beyond the image to reveal the many people responsible for this narrative. The voice of an unidentified cast member recounts her feelings about answering the film’s open call. Another distorted voice, that of a cameraman, monologues about the conflicts between his personal life and creative labour. Eventually we see the editor as well, fully exposing the seams of this film.

Every moment of ease in the film is dependent on these labouring bodies who have been run ragged by the process. Even though we see an actress dozing with her head pillowed lightly on gentle hands, she is giving her body to the purpose of the film and surrendering herself to a rote performance of leisure rather than actually resting. Moments later, Saenjaroen shows us the crew members who frantically construct the scene by providing the hands for her to rest her head on or by adjusting her body to match a reference image. In filming all this footage, the cameraman pushes forward despite his clear exhaustion. He describes his body and mind as a credit card – he pushes his limits, spending energy he does not have, fully prepared to bear the debt later.
In this year’s short film competition, bodies are caught in a never-ending cycle of labour. What sets People on Sunday apart however is its insistence that, within systems built on capitalism and consumption, to be seen is to also have your body recognised as an object for productivity. Every person in People on Sunday is under scrutiny. Cameras on the set are pervasive and the frequent use of voiceover creates the impression that someone is always present, monitoring and turning the act of rest into work that is to be recorded. Even the editor, sitting in isolation in front of her computer, seemingly removed from public perception, narrates an instructional video and performs still to an unseen yet ever-present audience. Unless we are completely removed from a gaze that renders people solely based on their labour, true rest will always be out of reach.

II. 

In Red Aninsri; Or, Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall by Ratchapoom Boonbunchachoke, bodies are similarly seen as objects to be used but this time as state resources that can be optimised for the benefit of politics. Ang, a transgender woman, is a spy and sex worker. As part of an assignment, she is commanded to discard her identity and don the disguise of a cisgender man to obtain information from Jit, who is himself cisgender, a student activist, and an “enemy of the nation”.
The trope of disguise and espionage points to the disregard of states for personhood or for one’s autonomy over their body. When Ang asks how they managed to find her, her handler crudely says that they could even find their way into her vagina if they wanted to. In the name of nationalism, Ang’s body is a thing that her superiors have access to, all for the sake of the “greater good”. The Boss who barks orders at Ang through a radio transmitter, is void of a physical form. The Boss is able to dictate orders and set the terms of control over others’ movements, not despite, but due to the fact that he himself lacks a body.

While the body may have been claimed for state use, the voice, as an articulation of one’s identity, is harder to tame. Ang and Jit’s true voices are obscured by voiceovers, and there is a consistent mistiming between the voices they use and their physical articulation of the lines. For Ang, this dissonance is a reflection of her struggle to play the role that she was assigned. To do so, she rehearses her lines and tries on several registers of voices – a futile attempt to fit into a mold forced onto her and so distinct from who she is. 

As they spend more time with one another, Ang begins to develop genuine feelings for Jit which tests her loyalty to her nation. When Ang and Jit make love for the first time, Ang finally makes a choice free from the forces that orchestrated their encounter. Their intimacy suggests the possibility for the body to transcend its state-label as an object or tool for use. Instead it can be a source of pleasure, connection, and sincere emotion. Yet, this escape is short-lived. In the corner, a mysterious figure cloaked entirely in black observes their naked bodies with a durian and radio transmitter in hand. Immediately after the consummation of their relationship, Ang betrays Jit.
The lovers reunite at the end, during a Use Your Own Voice workshop where the characters shed the awkward voiceovers and indeed, use their own voices instead. Despite the triteness of the workshop, Ang and Jit are able to profess their affection and longing for each other – but only through lingering stares and silences. Solely within the freedom of their minds are they able to reacquaint their bodies with each other. 

Similar to People On Sunday, Red Aninsri demonstrates that the body is trapped in constant performance and limited by the gaze of others. A person is outwardly a citizen to be governed and therefore vulnerable to the workings of the state. The yearnings of the soul and the mind must thus be fulfilled through the non-physical, that which can escape surveillance. With Ang and Jit, it is by finding their own voices and developing an intimate, internal understanding of their own identities that the body as a vessel is reclaimed.  

III.

If Red Aninsri; Or, Tiptoeing on the Still Trembling Berlin Wall demonstrates how intimate relationships can serve as a catalyst for liberating the body from exploitation, Estate offers an alternative perspective. In Estate by Ln Htet Aungit is at times our obligations within these relationships that can cause a degradation of our own sense of self. 

