11 September 2017


By Koh Zhi Hao

As part of SGIFF’s New Waves dialogue sessions, we invite an alumni from our Youth Jury and Critics’ programme to respond to the the conversation and provide their perspective into the filmmaker’s works.


The term “animation”, within the broader purview of cinema, might be seen as pejorative—one that necessarily limits and curtails the potential for meaning or depth of expression that an animated film possesses. It assumes and relegates the entire category of animation into an afterthought, rendering it an entertaining trifle at best, mindless drivel at worst. Works such as Charlie Kaufmann’s Anomalisa or those of influential American duo Brothers Quay are the ardent antithetical counterpoints to this oversimplified view. They are thoughtful, mature and profound pieces of art that tackle complex subject matter that are often associated with the best of live-action or arthouse cinema. Being animated, in fact, contributes meaningfully as a mode of expression for these films as they are ever the more lucid and boundless in their expressions. It is in this latter tradition that multi-hyphenate writer-director-stop motion animator Jerrold Chong plies his craft in during the last session of SGIFF’s New Waves program, moderated by fellow artist Mike HJ Chang. Mastermind behind lush works such as Eclipse (2016) and Ways of Seeing (2015), Jerrold packs an ocean of emotional immediacy and depth beneath the surface stylistic charms of his characters.


The worlds in Jerrold’s creation operate primarily in the liminal space between dreamscapes and hard-nosed reality. They are evocative of the ambiguous magical realities that recall to mind the works of writers like Haruki Murakami and Salman Rushdie. The laws governing space and time reflect the same liminality; it stretches, dilates, accelerates, transports and collapses at will—at times one by one, at times all at once. It accords with philosopher Henri Bergson’s formulation of time not as a concept that communicates continuity or temporal distance, but rather fixed moments or points that are akin to alternate or even parallel realities. “Thanks to the third dimension of space, all the images making up the past and future are … not laid out with respect to one another like frames on a roll of film … But let us not forget that all motion is reciprocal or relative: if we perceive them coming towards us, it is also true to say that we are going towards them” (Bergson, Duration and Simultaneity, 1965).


If anything, Jerrold’s conception of space and time is governed by the narrative thrust; it begins, deceptively and simply enough, with a linear understanding as both character and audience are dropped into his world. Serving as a touchstone to reality, it orients us, placing one foot in the familiar and the other in the unknown. When the line between reality and dreams are prodded and tested, as they invariably are in his films, the logic governing space and time goes right along with it, morphing and warping into something that defies logic or understanding but demands feeling. The gap in understanding between person to person that Jerrold strives to express in his work is also evocative of philosopher Jacques Lacan’s Register Theory, which he defines through the triptych of the symbolic, the imaginary the and real. Jerrold deals with a similar dissection; in his films, there is personal interior self, the external reality beyond the personal and the relational existence between persons or beings.  


Mike HJ Chang (left) and Jerrold Chong (right) (Photo by Dean Koh)

Jerrold’s surrealism of parallel spaces and indefinite time speaks directly to the filmmaker’s understanding of the world and human connection; it is one that is married to the idea of subjectivity that filmmaker Luis Buñuel birthed with his absurdist Un Chien Andalou, as well as Ingmar Bergman, who famously employed such methods in the opening sequence of Persona (which was also shown during the session). It brings to mind physicist Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, where the reliability of space and time rests with the observer. Jerrold deploys this idea of relativity through the lens of sense perception; though we share similarly imperfect senses, they serve as mediums that we interact the world with, refracting and distorting existence as we see it. Reality then, is slippery.  


This notion of subjectivity is most saliently explored in Ways of Seeing, which tells of the chance meeting between Nicholas and Lily. Both characters are bereft of sight, though Nicholas had the relative fortune (or misfortune depending on how full or empty your glass is) of losing his sight at 10 as opposed to Lily, who has never had the privilege. The sound design works to significant effect, providing a tactile aural landscape that approximates for us the ways of experiencing, or “seeing”, that the two partake in. The sense of touch is terrifically pivotal in the film—its sound design plays up every crash of the waves, the crunch of the sand and rocks, as well as the ache and rustle of the branches and leaves. We are made acutely aware of the tangibility and palpability of these objects and scenes, though with the inclusion of the animated image, Jerrold complicates the connection between the characters. However fragmented or splintered the image or sight may be for Nicholas, it represents the unbridgeable chasm between his sensory perception and experience of the world and Lily’s, for whom even truncated sight remains inaccessible. Nicholas’ assertion that “all we have to do is pay attention” then rings ironically in this light. Try as we might, there remain gaps and differences that cannot be overcome. The ending of the film then accords perfectly with its main thematic thrust—their lopsided connection is severed inexplicably and prematurely as Lily abruptly disappears into the ether with nary an explanation or reason. The notion of space and time has been bent and twisted, and we are all left none the wiser. Coexistence in Jerrold’s worlds, perhaps, is fleeting, vague and any lasting permanence is downright impossible.


The characters created by Jerrold are very much in keeping with his general approach towards storytelling—they are wanderers whose goals or motivations are oblique and nebulous. Not so much empty shells as they are blank slates, canvases that viewers can interact with and project their own fears and anxieties upon. In this way, his characters feel closer to actual human beings, whose innermost desires and fears are never truly fully and completely comprehended or accessible to another. If they do have any aim at all, then the most general reduction I can provide is their desire for human connection and bonding.


Film Still from Eclipse

In Eclipse, it takes on the form of a reconciliation; the son, beseeched by a note, takes a train ride out to the cabin in the woods to visit his ailing father. The film is a wordless odyssey of metaphor as the son goes on a meditative journey with a flannel-wearing moose, culminating in the transformation of the moose into his father, restoring with the ephemerality of an eclipse, symbolic of their strained and transient relationship. Connection for Jerrold once again, is evanescent and vanishing, purporting perhaps that fulfilment of inner desires and happiness is distressingly and devastatingly short-lived.


What’s unique and key to Jerrold’s aesthetic sensibility is the way he harnesses the extraordinary and fantastical potential of animation to reflect and refract the real and quotidian. His images thrum with verve; layer upon layer, they are a voyage into the astounding and outlandish. At the heart of his work lies the raw, emotional reality of missed connections, insurmountable fissures and imperial solitude. These two seemingly incompatible elements work together precisely because of Jerrold’s deep dive into the realm of subjectivity and fracturing reality. He takes all that is inexpressible and doesn’t so much fathom them as he does distil and crystalize its moods and tones—a sensualist through and through. What’s achieved isn’t a proper or total uncovering or understanding of the other, an outcome that is arguably futile; but of the next best thing—empathy and commiseration—even if only for a bit, almost like an eclipse.


Koh Zhi Hao is a third year student at Yale-NUS College and a budding filmmaker. He has a deep and abiding love for New York City and wants to live there one day.