Embodied Desires

October 1, 2021, 12:58am

By Wong Kar Mun Nicole

This set of films that are part of the Singapore Shorts ’21 programme—The Cup, Sunday and A Piece of Meat—are stories of desire. Each is distinct in its stylistic form: The Cup is a surrealist black-and-white film that tracks a simultaneously alien yet humanoid being; Sunday is suffused in pastel tones and erotic tension as it journeys with a young caregiver; and A Piece of Meat is a richly coloured, stop-motion animation that delves into social inequality with cheek and aplomb. Despite their differences, all three explore desires that are held in the corporeal. They take yearnings of the spirit and ground them in the physical experiences of the body, capturing the push and pull of desire, and its centrality to our states of being.

The Cup

In The Cup, directed by Mark Chua and Lam Li Shuen, we follow our protagonist over the course of a day. As he starts his day in the shadows of his refrigerator, he looks like any other human being. Upon closer inspection, we see that his face is sculpted from plasticine, his head is topped with a metallic disk, and his eyes are lightless orbs. Alone in his apartment, the aims of his day are singular—make a better-tasting cup of coffee.

Still image from The Cup (2020, dir. Mark Chua, Lam Li Shuen)

Chua and Lam have crafted a character whose entire physicality is a composite of features that are geared towards this pursuit. The disk on his head produces coffee beans and after he consumes those coffee beans, he unscrews one of his eyes to dispense coffee. Even his shadow who responds to his Teochew in Cebuano, serves as the confidante to his coffee-woes.

Isolation permeates The Cup. From the window grills to the outlines of the kitchen cupboards, lines criss-cross through the film entrapping the audience too in the contained environment within which the protagonist exists alone, accompanied only by his curated selection of routines. The sharp black-and white contrasts of the film emphasise this. In watching a film that has been stripped of colour, we are more attuned to the tactility of his experiences, be it the heat of his morning coffee or the glide of cool rain on his skin.

Still image from The Cup (2020, dir. Mark Chua, Lam Li Shuen)

Our greater attention to the sensorial however, is not always pleasant. In one of the more disconcerting sequences of The Cup, a black moss starts sprouting from the protagonist’s skin and when he tries to shave them off, he cuts himself and bleeds. This discomfort connects with the audience on a visceral level, and pushes us to recognise the protagonist’s humanity in more than just his capacity for desire, but also, in the physical ordeals of his body.

Still image from The Cup (2020, dir. Mark Chua, Lam Li Shuen)

The Cup does not consist of crests and troughs, nor does it build to a central climax. Instead, it is made up of a series of banal routines that fill the hours of his day. Given this, it should come as no surprise that Chua and Lam created this work in the midst of lockdown during 2020’s Circuit Breaker period in Singapore, when our isolated, personal routines were perhaps the only anchor we could hold onto. Through its central protagonist, The Cup presents us with a perspective of humanness that is distilled to the mundanity that we often take for granted. For better or for worse, Chua and Lam articulate that the pursuit of simple desires and the pains we encounter, can be just that—routine.

Sunday

In another home, an alarm rings and another kind of routine starts. A young woman, the protagonist Li Yan of Kris Ong’s Sunday, immediately moves to a small dresser adjacent to a closed door. She vigorously moisturises her hands and enters the room to check on her bedridden mother. The shrill pierce of the alarm is a demand for care—for herself as well as her charge. 

What is a Sunday for someone whose work is tied to the everyday? The labour of caring for a loved one cannot be easily shirked upon the arrival of a weekend. While it is never clear if Li Yan struggles under the weight of this, it is clear that she is burdened by it.

Image still from Sunday (2019, dir. Kris Ong)

When we are first introduced to the other characters of the film, Li Yan’s sister and her sister’s boyfriend, Samson, they are attempting to fix the sound of the television. This innocuous detail of the spoilt television set, removes the pervasive white noise of 21st century living, resulting in a film that allows for the other sounds of this household to come to the forefront. The medical machines from her mother’s room keep the pace of the film; The sound of water as it is drunk and as ice cubes clinking in a glass, adds an eroticism to the film.

Image still from Sunday (2019, dir. Kris Ong)

Sunday is doused in pastel pink and each scene’s colour rendering is delicate. In a different film, it might lull you into a calm. Here though, pink evokes the colour of pale flesh and the angry rashes that adorn Li Yan’s skin. In the opening of the film, Li Yan remarks to her unseen patient that she “[doesn’t] scratch anymore”. The persistent itch of her skin returns though, when she is in the presence of Samson. Driving the film is the illicit attraction between them.

There are parallels between Li Yan and Samson. Samson’s body is marked by tattoos, hers by rashes. He is tied to the apartment by an injury and his need for care, while she is bound by her need to care. On this Sunday afternoon, their flirtation mounts to something more and as they come together, Li Yan’s scratching returns as she succumbs to another temptation.

Image still from Sunday (2019, dir. Kris Ong)

In Sunday, pleasure and pain are inseparable. As Li Yan seeks relief from her irritated skin, Samson suggests that she makes crosses on her skin with her nails, to focus on the pain of those marks instead of the itch. Later, when Li Yan and Samson succumb to their mutual attraction, betraying Li Yan’s sister in the process, the sound of her mother’s machines and gasps from the bedroom filter through her consciousness, preventing Li Yan from fully indulging in the pleasure that she had sought with Samson.

