Decoding Silence in ‘Nothing in the Cries of Cicadas <一抔黄土>’

By Clarice Foo

Set within Choa Chu Kang Cemetery, Chiang Wei Liang gives us Nothing in the Cries of Cicadas (2021), a brooding portrait of a father coping with his mother’s grave exhumation through the son’s (Chiang’s) eyes.

The film opens on a shot of the grandfather lying in bed, back turned towards the viewer. Later, the replication of the grandfather’s silent reaction in both the father and son’s responses to the ongoing exhumation illustrates a 3-tiered intergenerational transmission where it proves difficult to talk about these things among family. In a film where emotions are largely ambivalent, one is left to scrutinise the father’s restrained exterior while he invigilates the exhumation. One speculates the presence of a seething rage manifested in his insistence to stare down the destruction of his mother’s tomb.

The lack of an active voice afforded to on-screen characters signals how little agency people have in derailing the unrelenting wheel of the state. The only line of dialogue is reserved for Chinese radio announcers serving as a mouthpiece for the government’s ultimatum. Rejecting requests “to document the graves of Singapore’s early pioneers”, it is made clear what can occupy space and what cannot – even in death, the dead are called to answer civilian duty in support of “national defence and security needs”. Bending their bodies to the will of the state, their resting places are desecrated and themselves incinerated.

In a way, the film’s English title laments the non-existent power in the protests of the living, while the Mandarin title (translated as ‘a handful of yellow earth’) insinuates that the dead are only as valuable as the land they occupy. Simultaneously, the English version appears to be in reference to a famous haiku of the same name by Masuo Bashō, describing the cicada’s loud mating call even on the cusp of death:

Soon to die
Yet no sign of it
In the cicada’s cry

Noting that cicadas spend 13-17 years buried and surface as an adult for only 4-6 weeks before they die, this underground gestation and subsequent emergence connects the English title to the Mandarin title in its shared theme of earth. Cognisant of the fleeting adult life which renders the cicada’s mating cries doomed, it parallels the tragic life cycles of our tombs and how the living carry on with their ill-fated burial traditions even though the dead are destined to be removed from their soil receptacles.

Freshly inserted joss sticks around a grave are flung aside without second thought by the workers, driving home the futility of ritual gesture and religious labour. Yet, there’s a sense that the mother is already fortunate to have someone claim her remains and ashes – others faded from living memory or no longer tethered by blood ties would then have their cremated remains be scattered to the sea. Taoist chanting played over shots of unearthed graves implies that the exhumations themselves have become a kind of death ritual and naturally, the weight of losing the corporeal imprint of a loved one is still there.

In the final frame of the film, Chiang lingers on a brief moment of fragility. The father breaks his form as he sinks down onto a stool in the kitchen, transformed into a tired silhouette mourning the death of his mother for a second time. Silence has never been so loud.