Subterranean Vulnerabilities —
The Fear of Being Seen

August 27, 2021, 3:01am

by Ethan Kan

We bury so much of ourselves underground. We dig holes six feet beneath ourselves with the same earth-crusted hands that cradle our secrets. Thus, we pray that everything we wish to say to others never sees the light of day, and in our isolation, keep pretending that we are capable of being alone. For in hiding, comes safety.

No human is an island. ‘Marx was right,’ reads Tony Kushner, in his tribute essay to his friends, which is found in copies of his seminal play, Angels in America. ‘The smallest indivisible unit is two people, not one; one is a fiction.’ We desire to be loved. This desire claws past rock, topsoil, humus. It demands to be heard. To dare to love is to reveal one’s twisted roots to the world. To seek connection is to open yourself to wildfire.

Koo Chia Meng’s After Noon, Syamsul Bahari’s Kickers, and Grace Song’s When I Talk to You—three films from the Singapore Shorts ’21 programme — grapple with this notion of isolation and the desire for connection. Sometimes this isolation is self-imposed. Sometimes it’s due to a global health crisis. Sometimes this desire is fulfilled. Most of the time it is not. But there is something delicately human in the contemplation of connection, and incontrovertibly brave in revealing oneself to others (although some might say foolish). Simply put, as André Aciman puts it in his Bildungsroman, Call Me By Your Name — is it better to speak or to die?

AFTER NOON

In black-and-white, Koo Chia Meng’s 2020 film features two seemingly straight boys wasting away an afternoon together. You can almost smell the testosterone from your screen. Immediately, we are treated to virile performances of masculinity. They play video games, do push-ups, watch porn, and wrestle. One of them goes into excruciating detail of sex with his girlfriend.

But it soon becomes clear that there is a dichotomy between them — the desirer, and the desired. Those of us who are queer know and recognise instantaneously the desirer’s silent, longing gazes as the desired rambles on about his girlfriend. The heart of the film comes when the desirer climbs into bed next to the sleeping desired. His furrowed brow of brusque masculinity immediately gives way to an unfounded tenderness. As he dares to inch closer to his desire, Koo slowly returns colour into the frame and imbues the scene with a palpable charge. The lightest of caresses on a forearm, the slightest brush of a kiss on a bare shoulder — they are all immense acts of love. Such tenderness is made beautiful precisely in its fragility and danger. In that moment, with every rustle of fabric, our hearts are beating just as fast.

Still from After Noon (2020), dir. Koo Chia Meng

You can guess what happens next. The desired confronts the desirer. We return to black-and-white, and to performance. The desirer returns to his girlfriend. He pretends everything is alright. He buries his secret underground again. But of course, in the final scene reminiscent of Timothée Chalamet’s pensive fireplace gaze in Call Me By Your Name, the desirer, lost for words, tries to gather the pieces of their friendship back together as the credits roll. (You can’t have a scene like this and not have a touch-starved eighteen-year-old queer immediately recognise the reference.) Such an inconclusive ending is, if not a little lazy, a sad reminder of the conflict of heteronormative, particularly masculine, performance—one that precludes any opportunity for connection.

And so our secrets remain in the ground.

KICKERS  

Syamsul Bahari’s Kickers (2019) is similarly another coming-of-age offering, where fourteen-year-old Natasha grapples with the fact that her best friend, Dale, is moving away. To Bahari’s credit, the story clearly depicts that beyond their love of football, Natasha and Dale share a common understanding gleaned from years of friendship. Their window chats are vaguely reminiscent of the balcony conversations in Romeo and Juliet, if only to illustrate their close bond.

But there is evidently a degree of separation between them. There is almost always something dividing them in the frame — a pole in a fitness corner, the stands of a goalpost. For all the years of friendship, Natasha cannot communicate to him just how much he means to her. All mentions of moving are played off casually. The football motif is suggestive of Natasha’s childhood, where she seems unable to escape the stability of rules, the safety of a bounded court, and the fun of playing with her best friend. The loss of her best friend jeopardises all of this, and her anxiety translates into veiled anger on the football field that ultimately pushes them further apart.

Still from Kickers (2019), dir: Syamsul Bahari

Natasha’s awkward growth chafes at the boundaries of childhood as she refuses to be transparent with Dale, like Alice outgrowing the hall of locked doors at the start of her journey in Wonderland. Football becomes a treasure of childhood that no longer serves her. In one scene, she is fixing the tattering net of a goalpost, representing an attempt to keep up her childhood. But shot through the net, her body is fragmented.       

If the football field is a potent site of Natasha’s childhood, then it is fitting that her eventual maturity takes place there. Underneath the goalpost, she says her goodbyes to Dale, and gives him her football. Ultimately, there is no outpouring of communication, no overt expression of love (platonic or romantic — made deliberately unclear). No words are necessary as she lets him go. A narrative formula is at work here, but Bahari makes it sincere and honest.

Still from Kickers (2019), dir: Syamsul Bahari

WHEN I TALK TO YOU

If the previous two films deal with self-imposed isolation, Grace Song’s When I Talk to You (2020) explores the common anxiety associated with the lockdown that we had to undergo in 2020. The semi-autobiographical film follows Grace and Klariss (a research assistant at a hospital) as their plans to reunite fall through with the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic in Singapore, even as they steadily track the number of new cases that crop up each day.

Song’s postmodernist piece never alienates the viewer but invites them into the world that she has painstakingly created. The Song’s family television becomes a conduit for surreal connection and emotion. In one scene, Klariss, garbed in PPE, appears on television as Grace and her mother paint a backdrop of a pastel-perfect blue, cloudy sky. Each frame is painterly and stylistic, inviting audiences to delve deeper in thought as to its implications.

Still from When I Talk to You (2020), dir: Grace Song

But what else is a television but a screen—another agent of separation? Moments of online connection can never replace in-person contact, and so Song depicts that distinct sense of lockdown isolation. In a hallucinatory, imaginary scene, Song speaks to Klariss, still in PPE, through a window. ‘It’s all in my head,’ she says of the restlessness of lockdown, over a tense industrial hum.

Still from When I Talk to You (2020), dir: Grace Song

But Song shows the light at the end of the tunnel. Over a beautifully rendered Handel aria, Song places the backdrop of the painted sky in the midst of a green field where Grace and Klariss finally meet again. The connotations are obvious. The sky manifests as a desire for freedom and travel, a direct link to the sky as seen from a plane in the first shot of the film; the pastoral image suggests an emergence from our isolation. The film is not just a love letter to Singapore’s frontline workers, it is a highly personal saga of love and connection that transcends boundaries.

Still from When I Talk to You (2020), dir: Grace Song

About the Writer

Ethan Kan is a final year film student at the School of the Arts, Singapore. His publications have appeared in the Singapore International Film Festival’s Film Academy journal, Stories, under the Youth Jury & Critics Programme. He also writes for the independent film editorial platform, SINdie. His writing has also published in SOTA’s Literary Arts anthology ZUBIR. Trained in filmmaking and creative writing, he hopes to marry artistic and academic discourses to be a queer voice for change.


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