by Alfonse Chiu
At the very end of Sartre’s seminal play No Exit, the lecherous deserter Joseph Garcin made arguably one of the most famous existentialist declarations in cultural history: “L’enfer, c’est les autres,” he cries, “Hell is other people!” This statement, coolly poised, understatedly violent, is a work of laconic genius from its very conception—such nerve, such assurance in its own relevance—that remains breath-taking even after seventy years. It is also, as with most works of geniuses, commonly misunderstood.
Contrary to the popular view that Sartre was a misanthropic grouch whose hasty derision for human relations made for great t-shirt slogans, the more important point to be made here was not that all relationships are toxic from their inception, but rather that we can never really escape the judgement of others, because it is from their perceptions that we also define ourselves and live by. In Sartre’s notion, Hell thus manifests as a realisation that there is no escape from the influence of others’ conception of ourselves in the social world, and so we will always be subjugated by our fear of being judged badly.
Going by this line of thought, then the converse must be true. Heaven is a state of complete independence—if you are freed from the gaze of another, then you can and will finally do as you feel, and attain the true happiness that comes with complete control over one self. But as we all know, this is patently false, because humans are social animals. Where abstractions fail to comfort, good company fill the shoe with a grace that lingers long after the initial deed has passed; we treasure these memories of warm human interactions and look back upon them for strength in times of crisis. This often happens at the moment when we lash out because we fear ridicule and scorn when are weaknesses are revealed.
This paradoxical condition of humanity’s need for but inability to handle intimacy is something that is described succinctly in the Hedgehog’s (or Porcupine’s, if one prefers the original parable by Schopenhauer) Dilemma, which narrates a situation where a group of hedgehogs attempt to huddle together to share heat in the cold but are forced to remain apart because their sharp spines would hurt each other if they get too close. A hedgehog it would seem, like humans, may have to contend with loneliness for all of eternity.
The theme of loneliness also lies at the heart of three short films from Singapore Shorts ’19—Clare Chong’s A Waking, Tan Wei Keong’s Kingdom, and Lei Yuan Bin’s A Dance for Ren Hang—which all grapple with the seeming contradictions of intimacy through a variety of narrative forms such as experimental animation and dance.
In Clare Chong’s A Waking, Xuan (Ong Yi Xuan) is a young woman on a boring bus tour who finds herself on the cusp of a romantic awakening when she chances upon the tour guide (Liu Dong Qing) and the bus driver (Li Wen Qiang) having supper at a dive. The former hits on her, excessively so, and we watch as she turns away from the aggressive wooing in favour of the latter’s more markedly reserved demeanour. They share a late night stroll, and later, she flees her solitary room to his in pursuit of something more. Nothing happens between them and she returns the next day to the tour as per normal. Interspersed amongst all these are abstract scenes of people who writhe together in unison in a nest of webbing, drawing close and pulling apart with a syncopated rhythm that seemed much like proceedings of a dance, or a ritual.
Chong shows the inconsistent logics of desire and how it is more easily evinced in a foreign space. Xuan who seeks the company of the bus driver almost desperately, however rejects the advances of the tour guide, responding, perhaps brilliantly on Chong’s directorial decision, with a stark coldness that surpasses outright antipathy in communicating just how uninterested she is in him. This apathy is matched by the restrained responses that the bus driver displays towards her, and at the end of the encounter, she remains alone, insulated from the intrusions of her environment with a pair of earphones plugged securely as she stares outside the window into the world beyond.
The symbolism is unmissable in several instances: the travel motif; the physical reality that the protagonist is situated in a foreign setting; and even the choice of the driver as the romantic object, all establish the possibility of intimacy as distant and alternate —the pre-requisite to going after one’s true desire is that one must first be liberated from the prying eyes of the familiar. The conflict between the want for intimacy and the violence it takes to get it, is something that the film considers in a more subdued manner, as seen through the tour guide’s aggressive advances and Xuan’s subtle emotional violence on the bus driver, whose responses could be the effect of a latent attraction or Xuan’s coercion.
This violence is similarly explored in Tan Wei Keong’s Kingdom, an experimental animation that follows a man’s search for belonging as he wanders through a forest. We witness his journey as he goes into the woods, where he finds a door that leads him into a house. He familiarises himself with the contours of his surroundings but does not stay, leaving it to return to the woods where he is now armed with a suitcase. He scales a mountain, and on the mountain top he stops and screams into the distance, before going back to the house where he jumps out a window, and dashes to pieces against darkness. One eye pops out, and rolls to the ground, before it eventually transforms into a dove.
The search for kinship, for a place of attachment, appears futile in Tan’s short—solitude can hurt as much as being in the company of others—and release only comes once the self disintegrates, and the instrument of observation, or, the eye, is unshackled. There are two ways to read this. One, much bleaker, is that emancipation from that intrinsic yearning for company can only be reached after death. The other, disconcerting in other ways, is that one can only find peace if one chooses to give up one’s ego and reform one’s perspective from that of a group instead of an individual. The state of undress that our nameless protagonist is in further emphasises how defenceless we are once we shed the protection that a shared conception of civilisation confers to us.
Nakedness and its complex relationship with vulnerability is another common thread that links Kingdom to Lei Yuan Bin’s A Dance for Ren Hang, where the filmmaker re-enacts photographs—shown alongside Ren’s writings—by the late Chinese photographer and poet, Ren Hang, with three dancers who performed in the nude. Most famous for his sexually charged portraits that border on pornographic, Ren’s own practice concerns itself with representations of sexuality and intimacy, a subject matter still considered taboo in mainland China. Ren eventually took his own life after a long history of depression.
By choosing to perform the original still works, the filmmaker, who wields the camera, a subject of documentation and representation, and the dancers, who interpret and reinterpret movements and then reify it, and whose bodies and motility are the objects to be documented, creates an interesting tension. He draws attention to both the formal definition of moving images (images of movements or images that move) and the conscious act of perceiving what appears to be anathema to an image of civil society.
Without the crutch of a story to position the narrative, A Dance for Ren Hang spotlights and questions the fundamental ways of perception that constrains our collective capability to tolerate and accept. Shame, for both the viewer and the viewed, is challenged, and its artificiality brought to bear against nature itself. By juxtaposing the manufactured landscape of a city against the bared body, the defiant display supplants the imbalanced power dynamic that the collective civilisation has against a lone person. The displays of fetish also reveals tenderness.
During the moment when a female body (Sara Tan) holds a melon between her thighs before letting it fall and a male body (Jereh Leung) is seen to consume it, is especially affecting because of the multiplicity of meanings. Is this a re-enactment of childbirth, and the subsequent ensconcing of that child into a patriarchal system? Is it a lopsided exchange that shows how the fruit of one’s own labour may not necessary be enjoyed by oneself? The furtive feline smirk of the male dancer offers no answer. All you have is your presence, your ideas, and your gaze locked onto his.
About the Author
Alfonse CHIU is the creative director and editor-at-large of independent film editorial platform and collective, SINdie, and an independent culture journalist and researcher. His writings have appeared in publications such as Kinema: a journal for film and audiovisual media, published by the University of Waterloo, the National Museum of Singapore’s Cinematheque Quarterly, and Hyperallergic. He is the lead resident of SINdie for the Objectifs Creatives Residency, where he will be spearheading the platform’s first durational research project investigating independent cinematic spaces within Southeast Asia and their potentials as sites of social memories, cultural literacy, and alternative discourse.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.