What Dreams Are Made Of

By Eisabess Chee

What’s in a dream?
Is it that which is presumably not “real”? Is it the imaginary, the visionary, or the hallucinatory? Is it stuffed full of things that lie somewhere between lived experiences and the not-real, aloft with surrealism, unpinnable like a wondrous wandering cloud?

Image Credit: High Way, dir. Chia Chee Sum, 2017

This question lies at the heart of Programme 2 of the Southeast Asian short films in competition, a line-up that transports you briefly into a dream world. This dream world is not the kind where your wishes come true, but the kind where dreams metamorphose into nightmares as they simultaneously whisk you away into the sublime.

Perhaps Duong Dieu Linh’s Mother, Daughter, Dreams is the best exposition for this. Truly, as the title declares (if rather tersely), the film centres on a mother-daughter duo and the dreams they unspeakingly share. At first, their paths cross only by necessity: Phuong is called home to unlock the gate for her mother, who stands stranded outside the house after walking away from a marital argument. It is an encounter brimming with anger and misunderstanding, not unlike most parent-child relationships we know. As Phuong sets out on a mission to look for her now-runaway father, more and more of her secrets (or dreams? Nightmares?) are unearthed, leading us to realise that she is more alike to her mother than she’d like to think.

Part of Mother’s enigma is its viscerality. The film evokes plenty of trypophobic and corporeal elements. All these depictions of bodily discomfort are at once repulsive and seductive. Your skin crawls at the nauseating sight, and yet you cannot help but stare, bewitched, willing the imagery to go on. When the end finally arrives, your relief is tinged with disappointment; the feeble ending does not mollify your burning curiosity.

This same physiological reflex is similarly explored in Ballad of Blood and Two White Buckets by Yosep Anggi Noen, in which the body becomes the site of duplicity. Here, blood takes the spotlight in a sketch of a couple trying to eke out a marginal existence against overpowering forces.

The title screen will have you believe that the title is meant to refer to two things: A ballad of blood as well as two white buckets. But Ning’s relentless coughing hack is grating on the ears, discordant, and spews bright crimson droplets into the white buckets that dance a mockery out of them. It might therefore be wise to consider also that the blood and two white buckets – all actual manifestations in the film – are themselves participants in a convulsive cavort. Because we never find out Ning’s diagnosis, her cough becomes symbolic. It is a virus that rips through minds, a disease that rabidly consumes culture, an invasion that the body tries to eject from its premises.

In spite of the jarring tune their bodies sputter out, Ballad’s narrative sails along smoothly, a soft portrait of Ning and Mur as victims of society’s hypocrisy. One has no choice but to sit through this quietly nightmarish journey, undertaken by two characters whose only resistance to society happens to be an involuntary one. And we endure the cough in hopes of a cure – only to be met with endless cacophony.

In spite of the jarring tune their bodies sputter out, Ballad’s narrative sails along smoothly, a soft portrait of Ning and Mur as victims of society’s hypocrisy. One has no choice but to sit through this quietly nightmarish journey, undertaken by two characters whose only resistance to society happens to be an involuntary one. And we endure the cough in hopes of a cure – only to be met with endless cacophony.

A more optimistic approach to the same idea of the repressed individual is evident in Chia Chee Sum’s High Way. At first glance, you wouldn’t think of the film as being anything other than a lighthearted jab at a grown man’s amusing expedition through his environment. The industrial warble of the motorcycle is deadpan to the point of being silly, and soon it becomes the soundtrack of the entire film. You also realise at some point that the title is a homage to Danial’s plying of the “high way” – as in, plying the walkways of the high rise public housing complexes.

Image Credit: A Room With a Coconut View, dir. Tulapop Saenjaroen, 2018

Because of the sleepy backdrop against which this short film is set, it is easy to be lulled into a placid satisfaction about the point of the story. Don’t fall for it. The story is innately suspended between tension points, yanked at as it is from all corners by the invisible reins of offscreen voices and characters. Danial is trapped between two worlds, neither of which owns or belongs to him. His prized possessions are thus effectively artefacts of an endless mission to preserve individual expression. The one chance he has for a meaningful encounter is snatched away from him by poor timing, and, as before, endings are not conclusions.

Like Danial, Boy from Manila is Full of Men Named Boy by Stephen Lee is between two places. Boy finds himself back in Manila for his father’s birthday celebrations and decides to purchase a child to impress his father. His American accent gives him away with every new encounter; it doesn’t help that all over the city, everyone seems more preoccupied with Michael Jackson’s passing than with their own domestic strife. In the end, the only consolations he can draw upon are the unsolicited condolences for the King of Pop’s demise – an insufferable “I’m sorry for your loss” refrain – and that, indeed, Manila is full of men named Boy.

But consolation is not closure, and with that, Boy’s loneliness is painfully sharpened. Is a Filipino migrant really living the American dream when his work is not as aspirational as everyone thinks? Is it not a nightmare to have to return to a home that has long displaced and disowned you? When you look like one type of people but speak like another, how do you negotiate your identity and navigate the topography of assimilation? Boy’s desire to fit in, even in places left unseen, is heartbreaking.

What would the difference be then if one were to take on the role of a tourist, a sightseer, or one who’s visiting for pleasure instead?

Let us consider Tulapop Saenjaroen’s A Room With a Coconut View then. Alex is a foreign guest being taken on a tour by Kanya in Bangsaen, a famous beach town in Thailand. The film opens exactly the way one expects a beach town to feel: Lush music, the calm rush of the waves, the inviting white sheets of clean and amply-sized rooms. Kanya’s tour is eclectic at first, but one slowly warms up to her personality, pleasant and genial despite being an automated voice. But Alex is not content to remain a stereotype and keeps probing: “[I]s there anything else that is not literally in the frame you want to tell me?”

His dissatisfaction would eventually lead him to other parts of the beach town in a dream-like sequence that begins as an ennobled search for truth, but which ends up being a journey of self-growth instead. Alex learns the hard way that one cannot be both foreign and local: To truly know something is to strip it of its enshrouding mysticism. Such barriers, once removed, reveal nothing but the monotony of lived reality.

Fundamentally Room is a diss on the tourism industry and the patina it liberally burnishes over whole places, particularly tropical destinations like Bangsaen. And most foreigners are happy to buy into marketed glossies, with local industries ramping up infrastructure and culture accordingly to meet these demands – that, Kanya implies, is the endgame of touristic transactions. The middle ground that Alex seeks, the real in the unreal, is impossible. There is no middle ground between holiday and actuality. He can either accept Kanya’s curated tour as is, or go on a trip that will only circle him back to himself. This is not a nightmare. This is reality.

Room also in some sense speaks for the rest of Programme 2. A dream is rarely all glitter and rainbows and unicorns – or rather, we’d tend to be suspicious of such dreams. Too often we are bugged by the nagging feeling that there is more, there is more, always looking for ways to pull back the curtain.

But these films wonder if we are ready for what lies behind.

Catch Programme 2 of the Southeast Asian short films on Fri, 7 Dec 2018, 9.30pm at National Gallery Singapore.