Speaking in Present Tenses

October 4, 2019, 3:45pm

By Ryan Lim

Tenebrae (2018), by Nicole Midori Woodford, part of Official Selection 4

Cinema is not something one normally associates with the present. Even with the most recent of films, a degree of space and time separates us from the screen. Yet we still move, voluntarily or involuntarily, and perhaps not despite, but because of this distance. It is nearly a cliché that we are anything but still before the screen. Temporarily split between wilful observers and feeling recipients, we wander about.

These existences are dual, ghostly and brief, and most importantly a reminder that cinema requires us to be present, even for something not happening now. But what kind of a space do we occupy? And in those films which we are drawn to, what kinds of spaces are possible? Within some of these encounters, the limits to being present reveal themselves, while others go out to provoke them.

Watching three films from AFA’s Singapore Shorts ’19, these are questions too remote to be asked right away, so forgive me for having wandered myself. The films in this trio are more dissimilar than similar, not only in their subject matter but also their scope, encompassing the everyday as well as every day. Yet, without the usual textual similarities between them to turn to, I find myself circling around each of them. Not hoping for short circuits of thought or feeling, rather, paying attention to footsteps trodden and recreating the sensations of something in progress.

Chasing Paper by Shoki Lin

Chasing Paper returns to the family drama, a staple of local storytelling, as it squares in on maternal affects. Hui Shu’s relationship with her daughter Ping is fraying at the edges, by both precarious finances and her daughter’s exam stress. Their relationship unfolds and unwinds in dinner-table gestures and interactions, each pregnant with microscopic value.

It’s a script seen before, in television’s melodramatic counterparts or simply from personal experience. Amidst these familiar bearings, Chasing Paper’s domestic drama resonates most strongly in its wordless moments. Indeed, raw sentiments rarely translate well into dialogue, and here they write themselves onto the contours of Hui Shu’s face. Even the most natural of light can only partially colour her vacant, numb expressions. An invisible excess remains, left suspended in a pressure-cooker kept shut indefinitely. When Hui Shu is retrenched from her job as a photocopying assistant and finds new work as a cleaner at Ping’s school, it only prompts further frustration for an already alienated woman.

Chasing Paper (2018), by Shoki Lin, part of Official Selection 3

Alienation is a tricky thing to portray, it being experienced through exclusions and negatives. It pains us to see her stuttering, stumbling and struggling to hold onto small dignities, let alone re-connect with her daughter. To this, we try to reach out, but reaching into her sealed world is an elusive endeavour. The film opens by putting its ear to her daily work, or more accurately things distracting her from it, a mix of fluorescent tunes and ASMR-like stationery noises. Yet, these artificial delights are poor replacements for intimacy, merely papering over the barrenness of her crumpled self.

Other technical decorations also facilitate the articulation of repressed sentiments. Consider the plucky score, and the way it soothes over moments of distress. Or the fact that Chasing Paper’s cinematography is indeed spotless (also vouched for by its inclusion in festivals like Camerimage, which has a specific technical focus). Slick cross cutting shuttles us in between the psyches of mother and daughter. On the screen, these elicit a strong attraction, but what is it that we are attracted to? Instead of plain hyperbole about techniques, as if they and affects were one and the same, I wonder if we do end up stopping short of feeling her frustrations, yearnings and estrangements. This controlled space seems less like an invitation into feeling than it suggests the material limits of empathy and identification.

Perhaps our encounter remains as tragically imperfect as Hui Shu’s gestures, both us and her unable to step beyond the mere circumference of someone else’s present. When circumstances eventually drive Hui Shu down the wrong side of a moral crossroads, it’s neither a carpet pulled from under the rug, nor is it a sigh of relief. Instead of a serious dilemma or a judgement to make, there is only pity. And isn’t pity–that feeling of resigning ourselves to gaps of understanding, having failed to bridge them–imperfect in itself? The plucking score at the end only stings further, a band-aid for a festering distance. In a paper chase, there are no ideals, only materials for our material selves.

Chasing Paper (2018), by Shoki Lin, part of Official Selection 3

Tenebrae by Nicole Midori Woodford

Alfian Sa’at noted in his essay the potential for film to be both archived and archive: in Singapore’s self-renewing landscape, “the narrative filmmaker would become a documentary filmmaker by default”. Though more deliberately so, Nicole Midori Woodford wears both hats in Tenebrae, capturing a family moving out of the Pearl Bank Apartments on the eve of its evacuation. The landmark here becomes both setting and subject, with equal attention paid to the family in solemn departure and the Apartments’ silence.

As the family takes things while leaving others behind, they become accidental curators deciding what’s valuable. In the same vein and echoing Sa’at’s observation, a film like Tenebrae inevitably suggests what is worth documenting just by including it. The act of salvaging even the most motley of images actively inscribes a posterior significance to them. The family’s mover takes a selfie with a clearance notice. Elsewhere, another mover shows the daughter his photographic keepsake. “You had time to take those photos in the past, but you didn’t”, she remarks. Cameras have the potential to monumentalise something that is not yeta monument, not yetat least.

The challenge then is to refrain from speaking in the past tense, even if the Apartments sit on its precipice. At the same time, this is not about naïve attachment, for Tenebrae does nothopelessly cling to its setting/subject. A nod to its liminality, Woodford washes the Apartments in monochrome. The palette however turns out to be a feint: colour is more accurately subtracted, but other times it’s left wholly intact, be it in a potted plant or in a goods trolley. Monochrome may be the past tense, the cinematic equivalent of adding -ed to a verb, but these snatches of colour stand out like dysfluencies. They appear for no rhyme or reason, disrupting a straightforward affair while reanimating items that seem most profane, to borrow Durkheim’s sense of the word.

