Till Death Do Us Not Part: The Persistence of the Departed in SGIFF 2021

By Clarice Foo

Hailing from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, the entries in this year’s SEA Short Film Competition, Posterity (Audrie Yeo, 2021), The Scent of Rat Carcasses (Dharma Putra Purna Nugraha, 2021) and Retrace (Trần Thị Hà Trang, 2021) seek to unnerve audiences with the arcane and the taboo. Operating within the relational perimeters of a family unit, the non-human entities in each film unsettle the domestic realities of its characters. At once both unusual and familiar, they invite us to consider what it means for the dead to persist amongst the living.

In Posterity, a young girl’s homemade funeral for a cruelly dismembered pigeon inadvertently calls her grandmother’s soul to materialise in the physical dimension. It is uncertain whether it is the granddaughter’s consumption of the tidbits meant as ritual offerings for the bird, or her compassion for a creature that “died miserably” that is the trigger for the elder’s appearance. But it is clear that the old woman’s brief lingering in the living world is burdened with the regret of unfulfilled ancestral duty. She has failed to bring fortune to her descendants.

The girl sits next to her grandmother’s ghost on a bench a little distance away from the wake.

The grandmother weeps of her failures near the pigeon’s wake and her curious granddaughter joins her to provide comfort, not fully grasping the woman’s devastation. Alluding to an elusive task that carries the weight of intergenerational fate, the elder laments that “Doomed, it’s doomed. Doomed. I failed again…My Child. My poor child. It will never get to see the light of day…This is my karma. I will have to live with it. Life after life. Cycle after cycle.” In referencing the paths of reincarnation in Buddhism, it seems that more than a simple apparition, the grandmother has in fact been reincarnated into the lower form of a hungry ghost. This is probably due to the bad karma she has accumulated as a result of her failing in her duties towards the girl’s mother. Reinforcing this religious interpretation is how she is later seen perched on the horse ridden by the Buddhist pilgrim, Tang Sanzang (唐三藏), of the 16th century Chinese classic, Journey to the West. This act possibly projects her hopes of advancing into a better realm in her next life.

In self-reproach of her inability to bless her progeny, the grandmother kneels on the plate of cockle shells originally intended as an act of ancestral supplication by her adult daughter to her. Later, the young girl suffers a similar fate in which her mother beats her for “playing with dead things” and forces her unto the same shells to pray for forgiveness, fearing the wrath of the gods. Ironically, in ruining the unhatched egg she intended to nurture and beating the empathetic innocence out of her, the mother has unwittingly cut off her daughter’s chance of redeeming the family’s karma with her goodness. Locked back in the cycle of misfortune, it calls back to the film’s opening couplets: “前人载树后人凉, 前人砍樹後人殃” (A tree planted by ancestors provides shade to the next generation, a tree cut down by ancestors brings misfortune to the next generation).

The Scent of Rat Carcasses shares similarities with Posterity: a creature’s demise forms the premise for spiritual encounters and both films feature an offspring reckoning with the departed’s legacy. In Nugraha’s 9-minute short, one observes a daughter navigating her new role of caring for the household left behind by her late father, sparking some indirect paranormal run-ins through the extraction of dead rats.

Nina crouches on all fours and searches for dead rats in the spaces under the kitchen shelves.

Still reeling from the loss, Nina’s mother laments, while stroking a small tuft of her husband’s hair, that for “40 days, his soul remains wandering on earth”. This pre-empts the viewers of the father’s possible return in the coming minutes of the film. For Nina, there is routine maintenance work that still needs to be done in the home, and she steps up to the task while the mother is left to wallow in her own grief. After unsuccessfully locating the decaying vermin in the day, Nina is alerted by a disturbance in the kitchen at night and finds half-eaten and spilled plates of food on the counter. Though the mess could be easily attributed to still-alive rats scurrying around, the spent cigarettes suggest something otherworldly.

