The Soft In-betweens of Asian Masculinity in Tomorrow Is A Long Time

By Maximilian Sin


雨夜花, 雨夜花
yǔ yè huā, yǔ yè huā
Flowers in the evening rain

shòu fēng yǔ chuī luò dì
fall to the earth against the storm

wú rén kàn jiàn měi rì yuàn jiē
No one will see the regrets of each day

huā xiè luò tǔ bù zài huí
for the withered flowers on the ground, never to return

Less is truly more in Jow Zhi Wei’s Tomorrow Is A Long Time (2023). Filled more with pause than movement, the pertinent messages in the film lie not in what is said but what is not. Set in the lesser seen peripheries of working-class Singapore, the film follows widowed pest exterminator Chua and his teenage son Meng as they navigate their tenuous relationships with each other and with themselves. Chua is increasingly exhausted from work and longs for the comfort of his family yet forces himself to take up more shifts to make ends meet. Meng is a sensitive boy who wants to connect with his father but is at a loss for how. After coming into bad company and taking the fall in an assault on another student at school, Meng enlists early into military conscription to avoid being tried as an adult in court. Sent out into the forests of Taiwan, Meng is forced to reckon with being his father’s son and who he is beyond that identity.

While Tomorrow Is A Long Time is a father-son film at its core, it is also a gentle study of Asian masculinity and the sociocultural restraints placed on how men should relate to and care for one another. Men in the film often find themselves in difficult environments which disallow expressions of vulnerability. For Chua, the long hours of pest-extermination are mostly spent walking alone through empty expanses of derelict compounds, methodologically spraying toxic fumes, and listening to the monotonous humming of the fog machine. For Meng, violent hazing rituals with the school bullies take the place of meaningful friendships while his father’s increasing number of shifts at work cause them to miss more and more of each other at home.

Yet, between each scene are transient moments between the ebb and flow of life where father and son reach out in the dark, desperately, to hold each other. I want to call these twilight moments the “in-betweens”—of waking and sleeping, life and death, day and night. It is only in these in-betweens that Chua and Meng allow themselves to be vulnerable with each other, more as phantoms than as men.

There is a magnetism to how Jow takes us from scene to scene, a disjunctive yet certain rhythm of life between Chua and Meng which keeps them in tune with each other. Each scene seems both too long and not long enough; too long that the audience grows uncomfortable from having to watch Meng struggle to make eye contact with his distant father, yet not long enough for the two men to find any meaningful resolution to the gaps in their relationship. In this manner, the camera is like a phantom itself, lingering on the two men in their most vulnerable moments, yet not long enough for the audience to witness any form of catharsis. We are drawn to their lives, but kept at a distance, just as how father and son are to each other. The shots Jow takes of their everyday lives are mostly simple scenes, but they strike at something more intimate within us. Perhaps it is the attention to detail: the shots at home come across as unmistakably Singapore to a local audience. Every corner of their apartment, from the Taoist altar in the living room to the makeshift dining table in the small wet kitchen, reveal their home to be one of the many public housing flats wherein most Singaporeans grow up.

The camera finds each man in their moments of solitude, pining and longing for the unspoken, strangers to their own feelings towards both self and each other. Slow, long shots take up most of what we see as Chua’s less-than-glamorous pest control work, evoking an only burgeoning sense of unsettling as the camera creeps across the hollowed sites Chua is assigned to work at, his health slowly deteriorating with each additional shift he undertakes. It is only in the in-betweens where the camera pauses, and Chua allows himself any recollection. It is only in the odd hours of the night between shifts when he returns home and goes to his slumbering son for a deep embrace in the dark. It is only in these in-betweens that we see his exhaustion, vulnerability, and deepest desire to be a father. Meng too seeks out these in-betweens; he visits his father secretly during late-night shifts, watching—as the audience does from our shared point of view as voyeurs—before disappearing quickly once his father senses that he is being watched. In the in-between, Chua and Meng contend with their love for each other, from afar and long after waking hours.

Jow’s original Mandarin title for the film is 《明天比昨天長久》, which translates to “tomorrow will be longer than yesterday”. It is a nod to the unfathomable relativity of time as simultaneously too long and too short, and the fleeting, transient, and unpredictable chances to say what we want to the people we love.

Reading at times as a confession, Tomorrow Is A Long Time tells of the soft in-betweens where men are allowed to be vulnerable with each other and the urgency with which we want to go there.