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The Space a Person Inhabits

By: Joyce Ng

The space a person inhabits, and how a person is treated within that space, is telling of their identity. In this essay, I discussed the short films SICK, directed by Zaw Bo Bo Hein, and ADAM, directed by Shoki Lin.

SICK, dir. Zaw Bo Bo Hein, 2019.

In SICK, we see the protagonist refusing to enter the makeshift hospital ward. This happens twice, and we see multiple people trying to stop him. The viewer’s first impression is that these attempts to stop his escape are for his own good. But, he is changed by the act of entering the hospital: he begins to take on the identity of the patient. In that space, all he appears to be is a sick man, waiting for either death to take him, or for his friend to somehow come up with the money to help cure him. He stares at the ceiling, and time passes slowly.

The space that he inhabits warps time and his identity. He is unsure as to whether or not his friend will ever come back, or leave him here like the many other patients left to suffer. It is in this environment where hopelessness overtakes the senses, and he may have to make the active choice to, like the person before him, die.

Before he enters the room for the first time, a corpse is taken away from it and he is moved to occupy its space. To him, it is clear what his eventual end would be. The camera stays on him for uncomfortably long periods of time as he plans and orchestrates his escape. The audience is forced to watch his slow, helpless struggle to escape. It is futile, however, as he is brought back in, despite his attempts to not reenter that space. He is then physically restrained on the bed, cementing his inability to escape his new identity. And it is perhaps the fact that no matter how hard he tries, he has already been labelled a patient, and that loss of identity motivates him to attempt suicide.

Another main identifier for a person is his name, and oddly enough, the patient’s name is only said outside of the hospital, even the nurse is addressed as just that – a nurse. It is as if once an individual enters a space, they take on new identities to fit the dynamics of the environment. He is only referred to by his name in the presence of friends, but in the hospital, the doctor refers to him as ‘that patient’. Even without any other clues, the nurse understands which individual he is talking about. The doctor says ‘just like last time, it’s our job till they’re buried’. In this, we see the comparison to previous patients which puts every individual that has died in the same box and this likening lowers the difference of each individual and their identities as more than patients.

In ADAM, we are introduced to a protagonist whose name can be pronounced differently in a Chinese or Malay household. His identity is split. His ties to his family and hence society is non-existent; his father doesn’t care about him and abuses him, and his mother leaves him at the hairdresser.

ADAM, dir. Shoki Lin, 2019.

Unlike his brother who is called ‘Kai Feng’, a completely Chinese name, it is in the name, Adam, and how strongly his identity is tied to it, as well as the disparity in how he is treated and how it is pronounced, that his sense of identity is taken to be on shaky ground. It is also in the language he speaks in the different houses that shows the split in his identity. Being neither here nor there, and not being wanted by either, tears him apart. His identity is all over the place and we feel pity for him.

As in SICK, the individual is displaced, his position in the family has been taken away from him by Cyclone Nargis and his friends abandon him because of financial difficulties as well. His position in society is compromised. How can an individual retain a strong sense of their identity when their ties to society are cut off?

When he asks the nurse where his friend is, she is silent and then proceeds to ask him where his family is. It is in this silence that confirms his belief that his friend has left him, just like his family has, and perhaps this is why it is only in the presence of his friend that he agrees to go into his room. His presence serves as a reminder that he has not been abandoned, that his identity is tied to his friend and that the space doesn’t subsume his identity.

Just as in SICK, the people in ADAM also place Adam in certain spaces that are indicative of his relation to them. It is interesting to note that because of the distance that his mother imposes between them, he sleeps on the couch instead of the bed with his mother. It is as if her bedroom, the most intimate and vulnerable parts of her, cannot be shared with Adam, less she gets too attached. He sleeps in the living room. And when she is irresponsive to him calling her ‘mama’, he leaves, knowing that that is not a word she identifies with.

He does not seem to have a space in his father’s bedroom either. When he enters, we see the family, peacefully sleeping with the baby between his parents, a perfect family unit. There is no physical or metaphorical space in that room or even house for Adam to occupy.

In the end, when he confirms that he has been abandoned by both of his parents, he runs. The camera tracks him in a long shot and we hear him panting heavily. He runs away, in his attempt at leaving everything behind, at his identity, or lack thereof. The road he runs off never stops, but unlike the last shot in SICK where the endless stretch of road framed by the morning sky has a sense of hope, we know that Adam can never truly run away.

– Joyce Ng


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