Forms of Loss
By Jonathan Chan
In a year saturated with images documenting the fallout of all manner of humanitarian disaster – the bodies that have piled up because of the pandemic, the severity of viral transmissions within vulnerable communities, the material devastation caused by typhoons across Southeast Asia – it was perhaps inevitable that I would come to discern a thread of loss throughout this year’s Southeast Asian Short Film Competition. It has by now become almost trite to speak of the unprecedented transformations that have occurred in everyday life under the shadow of COVID-19. The 31st Singapore International Film Festival itself has been shaped in its image, with screenings at cinemas at halved capacities or on online platforms.
And while those of us in Singapore have lived with a cautious relief as the number of our COVID-19 cases has diminished, cases continue to rise in our neighbouring countries, exacerbated by the typhoons that have slammed into communities in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. These are the home countries of many of the filmmakers whose work is on competition, and it is perhaps just as well that a proximity to death and loss has seeped into so many of their films, whether in depictions of mourning or in gradual reckonings with forms of life that have evaporated under social distancing restrictions. It is, as writer Teju Cole has expressed, not only that we ‘can’t comprehend this much sorrow’, but also that it ‘still feels unreal to wake up every morning in a world as strange as dreams.’1
It is against this ensuing strangeness that we watched the films with masks stretched across our faces as part of the Youth Jury and Critics Programme. Not all films were crafted in such a way that they reflected new realities under the pandemic, but some were intentional in drawing out dominant patterns of socially distanced life. Take Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen’s The Cup (2020), for example. Shot and produced in their home during Singapore’s circuit breaker, the film follows an unnamed, almost-human organism, face waxy with rubbery contours, a metal lid on the top of its head, a black, wind-up crank at the back of its head, and eyes that look like light bulbs. Alone in a recognisably Singaporean housing board flat, the creature ingests the beans that emerge from the top of its head before it begins to steam, coffee pouring out of its eye socket. Its only companion is its shadow, replying in Cebuano to its spoken Teochew, as it complains about the blandness of its brewed coffee. The figure lies on the floor, listening to the passage of traffic, and cuts its ear while trying to snip off a sudden proliferation of fungus-like hairs on its face. The sort of loss presented here is more intuitive: the loss of mobility intensifying the banality of a daily rhythm, a recognisable reflection of the lockdowns that have occurred across the world.
The isolation portrayed in The Cup melds physical stagnancy with the absence of physical affection. In the films Judy Free (2020) and Rocketship (2020), directed by Che Tagyamon and Mathias Choo respectively, this sense of absence is projected onto the gradual disappearances of adult figures from the lives of child protagonists. In the former, Judy’s father is a migrant worker who has left Quezon City in the Philippines for the United States. He returns home for the first time in eight years, only to appear to Judy rendered entirely in pink scribbles and smudges. One is led to question if this is a visual representation of how the children of migrant workers eventually forget what their parents look like, obscurity glossed over by the veneer of childhood wonder. The exchanging of affections – gifts of alcohol and chocolate, picnics at the park, tender moments where Judy and her father compare their big ears – is ephemeral, as her father prepares for his return to the United States by the end of the film.
In the latter, Chinese Singaporean ten-year old Samuel clings to the hope that the allure of a toy rocket ship display will prove irresistible to his absent father, newly separated from him and his mother. Even as his beleaguered mother attempts to clear out their flat of items they no longer need, Samuel holds onto a lantern and his rocket ships, material reminders of his father’s absence. It is an endeavour that only grows in its apparent fruitlessness as the film progresses. Even as both films explore how children react to the transitoriness of adult presences in their lives, both conclude with their specific parental figures absent yet again, illustrating the complicated sociological and economic forces that have engendered familial absence.
How then might a film respond to adult absences that are permanent? In Nishok Nishok’s The Smell of Coffee (2020), he traces a day in the life of Raga, a young Indian Singaporean boy who has been dropped off at his grandmother’s flat. His mother is off making preparations at the temple, so his grandmother dutifully bathes him, prepares snacks for him, and provides a safe place for him to read and play with his toys. Nishok’s directorial eye imbues every scene with a beguiling tenderness, even if Raga’s patti2 remains largely silent throughout the film. The film’s revelation is that its eponymous smell of coffee is, in fact, the smell of burnt offerings made by Raga’s patti to his recently deceased grandfather. In an instant, the silence that preceded it gains a devastating, retrospective weight – his grandmother bears the load of an unspeakable pain, an inarticulable grief. The diffusing scent of burnt memory yields an olfactory space for bereavement, a reminder that is set to persist in the days beyond that which the film depicts.
