What the Absurd Invites
“Man… feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”
– Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus
Rather than the strange and the whimsical, philosopher Albert Camus defines the ‘absurd’ as the idea that nothing in life has inherent meaning or purpose. Bleak as it may sound, that notion may make absurdism a powerful vehicle for satire. It makes us question our own existence in relation to the spaces we occupy. Directors Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang attempt to use absurdism in Piece of Meat to create a Singapore that, ironically, becomes a devastating review of our own realities.
The eleven-minute stop-motion film follows a living, breathing lamb chop in a Singapore populated by moving objects which represent people. She tries to survive within the confines of her low socioeconomic status. Her younger brother, Liu Lian, is a durian failing his classes, and her mother (a potato) is dying.
Immediately noticeable is that the rules of the film aren’t fully established or consistent, and this is manifested most clearly in the living objects that populate the film. It’s first established that the objects the characters are reflect their socioeconomic status. For one, Rolexes and Hermès Birkins occupy the upper strata of society, while those more unfortunate are represented by durians or dirty paintbrushes. But the treatment of these characters in the diegetic world does not make sense.
For instance, Liu Lian is prevented from boarding a bus when the bus driver flashes the ‘no durians’ sign we’ve all seen on public transport. One would imagine that in a world where people can literally be durians, such a symbol would not mean what it does in the actual world. That is, we would not be able to read this scene by making sense of the durian in the film, a representation of a person, by calling on our experiences with the no durian sign in everyday Singapore. Additionally, when the Lamb Chop’s mother dies, they mourn for a while, then skin her and boil her for dinner.
This absurdism is also present in the treatment of the Lamb Chop, who, as a raw piece of meat, seems destined for sex work. But this purpose changes as well when she decides to commit suicide. Just before she jumps off the HDB roof, she sees a billboard promoting a perfectly cooked lamb chop, a ‘piece of heaven’. I take it to mean that a piece of meat must conform to the expectations imposed in order to be appreciated by society. It’s a meaningless world, and when confronted by the senselessness of it all, the Lamb Chop decides to commit suicide.
All of these absurdist symbols ultimately create a world where there is no meaning, order, or justice. But it is in this absence of meaning that we can make our own understanding and associations. In this case, it might be pointed references to the inequality hidden in Singapore. While we laugh at the sight of the durian sign, it could also be a thinly veiled reference to the discrimination that members of minority groups may face.
As for the Lamb Chop, her death is a clear reference to absurdism. As Kierkegaard and Camus wrote, suicide is one way to confront meaninglessness. But it’s also a nod to the difficulty of those in the lower strata of society who struggle to emerge from the poverty cycle; who are driven to desperate measures to keep afloat (which is also referenced in the eating of the mother).
Notably, the irony of the film is also that it commodifies visual tropes of Singaporean poverty – the dirty and cramped HDB as well as the filthy shophouses, to name a few. Had it been a film with human characters, it may seem too painful or sensitive to put onscreen. But that’s where the absurdism comes in–while it couches the point in comedy, it actually cuts to the bone.
This commodification should still be taken note of, though. At its best it can bring awareness to certain issues and make us question our assumptions about our world. At its worst it can reinforce harmful stereotypes and mindsets. But we can still agree on this. What seems to be an amusing, comedic and surrealist journey becomes a painful reminder of our own reality. And that’s what the absurd invites.
– Ethan Kan