Singapore’s films within the coming-of-age genre have touched on a variety of topics close to the hearts of young Singaporeans – from the exploration of sexuality and discovering skeletons in the closet in Sandcastle (Boo Junfeng, 2010) to going through the rite of passage that is National Service in Ah Boys to Men (Jack Neo, 2012).
But it always seemed to me that there was a lack of discussion on the issue of spirituality – another aspect of our individual identity that can be one of the hardest to navigate, especially so in a multi-religious society. Which was probably why Michael Tay’s Severance, which makes its Singapore premiere at the festival, left such an impression on me.
Based on a true story, Severance is a peek into the few hours of the life of a 20-year-old that will change his life forever. Joseph has just lost his father and unlike his mother, finds no comfort in praying to the Buddhist goddess Kwan Yin Ma. Rather, we soon learn that he is spiritually lost, caught between Buddhism, the religion he was born into, and Christianity, new territory he explores with the encouragement of a friend and an older mentor.
The character of Joseph is one that young Singaporeans can easily relate to- a young teenager who speaks little to his mother, loves Guns N Roses and watches porn. The range of emotions he experiences – swinging from indifference to angst to happiness and then more angst- was impressive given that the film runs for only slightly over ten minutes.
Most aspects of the plot are based on the true experiences of a someone a friend knew, Tay revealed in a chat we had. But some other aspects were inspired by stories he had heard about the challenges of having members of different religions in the same family, and the latent tension it can produce in day-to-day life, such as at the dining table.
Tay does not make the mistake of over-indulging in the spiritual struggle of Joseph, and instead, contextualises his personal story against a socio-political backdrop when there was some inkling of religious tensions in the country. The year 1997 is no coincidence, for that was the year of the controversial General Election in Cheng San, which had the Prime Minister accusing an opposition candidate of being “anti-Christian”. However, there is the chance that the reference might be lost on younger viewers who have not heard of the controversy.
Notably, there is also a lack of the personal style we saw in Tay’s previous work, notably his 2009 stop-motion masterpiece Wet Season. But perhaps stylistics is not the aim of Severance, which Tay may have instead intended to be call for Singaporeans to discuss issues of religious tension more openly, rather than our constant avoidance of the topic.