That the rat carcasses, and smell of decomposition, persist primarily in the kitchen area, is symbolic of the domestic suppression that the father’s death has imposed onto Nina. Curbing her hopes of freedom, she now cooks, cleans and fixes for her mother who cannot care for herself. While the film’s compressed aspect ratio, abundant use of close-ups and claustrophobic angles work to obscure the viewer’s field of vision and creates suspense, it is also a glimpse into Nina’s psyche­—trapped by the walls that are closing in on her. Her stifled frustrations seep out in the passive-aggressive way she mixes and plates rat poison with rice. And later, when she chops up a raw chicken, her deadpan face is mismatched with the intensity at which she brings down the cleaver in precise swift movements.

While Nina sprays pesticide in the kitchen, her mother claims ambiguously that “Your father put it”, seemingly referencing the pre-existing rat poison that caused the presence of dead rats to begin with. Their lives have come full circle—Nina is now cleaning up the remaining traces of her father’s deeds, replicating his footsteps in exterminating the remaining vermin as well as assuming wardship of her mother, who is unused to living without a patriarch. Her shackles to the home are inescapable, and this is most prominently represented by their pet caged bird. Initially let out by Nina, the bird eventually returns to its wooden prison through its open hatch at the end of the film.

Sharing thisphenomenon of infestation following the death of the family patriarch is Retrace, wherea young boy, Xu, follows the sounds of termites and grapples with the opaque world of adults and their ancient death rites. In the process, he mourns the passing of his grandfather, whose spirit still lingers in the shadows of the home and his monochrome dreams.

The grandfather and the sacrificial buffalo in the dreamscape moments before the whole place catches fire.

lying termites enter the family home in the mountain village during flood season and congregate primarily around the grandfather’s coffin, latching onto the drapes of the wake set-up. They eat away at the wood planks of the coffin while rainwater constantly drips through the roof and soaks the floorboards. The resonant splatter of raindrops, occasional crackle of the termites and intermittent ringing of a gong then fuses together to form a meditative rhythm that lasts for the length of the film and becomes the backing track to the disintegrating family home and funerary procession. One watches the already tenuous sibling relations between Xu’s father, aunts and uncles become even more strained under the heaving blanket of grief and anxiety brought on by the grandfather’s death, just as the torrential rain pours down on the roof and landslides smother the roads. One of the aunt cries, “Everything in the house is about to crumble!”

The boy repeatedly visits a black-and-white flooded dreamscape that appears to be the transitional limbo between death and the afterlife where the grandfather resides, and is likely the same conduit through which the grandfather has visited the grandmother in her dreams. It shares the same element of rain and water in the real world in both sound and visuals, bridging the two realms. This dreamscape directly relates to the Matsuo Bashō’s haiku in the opening of the film, written on his deathbed:

Sick on my journey My dreams will wander This desolate field

In one of the dream sequences, a man paddles his raft through a cluster of half-submerged trees. In the real world, one of these trees was carved into a human-sized vessel for the elder’s body, and used during the cremation ritual. Following the traditions of the Black Thai (an ethnic minority that resides in the northwestern region of Vietnam), the cremation is held at midnight and starts with the ritual sacrifice of a buffalo. This animal is believed to accompany the dead to the afterlife as an asset. In the dimly lit rain, the torches, pounding, chanting, horns and look of horror in the buffalo’s eyes right before it is slain, are as uncomfortable and terrifying for Xu as it is for the viewer ensnared in the mysticism of the whole affair.

The buffalo is later seen with the grandfather in Xu’s dreamscape, which is then engulfed in flames that consume everything as the grandfather’s body is cremated. This is in accordance with their custom that one will enjoy a happy life in muong troi (heaven) if one is bathed in fire after death. Even so, the adults who stand as witnesses to the incineration of their father in the dream realm clamour to not let him leave – Xu’s father and aunt thrash about in the river attempting to reach the grandfather on the other side. It is a cathartic outpouring of grief that up till then, had been largely contained. As if in divine synchronicity, the downpour in the real world comes to a halt, and the river resumes its serene, undisturbed status as the family’s mourning winds to a resolution.

In exploring the timeworn questions of what horror in the familiar might look like, Yeo, Nugraha and Trần have articulated their responses against larger themes of inter-generational dependency and grief, rooted in the visual and verbal dialects of their cultures. Through ghostly visitations, iterations of the dead and yearnings of the living, these films have attempted to lift the curtain veiling the invisible spiritual world and float the possibility that the dead are closer than we think.