The question of how to contend with the overbearing, immutable weight of grief is also taken up by Pham Ngoc Lân’s The Unseen River (2020) and Joanne Vasquez Arong’s To Calm the Pig Inside (2020), albeit in the face of the irrationality of natural disasters. Our present climate crisis promises to intensify the frequency of the extreme weather events that have led to flooding, the destruction of homes, and a devastating loss of life. In the days before I wrote this essay, Typhoon Vamco continued to bring metre-high storm surges and landslides to parts of central Vietnam while submerging entire towns in the Philippines. To watch the work of Pham and Arong is to be given a glimpse of how people make sense of the trauma that accompanies the senselessness of natural destruction.
Pham’s The Unseen River is set primarily at a temple by the Mekong River where a young man seeks a spiritual remedy for his sleeplessness. One of the film’s most compelling characters is a monk who has suffered an unspeakable tragedy: his wife and child went missing in a flood, and they appear in his dreams, sitting and staring at one another. Observing the young man’s insomnia, he states that ‘the worst thing about sleeplessness is dreamlessness’, for ‘dreams allow us to see into the past or imagine a future’. Looking to a statue of Buddha set against the mountainside, the monk states that ‘Sitting beneath Buddha’s shadow, I have nowhere to go’. Through the monk, Pham presents a collision of literal and metaphorical rivers: where the coercive force of a flood takes life, acknowledging the flow of a cosmic order brings peace. The restlessness and anger that would otherwise accompany such loss yields to a kind of spiritual resilience in the face of incomprehensible horror.
With Arong’s docufilm To Calm the Pig Inside (2020), the distance ordinarily provided by aestheticised, fictive depictions of natural disasters is closed with a raw, melancholic honesty. Stitched from photos and videos by photojournalists Veejay Villafranca and Piyavit Thongsa-ard, as well as storm chaser James Reynolds, the film documents the devastating aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda on Tacloban City in the Philippines in 2013. Coloured in black and white, Arong narrates her experience volunteering in the city as the shots reveal the towns and buildings reduced to wreckage, the terrifying gales of wind and the crashing of waves, and the survivors, absorbing the sum of the detritus that is laid before them. The film also intersperses archival footage of then president Benigno Aquino insisting that the numbers of the dead have been inflated by reporters, an indictment of what the film argues is governmental neglect.
Like Pham, Arong alludes to a spiritual, metaphorical frame by which tragedy can be contained: according to the urban legend of Buwa, there is a pig that lies at the centre of the earth. When agitated, it causes the earth to shake, and it can only be calmed when its name is called out. Arong, however, seems jaded by the seeming futility of such mythological or supernatural reasoning, even as a combination of indigenous folklore and Catholicism seems to hum beneath the suffering to which she has borne witness. She features a church that has remained intact from the storm, protecting those that sought shelter within it. This is not to say that the remedies of religious belief, whether for the inhabitants of Tacloban City or the fictitious monks by the Mekong, are in any way simple solutions to complex and overlapping modes of devastation. Rather, they provide certain ways of making legible a way of persisting and responding to the great horrors brought about by the ineffable.
In their most compelling moments, these films were able to do what great films do: they drew me out of myself and into the powerful fold of empathy. In many ways they gave expression to the grief I had pondered in response to the devastation, separation, and isolation brought by the pandemic across the world and by the natural disasters across our region. I was invariably reminded of Edmund Burke’s assertion that the ‘nearer [tragedy] approaches reality, and the further it removes us from all idea of fiction, the more perfect its power. But to be its power of what kind it will, it never approaches what it represents.’3
Perhaps it was in this feeling of proximity to loss where these films were at their most effective. Emerging from the theatre, or indeed wherever these films may be screened, may perhaps provide a sense of what it will feel like when the unusual intensity of our present crises begins to recede, just as the alien Boy in Ostin Fam’s Bình (2020) re-enters a planet at once estranged and oddly familiar, inundated in the strangeness of monochrome until the film’s conclusion, colour returning into view once again.
Short films featured:
The Cup, dir. Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen (2020)
Judy Free, dir. Che Tagyamon (2020)
Rocketship, dir. Mathias Choo (2020)
The Smell of Coffee, dir. Nishok Nishok (2020)
The Unseen River, dir. Pham Ngoc Lân (2020)
To Calm the Pig Inside, dir. Joanne Vasquez Arong (2020)
Bình, dir. Ostin Fam (2020)
- Teju Cole, ‘We Can’t Comprehend This Much Sorrow’, The New York Times Magazine, 18 May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/05/18/magazine/covid-quarantine-sorrow.html
- Patti, meaning grandmother in Tamil (பாட்டி), as Raga refers to her in the film.
- Edmund Burke, ‘’Sympathy’, ‘Of the Effects of Tragedy’ and ‘The Sublime’ (1757)’ in Reader in Tragedy: An Anthology of Classical Criticism to Contemporary Theory, ed. by Marcus Nevitt and Tanya Pollard (United Kingdom: Bloomsbury, 2019), pp. 120-126 (p. 122).