Tenebrae (2018), by Nicole Midori Woodford, part of Official Selection 4

Another telling instance is the refusal to reveal the exterior of the apartments in their entirety. Even the little glimpses of its façade are taken from within the apartments’ signature courtyard. Perhaps this exclusion is a gesture towards the residents; after all nobody wants their still-homes to be looked at. Alternatively, deferring to the exterior would mean relegating the apartments to postcard status.

“Let us not fund the production of hipster badges featuring illustrations of the legendary horseshoe shaped Apartments”, urged Amanda Lee Koe in a passionate manifesto for architecture as a public good. Tenebrae’s inventory consists of items less legendary than sundry (admittedly there are moments when the score renders them with unnecessary sentiment). Other items aren’t objects per se, like the way the rest of the city looks from their window. Not looking up at glass skyscrapers, rather looking across as equals.

Events like these no doubt galvanize civil society, from the concerned citizen to the curious passer-by and the documentary filmmaker. And with all their cameras–collecting, documenting, beginning the whole process of monumentalizing–the plethora of memories and visual evidences tend to be logged in the past tense: this was what the corridors looked like, this was how they lived. In depicting something terminal, Tenebrae  carries a similar proposition. But the ‘items’ in its catalogue are neither elegiac nor grandiose, and by most measures hardly image-worthy. Instead, the uneventfulness and mundanity of it all works as friction against the slippage into yet another eventful page of history.

I imagine the present as what emerges from these ruptures, to kink a foregone trajectory. In the arresting final sequence on the moving lorry, the daughter tears away a square from the canvas shelter. The improvised camera projects onto the lightless floor a surreal image of the Apartments. If the mover’s still photograph feels optically remote, this projection is intimate: the timestamp is now, while the its tactility brings together viewer and image, resident and monument. Certainly, this very image depends upon a time and place that’s soon to be absent; it is ultimately temporary. But this is after all what it means to speak in the present tense.

Foul Ball by Kayue Li

Speaking of time and space, Foul Ball has none of them. It exchanges the light of day for an overcast sky, and the site-specificity we saw earlier for grass, dirt and sea: everywhere, in short.

Neither does it try to orientate us around. Establishing shots are few and far between, as the film’s only look is that of a stern gaze upon a boy perfecting his rundown around a baseball pitch. Exercising a level of visual discipline bordering on austerity, Foul Ball never yields to the viewer’s itches to have blanks filled in for them. Tiresome, self-same images like fallen orchid petals or the colour of the sky are incessantly repeated, while other things are sped up at moments where least expected.

Foul Ball (2018), by Kayue Li, part of Official Selection 4

This is visibly different from the immaculately sequenced and controlled progression that guided us in Chasing Paper. While Foul Ball’s arresting of everyday rhythms resembles Tenebrae, it goes further than that. The days have been completely done away with, replaced by something more sinister, yet more relaxed as well; something that starts from the middle and ends at the beginningIronically, it seems as though doing away with these kinds of time is precisely what is needed to get it moving again. Flowing now is however a very different kind of time: instead of timed beings, here we have something that closely resembles the time of a being.

One remarkable sensation to be had while watching Foul Ball comes from looking at the sky, perhaps the most banal of things to be done. The film begins right with an unmoving shot of clouds, punctuated by the skyward arc of a ball in motion. Elsewhere and while staying equally transfixed on the same sky, a gale sweeps a baseball shelter out of frame. In other films, I would imagine that the baseball and the shelter remain in focus, and that the sky surrounding these moving objects would adjust itself around their positions. However, Foul Ball does not hurry through the passing of time. Instead, Li insists on maintaining an intense concentration while keeping visual distractions at bay–of course, the same concentration that’s key to practising baseball.

Foul Ball (2018), by Kayue Li, part of Official Selection 4

At first we feel alienation, but what exactly is it we are alienated from? Perhaps there is something to be said about our attention spans. At the same time, these attention spans do not necessarily belong to us; as Chasing Paper and Tenebrae have demonstrated, cinematic and real time can often be organized in patterns that are more technological and imposed than naturally occurring.

Going through Li’s sensorium of anticipations and deferments – sometimes boring, sometimes discomforting – maybe what has been missing all along are our own bodies. Foul Ball’s minimal coordinates do not reflect the absence of time per se, instead they suggest the possibilities of returning to a different clock, one that does not tick ceaselessly but is more in line with the physiology of bodies or the progression of the sky. It’s notoriously unreliable: some days it’s thirteen-point-two seconds, on others it is a whopping fourteen. All there is to be done, is to be with it while it passes by.

A moment, in which a motion is perfected, becomes cast out to infinity, and the intense duration lying in-between confronts us. That duration is arguably the present tense in its purest form: imprecise, unmeasurable and hopelessly elusive. As Foul Ball’s protagonist might have learnt by now, perhaps the wisest course of action is to simply surrender to it.

Foul Ball (2018), by Kayue Li, part of Official Selection 4

About the writer:
Ryan Lim
Ryan Lim is a linguistics major at Nanyang Technological University. He is an alumnus of the Singapore International Film Festival’s Youth Jury & Critics Programme and will be taking part in the Film Criticism Workshop at the upcoming Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival 2019. His current explorations include documentary and historical re-enactment; film aside, he is also interested in Japanese linguistics and is learning how to read tarot.

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