Estate by Ln Htet Aung is a difficult film to watch, for both its subject matter and form. It is a film about a son who tends to his terminally-ill father in their family estate. As he goes about the repetitive routine of caring for him, resentments brew. The most abstract of the shorts in competition, most of Estate’s images consist of blurred, monochromatic vertical lines. The sounds themselves are recognisable: rain falling, water trickling from the tap, lights flicked on. With each noise, the lines move, prompting you to attempt to make sense of how they correspond. In the absence of recognisable images, the viewer works doubly hard. The eyes strain to make sense of the dizzying lines and the mind struggles to understand what may not be there. 
The abstract form of the film creates a sense of alienation in the viewer. By withholding any realistic, representational images, Estate, in some ways, mirrors the father’s own estrangement from his declining body. We do not know much about his specific ailments, but we know enough to understand that the breakdown of his body has resulted in a near complete reliance on his son. 

The son resents his own body as well for the connection that keeps drawing him back to his father: “I have arms and legs Dad, but my legs keep coming back to you…my arms are for pushing your trolley. I don’t want to come back to you.” As father and son, they are wholly tethered to each other, with the son constantly tugged back to his father’s estate due to the viscosity of their familial bond and its complicated obligation of caregiving. In the estate, a body can be a prison in more ways than one. 
Anxiety accumulates in the film through increasingly ominous silences and the disorienting nature of the visuals. This culminates in unseen violence, mentioned offhandedly. A child is asked about the estate and he shares about the father and son who used to live there and had beaten a dog to death. This violence is unsettling. Its abruptness cuts through the trudging pace of caregiving and forces you to confront the brutal toll that grief, decay, and frustration can take on a home.

IV.

That each of these three films provides such sombre meditations on the realities of our bodies is a testament to the times we live in. In this period, true rest perhaps comes when we can abandon thoughts of our bodies, when we are no longer burdened by the uses others have found for it,  and when we can avoid thinking of the risk of its failure, be it brought about by overuse (People on Sunday), misuse (Red Aninsri), or disease (Estate).

In being able to hold onto something outside of our physical selves, there is healing. In Pham Ngoc Lân’s The Unseen River, a young man and his girlfriend travel down the Mekong River to a temple to seek a spiritual remedy that would grant him good sleep. Currently, his sleep is marked by dreamlessness, and the monks at the temple identify his desire to dream as a longing to transcend his present and his physical self, “to return to the past, or to see the future.” To the young monk who accompanies the couple, dreams offer him a source of comfort and partial reunion with his wife and child whom he had lost to a flood.
The notion of a river as a “body of water” brings with it a unity and a form of life that permeates its depths. An elder at the temple instructs the young man that “sinking into a deep sleep is like surrendering yourself to the current”. To the elder, the river is “kind and forgiving to you and other sinners, just like sleep is merciful to its masters.” If the Mekong River is the river seen, then the unseen river is a kind of spiritual, cosmic order that beckons. Submitting to either would bring a deeper connection to forces that allow for both the body and spirit to rest. For the young monk whose family perished in a flood, the water may have taken away, but the currents of an “unseen river” have also become his only hope for repair. 

Another couple features in The Unseen River as well. Older and forced apart already by their circumstances, they reunite at a dam along the river. The man’s body is marked by scars that the river has left on him. As he cleans and guts his catch of fish, we see the scar deep in the divot of his back, as though he too has been sliced open. The river’s capacity for destruction can be seen in the monk’s tragedy but also in these marks “inked into [his] flesh, just as they are into [his] heart” as well as the distance between the former lovers.
The separation of the two lovers occurred during the inauguration of the dam. The literal halt of the river’s flow mirrored the disintegration of their relationship, yet their reunion here demonstrates that no human intervention can truly stop the currents that bring us closer together. The body may be easily marred by force, circumstance, or violence, but in surrendering to currents outside of ourselves, the body may also heal. 

At this year’s iteration of the Singapore International Film Festival, the youth jury assembled, bodies occupying the same space yet alienated from each other by virtue of masks and proper protocols. Still, I found myself surrendering to the tides of cinema, bolstered by this small community that had come together in communion over films. Yes, the paths to healing explored in the films were often imperfect and the solace offered by them was impermanent. After all, damage that reaches the bone can hardly be repaired by cinema alone. Even so, as The Unseen River asserts, “a good sleep is a privilege”. Truly it was a privilege to indulge in these moments of relief, to hold onto something outside of our physical selves, and to find rest in generous filmmaking and wholehearted companionship.