5 July 2017

NEWWAVES • In the Confession Booth: Truth and Grit on a Filmic Canvas • Nelicia Low X Cyril Wong

By Tanvi Rajvanshi

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.

Is there something selfish about making art that draws wholly from the artist’s self, and nothing else? Perhaps there is, but filmmaker Nelicia Low’s Freeze is a worthy example of how an artist’s selfishness has the potential to create something that brings its audience a little closer to themselves. Paired with poet Cyril Wong – known for his confessional and risqué works which celebrate the darker side of human nature – their discussion at the second instalment of the SGIFF’s New Waves program last week highlighted the importance of digging into the self when writing, despite the vulnerability required on the writer’s part. Centred on the main protagonist Hui, Nelicia’s acclaimed short film Freeze depicts Hui’s constant need to be told that she is loved – an obsession that later drives her to mistreat her autistic brother despite her own love for him.

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Watching Freeze reminded me of an activity I did in drama class some time back. I had to write down something that happened to me that day. Under it, how that event made me feel.

I used a word incorrectly in class.
I felt embarrassed.

Why did you feel this way?

Because it made me look stupid.

But why do you think that makes you look stupid?

And so I had to keep asking myself why until I reached the eventual conclusion – because I had thought that I was not good enough. That apparently was my driving insecurity.

Nelicia’s protagonist, Hui, leaves her autistic brother in the freezer by film’s end, but why? Psychologist Sigmund Freud once famously wrote of “The Repressed” – described as a psychological defence mechanism of sorts; the precondition for which requires one to have an instinct which when satisfied, produces pleasure that later turns into un-pleasure. So, one buries that instinct because the repercussions of un-pleasure are much higher than the benefits of pleasure. Freud (1989) explained, “the essence of repression lies simply in turning something away, and keeping it at a distance, from the conscious”.

Freeze performs the formidable task of making its audience conscious of the act of repression. Freud’s writing has long had a connection with the moving image. Surrealist filmmakers in the early 1900s, inspired by Freud’s theories on dreams and the unconscious, sought to use film as a means to depict that inaccessible realm of the human mind. In contrast, what Nelicia has done with Freeze is an example of how narrative cinema can attempt to reach psychological depths to similar effects.

But why bare open the repressed in writing a film, or in writing poetry? Why draw from the discomfort of the deep and personal when it could be less taxing to write about something else? This question of why is like shaking a sieve. Every time you ask yourself “why”, a little more of your protective armour falls through the mesh to leave behind your raw vulnerabilities. In this New Waves session, it became clear that perhaps the writer’s and the audience’s shared discomfort is the point. Freeze demonstrates the potential film can have in making the audience see themselves in a light they consciously avoid. To do this successfully, however, the writer has to bathe in that same light.

Nelicia Low and Cyril Wong (Photo by Dean Koh)

Nelicia had no qualms about discussing the ways her own life with her autistic brother informed the writing process of her film. In fact, she wrote her insecurities into Hui, even though Hui’s crippling need for affirmation is expressed in her dynamics with her husband, an obviously fictional departure from Nelicia’s own life. Cyril, on the other hand, noted that confessional poetry operates with a more pronounced degree of factual accuracy; for instance, a father cannot be written about as a brother or a friend. Perhaps this is because unlike a screenwriter, a poet has to say more with less. A screenwriter-director has both words and images at his or her disposal. The crucial similarity, however, is that both mediums give the artist a new language with which to speak their truths. Cinematic language and poetry both have their own devices and techniques to turn the quotidian into metaphors for something deeper and more universal.

Nelicia uses that language to set out a clever and elaborate trap with substantial success. In the scene at the dining table for instance, we see Hui and her husband in the frame. She lovingly offers him a prawn, which he denies. As her face falls, the camera swiftly pans to the left to put Hui and her brother in frame. She dumps the rejected prawn in her brother’s bowl, who eats it without a word. In this almost wordless interaction, Nelicia weaves that complicated dynamic between Hui, her husband, and her brother – enticing us to eavesdrop into this family’s life. Seemingly a story about other people, we fall into the trap of deriving pleasure from watching their dysfunctional lives unfold. What we don’t realize is that eventually their dysfunctionality becomes our own.

Nelicia pushes this idea further when shortly after the dinner scene, Hui and her husband are captured having sex. The camera determinedly avoids their faces and instead the screen is filled with their arms and midriffs. For an audience so used to seeing passionate faces in a typical sex scene, the exclusive focus on bodies can be frustrating. That very frustration, however, alerts us to our own intrusive nature as a cinematic audience, and thus hints at the voyeurism we repress. After all, it is not socially correct behaviour to peep into other people’s moments of intimacy, yet watching this in a cinema goes unquestioned. In fact, a cinema can be read as a “safe space” to temporarily satisfy our repressed instinct to be voyeurs. However, by focusing away from her character’s faces, Nelicia creates discomfort; making us aware of this instinct we carry with us into the cinematic realm. We find ourselves in an active viewing experience in which we are immersed in slowly bringing up drives we (typically) repress.

When we see Hui crawling into her brother’s bed after her husband leaves, Nelicia traps us into a deeper expanse from wherein we, just like Hui, cannot avoid a confrontation within ourselves. This resounds clearly in the moment after Hui’s husband finds her with her brother, slamming a reflective metallic door in her face. We then see the reflection of a face that betrays both exasperation and humiliation. By an immensely considered play between concealing and revealing, Nelicia keeps us with Hui and not ahead of her. This is further amplified by the film’s square format, keeping us in Hui’s perspective via claustrophobic tight focus throughout. When she makes that decision to lock her brother in the freezer, the audience is complicit not just as viewers, but perhaps also as perpetrators, because they have embodied Hui’s mind during the entire film.

The moment that dark repressed vulnerability reveals itself to Hui, it opens up the potential for an audience member’s own repressed vulnerabilities to surface. As Cyril noted, this film is terrifying because it exposes us to the potential extent of our own ugliness. The intensely personal nature of the film brings forth a kind of cruelty we repress so far down that we disacknowledge even having it in the first place. Watching the candidness of both Nelicia and Cyril goes to show that when artists reach deep into themselves, it not only reconciles their own issues, but can result in art that reconciles the audiences’ as well.

Of course being this confessional can result in polarized reactions from the audience. But having any reaction to confessional writing shows that it has succeeded in challenging its receiver’s moral compass. This is the point of being confessional, of going through the unforgiving and arduous task of finding your own insecurities – only to write them into characters and situations for strangers to see and read. The point is to create a moment of confrontation, so that perhaps in recognizing what we have repressed, we can crawl an inch further towards knowing and accepting our flaws.

When the film ends with Hui’s brother singing while locked inside the freezer, his low baritone voice almost harmonizing with the threatening hum of the freezer’s blast, a question inevitably looms in the minds of the audience. Have you ever felt like locking a loved one in the freezer?

I might have. Why? Perhaps I’ll just never know.

Tanvi Rajvanshi has a background in English Literature and Film Studies. She is currently a Research Assistant at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, NUS.