Desire crawls beneath Li Yan’s skin and yet, Li Yan prevents herself from fully surrendering to those desires, because she knows that doing so comes at a cost that she is unwilling to bear. In the climax of the film, Li Yan raises a pair of scissors as though to stab Samson during this sexual encounter. Torn between her physical desires and her familial responsibilities to her mother and her sister, Li Yan chooses violence and the removal of that desire altogether. Li Yan’s attempt is halted though, by the return of her sister and the ring of another alarm, calling her back to her caretaking. Even in this moment of autonomy, Li Yan is held back by her responsibilities to other people.

It is impossible to disentangle Li Yan’s plight from the gendered nature of her constraints. Sex in Sunday serves as a temporary escape from the discomfort she feels in her skin and in her position in the household. But by the end of the film, Li Yan continues to put herself aside, remaining a passive participant in her own life and when confronted by her desires. As before, true indulgence remains out of her reach.

Piece of Meat

Gender and duty are also common threads that connect Sunday with Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang’s Piece of Meat. The short film opens with brief seconds of whimsy. The crackling of a gramophone can be heard as vaudeville-esque music is played. A door creaks open, and we intrude upon the strange world of living objects created by Chong and Huang. Peeking into this room, the romanticism of the opening is immediately contrasted with the jarringly comedic image of a champagne bottle in bed with a lamb chop.

Image still from Piece of Meat (2019, dir. Jerrold Chong, Huang Junxiang)

Piece of Meat is a stop-motion animation that satirises Singapore’s socio-economic inequality and explores how easy it is to get trapped in the positions that we have fallen into, be it by choice or circumstance. Reflecting this, each character is nameless and reduced to the way they are perceived by the greater society. The lamb chop is our protagonist and the titular “piece of meat”. As the sole earner in a family consisting of herself, her teenage brother, and her sickly mother, she sells sex in exchange for a livelihood. Because of this, she is treated primarily as an object of sexual gratification by both her clientele as well as the people in her periphery. The protagonist’s younger brother, ostracised and outcast, is aptly portrayed as a durian in a classroom of grapes, lemons, and other socially acceptable fruit who are rewarded with stickers proclaiming them “organic” or “best quality”.

Image still from Piece of Meat (2019, dir. Jerrold Chong, Huang Junxiang)

Based on a short story by Eric Khoo, the storyline of Piece of Meat is simple and maudlin with a clear moral message. Chong and Huang are aware of this, so to elevate the story beyond its sentimentality, the directors employ humour liberally. The stop-motion form provides plenty of opportunities for comedy and the film is peppered with tongue-in-cheek gags that play with the anthropomorphism of the characters. In the opening scene, the champagne bottle literally pops as he climaxes and later, the durian is denied entry on a bus in reference to Singapore’s ban of durians on public transport.

In much of the film, Chong and Huang also lean into the sentimentality of the story. The dramatic beats are driven by over-the-top music and exaggerated emotion. Upon the death of their mother, the lamb chop and the durian descend into wails as Chopin’s Marche Funèbre (Funeral March) plays on. Mere minutes after this, the lamb chop takes her own life, and her brother is left literally cracked open from the heartbreak and grief of losing his family. These plot points are cliched and melodramatic but by brazenly amplifying the sentimentality and injecting aspects of surreality, the film is enlivened. The directors refuse to allow the film to be entirely defined by its moralistic themes.

Image still from Piece of Meat (2019, dir. Jerrold Chong, Huang Junxiang)

Additionally, this prompts viewers to interrogate the relationship between tragedy and spectacle. Regardless of its sense of humour, at its heart Piece of Meat is a tragic story. As audience members, it is easy to get swept away by the emotional charge of suffering and pain on screen. Unfortunately, tragedy often remains a spectacle and even when critiques of society are at the fore, true change-inspiring resonance is rare.

Upon the death of the siblings in the film, onlookers gather as witnesses, coming together in morbid curiosity of the tragedy that has occurred. Even we as the audience, enter Piece of Meat as voyeurs, glimpsing the sexual transaction between the lamb chop and the champagne bottle through the gap of a door left ajar.

Among the onlookers is a paintbrush that we have seen earlier, struggling to make a living on the street with his paintings. Given his circumstances, one would expect him to express compassion for the situation. Yet he capitalises on the tragedy and turns the scene into a painting that is treated as a form of artful entertainment by his wealthy patrons. While the lamb chop fails to use her body to achieve the life that she had desired, the paintbrush now exploits the image of her body, and succeeds in elevating himself beyond the lowly status he once held.

Image still from Piece of Meat (2019, dir. Jerrold Chong, Huang Junxiang)

True to the realities of life, in these films of desire, there is also pain. While we may sometimes look to film to assuage either, it is also worth considering what happens when all we do is “look”.

Is our humanity truly a shared one, if some of us remain perpetual voyeurs while others are relegated to perpetual “spectacle”? Or do we consider our humanity shared by virtue of the hollow fact that we are all driven by desires and pains in our daily routines? Or perhaps this hope that we share a common humanity, is the unshakeable tether. That despite the dissimilitude in our desires and pains, it is this that continues to draw us together time and time again.


About the writer

Nicole Wong (she/her) is a freelance writer, arts practitioner, and educator. She is also currently a full-time arts, culture, and heritage researcher. In 2021, she was awarded the Young Critic Award at the Singapore International Film Festival. Contact her for work at nicolewkm@gmail.com

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the
Asian Film Archive.