Contributed by Filzah Yahaya
The ones we hold dear to our hearts always seem to find a way back into our lives. Ceasing to exist before our eyes, they continue to exist in our lives in other ways…
Lost to death, conflict, or simply, the slow passage of time, we struggle to wholly embrace the empty space that a loved one leaves us with. We tiptoe fearfully around it, whisper or shout rudely at it, conceal it with dark and heavy clothing, or paint it a bright colour, and fill it up with expensive objects. Other times, we avoid it, completely.
But what if that space isn’t really empty? Maybe it is filled and alive. Their presence continues to live with us, speaking to and touching us. Their memory more than an image in the mind, not a flickering semblance to what once was, but clear as light of day and shadows against a white screen.
How do we regard this space?
Three filmmakers dig deep into loss and convey the ways in which they regard it at this year’s Singapore Shorts. Whether it is through emptiness and stillness of never meeting again, or the tenderness and hope in perennial love, loss is lived differently.
In Tan Wei Keong’s Between Us Two, the director The past and the present are reconciled as Tan re-lives his final days with her and conveys his longing, along with unspoken and unrealised feelings.
Separated by vast ocean waves, undulating landscapes, and the passing of time, the spaces between mother and son are felt. Emptiness, uncertainty, and a vague sense of regret from the morning he left her lingers on the screen… Yet we all return to the same shores from whence we came from. By reimagining how his mother would always regard him and the events that have happened since she passed on, he bridges the seemingly irreconcilable distance between them.
We catch glimpses of Tan’s mother and father as a loving young couple. They are stark silhouettes with hazy expressions from old photographs, flickering against indistinct landscapes. Like photographs, film too creates and preserves memory. New memories are created with the old. And in Between Us Two, the union between two lovers (Tan’s mother and father), though a thing of the past, symbolically gives birth to a new union of lovers: the marriage of Tan and his husband. By remembering how she had been when she was alive, and the unconditional love she had for him as a mother, Tan finds in her much comfort and acceptance.
While Tan’s struggles are very much present in the film’s mise-en-scene, what is also notable is how the process of filmmaking itself is, for Tan, an intimate way of reconciling conflicting emotions; emotions so complex that they might be better relayed through the moving image than face-to-face. He shared that neither his relatives nor husband had seen this film yet – but strangely enough, he was comfortable sharing it with a crowded cinema. This is not the first cinema that Between Us Two has graced – it has been screened in France, Italy, Russia, the United States and China, even winning the Documentary Short Grand Jury Prize at Outfest Los Angeles 2018 and Best Singapore Short Film at Singapore International Film Festival 2017. And yet this film is something that the closest people to him are not privy to. Filmmaking can be an act of catharsis, but in Tan’s case, it is still imperfect.
In Away by Tang Kang Sheng, the sudden and unexpected news of the loss of a loved one is not only difficult to swallow, but agonizing to deal with when one is far from home when it happens.
The film captures the stages of grief a woman (played by Tang’s fiancee) undergoesupon receiving news of a family member’s death while miles away from home. Shot entirely in black and white in a small hotel room, Away does not humour superficial displays of emotion or exchanges of words. Alone and isolated, she reacts honestly to the news relayed to her by her family members over the phone. As a result, we witness her experiencing and expressing a slew of emotions; from agitation to disbelief, anger to sorrow, before coming to a fraught stillness.
While she is free to grieve without reservations, the same four walls of the hotel seem to imprison her as she is prevented from being with her family and seeing the deceased family member for the last time. The stillness that surrounds her seems to bore into her, as she waits for the never-ending hours to pass, and the time when she can finally fly back home. Away from home, the loss of her loved one puts her in a lonely and distressing position as she struggles to faceit on her own.
This portrayal of loss is so compelling that one begins to suspect whether the exchange is scripted at all. Spoiler: it is. Tang shared that the idea for the short was conceived on the fly while he and his fiancee were in a hotel room on a staycation; the two had been watching films by John Cassavetes and, inspired by his improvisational style, set out to create a film that same day which captured the essence of a moment, rather than being driven by plot. He explained that they both had aging parents and had begun travelling more frequently – hence, the scenario in the film was a potential reality that loomed near.
However, loss is not only defined by death. The fading of romance or a relationship which ends with the parting of ways too might leave a gaping space in our lives. Sissy Kaplan’s Inspirational Ghost shows this space filled and alive with much wanting. Having been apart for many years, the narrator continues to hold on to visions and memories of her ex-lover, bearing intense dreams and desires for him.
Her memories and dream visions are strong impressions; movements so slowed down and suspended as if, like the ex-lovers, they had attempted to defy gravity and the passing of time but failed miserably. Images so ambiguous and song so ethereal, they stand out for their haunting vividness: rich tones of desire and emotion colouring the thick air that surrounds them. In her memory, the image of the lover becomes amorphous and one with the environments which she might have traversed and comes to associate him with. This space he inhabits bears deep personal significance and inspiration to her, having a lasting influence on her practice as a filmmaker. Though their relationship is lost to time, he continues to be present with her, as muse to her dreams and creations. Although their total running time is less than that of a feature film, Tan Wei Keong, Tang Kang Sheng and Sissy Kaplan’s works still manage to show us the many ways one can interact with and interpret the space left behind by absent loved ones. Film revives past lovers, spells out anguish, reveals deep secrets and bridges space and time.
About the writer
Filzah is a film-enthusiast who currently teaches English Literature at a secondary school. She has programmed films for NTU’s Perspectives Film Festival, and written for the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF). She is also an alumnus of SGIFF’s Youth Jury & Critics Programme 2014, where her passion and curiosity to experience film and write about them was first ignited. In her free time, other than indulging in film, Filzah looks forward to unwinding outdoors through her love of windsurfing, rock climbing, and nature.
The views set out in this article are those of the author and is not representative of AFA’s official opinion.