Labyrinthine Longings in Dreaming & Dying

By Shariffah Ili Hamraa

Singaporean director Nelson Yeo’s debut feature Dreaming & Dying (2023) delves into the complexities of human relationships in its portrayal of three middle-aged adults who yearn for connection. The latest in the local canon of films exploring restlessness and disillusionment—Yen Yen Woo and Colin Goh’s Singapore Dreaming (2006) and Eric Khoo’s Twelve Storeys (2007) come to mind—, Dreaming & Dying offers a bold and oneiric take on the genre. Notably, the film is an extension of Yeo’s short film Dreaming which screened at the 32nd Singapore International Film Festival in 2021.

Dreaming & Dying follows the reunion of three former classmates; two are a couple who remain unnamed throughout the film, and the other is Heng, a bachelor. The get-together transports them back in time, and they reminisce days of adolescence long gone. Each of them yearns to escape into a reality different from the one they inhabit. It is revealed that the wife harbours a deep yet restrained affection for the suave and athletic Heng – a far cry from her stout and boorish husband. A love triangle ensues, or perhaps, is rekindled.

Dreaming & Dying interweaves multiple narratives that superimpose onto one another, teetering between reality and fantasy. The film incorporates intertextual references to Chinese folklore, drawing parallels between the love triangle and A Mermaid’s Tale – a book that the wife is seen to be reading. Giving into the world of fantasy not unlike that of a deeply infatuated teenager, the wife even rehearses lines in a conversation she anticipates with Heng. Fantasy and reality soon meet when the pair share a warm and intimate moment on the beach. This is echoed in Yeo’s director’s statement, “I am primarily interested in exploring how we choose to remember things in our own ways, and as time passes, those fantasies sometimes become realities; the idea that certain things, however meaningless, can take on their own meaning over time.”

While Yeo makes a noble attempt in his Escherian exploration of the subjectivity of memory, Dreaming & Dying starts to lose the audience in the second act when the couple embark on a Buddhist ritual of 放生 (fàng shēng) which translates to ‘the release of living creatures’. The couple enter the forest to perform this ritual in a bid to cure the husband of his deteriorating health. Their entrance is announced by the sudden appearance of the film’s title card followed by a cut to the riverside where Heng is shown to remove his pants and reveal to the wife that he is a merman whose habitat is being eliminated.

While the ritual of fàng shēng is deftly utilised as an allegory of the characters, who are all held captive in some way—the wife is shackled by her loveless marriage, her husband, by his inferiority complex, and Heng, by his form as a merman—the film’s magic realism demands too much of a suspension of belief. Dreaming & Dying breaches narrative coherence with its disconnected sequences and it becomes a wearying task for audiences to grasp what is grounded in the diegetic world’s reality and what is not. The largely ruminative and sombre film also intersperses moments of absurdity that take you out of the story. A tender moment shared between Heng and the wife is quickly undercut by the crude moment of the husband desecrating a heart shape that Heng had previously carved into the sand, turning it into a phallus. The film’s uncanny zooms into and out of characters’ feet, and a split-second frame of a bare butt also confound, though they are admittedly memorable. Ultimately, the three characters are shown to embark on their own personal journeys with one another—the wife and husband on a journey to heal their relationship, the wife and Heng officiating their reunion as mermaid and merman, and Heng as a talking fish whose past life was entwined with the husband’s. In spite of this thematic convergence, the stories seem to exist disparately and the scenes transition into one another without fluidity. As such, it is often hard to see how the arcs actually intertwine. While the coalescing of reality and fantasy is perhaps Yeo’s goal, the story is often too puzzling and frustrating to decipher.

Even so, it is worth mentioning that Dreaming & Dying enthrals with its stunning cinematography that evidently encapsulates the spirit of the film. Its title, derived from the Chinese idiom 醉生梦死 (zuì shēng mèng sǐ) meaning ‘living a life as if drunk or in a dream’, alludes to the soft and gauzy cinematography which paints a dream-like picture of Singapore’s landscapes. The shot of Heng and the wife embracing under the moonlight is an image so gripping, it is sure to linger in your mind.

Perhaps it is the nature of dreaming and dying to be ambitious in our yearning and indulgent in our abstractions.

Heng and the wife embracing under the moonlight.


Dreaming & Dying, 2023. Image from Dreaming & Dying.