What would you find on a journey into the forest? This question postmarked the final session of SGIFF’s New Waves, opening up fresh insights to natural encounters. Guiding us through the dense enigma of the forest, a place both tangible and metaphorical, were Vietnamese filmmaker Truong Min Quy and founder of Post-Museum, Jennifer Teo.
Born in Buon Ma Thuot, the central highlands in Vietnam, it is of little surprise that Quy’s films were inspired by natural landscapes. Appearing in his own films eating mud, lying face down in coarse sand, or swimming in mossy green waterholes, Quy seemed entirely at ease with the elements.
Having spearheaded community and art projects relating to the conservation of Bukit Brown, the forest was no foreign space to Jennifer either. Both Jennifer and Quy shared common ground on experiences with nature, their ideas constantly resonating with the theme of preservation.
I have to admit that there were moments in which I, a concrete jungle maiden, felt foreign to such experiences of the forest. Jennifer pointed out the stark difference between the manicured garden city of Singapore and the rustic highlands in Vietnam. For an urban local audience, the powerful landscapes in Quy’s films evoked a peculiar sense of longing, as if hearkening back to an idyllic yet imagined past, where man’s relationship with nature was perfectly intertwined. Call it nostalgia, maybe, and the advocates for the preservation of Bukit Brown might chorus in agreement.
On first impression, Quy’s films seemed like a type of ecological critique. At the start of Someone is Going to Forest, the voice of a tree greets us, a passive witness to man’s actions. A man puts a chainsaw to a trunk and it spurts crimson, literalising man’s harmful deeds on nature. In a similar vein, Mars in the Well lamented the detrimental effects of climate change. But before I pinned the labels of “eco-advocacy” or “environmental artivism” onto Quy’s works, we were called to probe into the deeper, darker aspects of the forest explored in the films.
So we enter the forest. A secluded and private space, the forest opens as a realm of mysterious uninhibited freedom. In Someone is Going to Forest, a man removes his clothes to reveal his primal skin. Enter: a protracted scene of him masturbating into the forest bed. Before the provocative scene, a lady takes her camera and points it straight ahead, implicating us in the act of viewing something extremely private and raw. The deep seclusion of the forest seemed to provoke a need for uninhibited desire, generating unsettling sentiments. In another scene, Quy wades through a stream, falls to his knees, grabs a chunk of mud and bites into it. When Jennifer asked if this was for real, Quy quipped that he saw the mud, and felt a strong urge to eat it. The forest does not merely connote romantic nostalgia or urban scorn, but draws upon the return to man’s more fundamental needs and expressions; inexplicable, curious and somewhat dangerous.
Thus the forest becomes a canvas for the strange, presenting itself as a space riddled by mysterious stories of all forms. Jennifer shared about the narratives behind Post-Museum’s Bukit Brown research, which surfaced countless ghost tales. As one of the audience members noted, the forest (especially for Singaporean men) is also associated with darker military days. Quy’s films picked up on similar stories with augmented complexity. He wielded artistic license in Someone is Going to Forest, switching voices between an omniscient tree narrator and his own vulnerable self to present a report of a forest rape and murder case conflated with a personal story of paternal estrangement. The reliability of narration was constantly put into question, echoing the statement made by the tree’s voice at the film’s beginning, “I don’t know if I should tell a story, a fictional one or a true one?”
Fiction or truth, Quy’s montages obstinately refused clear boundaries to allow imaginative possibilities. By projecting an imagined scenario of man on Mars onto the Vietnamese landscape, Mars in the Well took the absurd notion that in 2059 Saigon would be submerged and Vietnam would be the first nation to bring people to Mars. Quy filmed himself scaling the natural cragged surfaces of Bu Dang as if it were extraterrestrial topography, creating a tongue-in-cheek commentary of climate-saving efforts. The amalgamation of factual reportage (see NASA’s 2014 plan to bring people to Mars after Earth’s destruction) and imaginative visualization was amusingly kitsch and mocking.
The session heightened our recognition of man’s idiosyncratic relationship with the forest. In Someone is Going to Forest, a woman with a camera explores the forest with eyes of awe, donning a scarlet jacket that stood out starkly against the lush green backdrop. In the following sequence, the same coat is seen floating down bubbling rapids. The imagery is suggestive, especially after we are told that the woman was eventually raped and murdered. Later, a man in an equally stark orange jacket, suggested to be the murder suspect, walks toward a crevice of a huge tree trunk and disappears. Once a visually obtrusive presence, it seemed as though the tree had swallowed him up, obliterating him. The themes explored by Mars in the Well and Post-Museum’s protest against the destruction of Bukit Brown also remind us of our exacerbated relationship with nature. No longer a passive victim of man’s actions, the forest can become insidiously destructive when we meddle with it.
There is common advice for those entering a natural environment: “take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints”. Conscious that the forest is not a force to be trifled with, yet something beautifully enigmatic, Quy and Jennifer actively performed the act of recording instead. Someone in the audience described the works as “melancholically utopian”, summarising the struggle for nostalgic preservation amidst the forest’s rapid destruction. At this final New Waves session, which was at once raw and thought-provoking, we were left with the question Quy cast at the end of Mars in the Well: “What do you think?”