Youth Meets Film: Issue 2, 2018

1 December 2018

What Alvin Lee’s A Time for Us tells us about love in today's society

By Alphonse Loh

Still from A Time for Us, dir. Alvin Lee, 2018


Love is a concept that is omnipresent in our lives – be it love for our friends,  family, or significant others. The portrayal of love in film is often limited to the romantic type, demonstrated by the plethora of romantic films that plague our Netflix homepages. It is worth noting that Love in a broader sense is indeed a prerequisite for society. Our world requires each of us to care for another in order to co-exist. However, everyday society strays further from this utopia. A Time for Us comments on our lack of love, presenting on screen a refreshingly real snapshot of human relations in the modern day, and capturing the zeitgeist of our society today.


The plot of the short film is deceivingly simple. A pregnant woman from the countryside goes to Beijing to purchase a residency permit for her unborn child, a ploy which involves a sham marriage to a man who suffers from aphonia. The crux of the film lies in the fact that we preside in a loveless society. Marriage, a sacrament traditionally reserved as the matrimony between man and woman to establish a partnership for the entirety of their lifetimes is undermined in the film to function as a financial transaction. The plot of the film revolves around completing this financial transaction, so the woman can successfully procure a residency permit for her child. The sham marriage is arranged on the basis of fortuitous happenstance, where the needs of the two individuals line up.


Culturally, the woman is driven to have to partake in this false marriage as a child being born out of wedlock would already inherently be disadvantaged given the stigma in China. With the residency permit, she hopes to (at the least) make up for her decision to bring a child into a world devoid of a domestic environment. Viewers are led to  infer that the father of the child refuses to bear the responsibility of fatherhood. One reaches this conclusion primarily due to the fact that the woman would not be driven nor able to engage in a sham marriage if she already had a husband.Furthermore no one accompanies her on this trip, forcing her to traverse the country alone whilst being pregnant.


The man is forced to partake in this ploy simply as a means to support himself financially. Due to his aphonia, he is marginalized within society and is unable to find a more traditional means of procuring income. That is not to say he cannot support himself because is unable to do any work. Throughout the film, we are shown that he is a skilled cook and is physically able to do housework, yet, he still has to resort to illegal means in order to support himself. This demonstrates this idea of a loveless society, where the man is marginalized and  given the title of “weird man” simply because he is different. It is even more telling that the title of “weird man” is uttered by the neighbor’s small child, emphasizing the idea that we are taught, from a young age, that the inability to fit into predetermined societal norms means that a person is somehow lesser than those who fit the mold.


The film narrative demonstrates that despite being outcasted by society, the man is a caring and loving individual. When the woman whom he had only first met takes ill, he offers lodging and nourishment free of charge. Perhaps due to his naivete, he leaves a stranger unattended in his own home during one scene. This  action that leads to the woman to accidentally break an object that presents itself to possess some sentimental value. Yet, he does not get angry, quickly forgives the woman and makes her dinner. In many ways, the man is the representation of an untainted person. Due to his aphonia, he has difficulty in communicating and perhaps as a result has failed to pick up much of society’s prejudices. He exhibits that kindness and benevolence are innate traits of humanity.


By contrasting the kindness of the man with the jeering of the child, Lee exhibits that it is in fact society who befouls the inherent good in humanity. Although we see that he is kind hearted, we are still made keenly aware that he is still outcasted for something as trivial as a disability. Through the male character, this idea of appearance is effectively explored. Ultimately, the film is a commentary on the hypocrisy of modern society. We are often taught that love trumps hate, that a kind heart is the most important thing –  yet, more often than not, we judge others on their appearance over what is actually important, character.


The film also possesses a romantic element. The hallmarks of a legitimate courtship are present in the illegitimate marriage, albeit at a highly expedited rate. During the short encounter before the ‘couple’  heads to the marriage registry, they experience everything one would expect in a regular romance. They begin living together, preparing food for each other, doing chores together, dancing together, and even, sharing a bed. This short stint of cohabitation is of paramount importance to the independent man, who before this, lacked much social interaction or love, for that matter.


The film speaks to our basic human desire to be loved, and to be cared for. Audiences see the progression of the man as the narrative unfolds. From doing everything, like  setting the bed and cooking, he allows the woman to do these chores instead. Towards the end, she even takes him grocery shopping and cooks him a full meal, of which he consumes ravenously. The porridge is symbolic in the sense that it represents someone doing something for him, and therefore, him relying on someone else.  Having someone do a favor is a pedestrian event in most of our lives, but a significant one in his. This could perhaps be interpreted as a commentary on how we so often take the affection of others for granted. In a broader sense, the time they spent together teaches him about the world. The climax of their whirlwind romance is their dance in the park. This is the first time we see the man display any sort of emotion, in this case, a visible smile. His smile is a very touching moment in the film. But it ends there. The very next day their whirlwind romance concludes as she obtains the marriage certificate and returns home.


Initially, what the film tells us about love in today’s world is rather depressing. It demonstrates to viewers that relationships today are driven not by love but rather by necessity, that our world marginalizes those who are different for the sole reason of being different, and that all that is good doesn’t last and beauty is fleeting. However, the last scene in the film tells a much more touching story. In the last few seconds of the film, we hear the man hum the song which he first danced to with his now wife, taking the first step to break out of his psychogenic aphonia. What this tells us, is that we have the power to change lives. To radically change lives for the better with the only prerequisite for doing so being that we care for and love others.