The Poetics of Non-Place

November 11, 2022, 1:44pm

by Krystelle Teh

Still from Last Call (2021), dir. Eysham Ali

How do the spaces we inhabit speak through us? In two films from the Singapore Shorts ‘22 selection, Last Call by Eysham Ali and state. by Bernadette Toh and Sherrie See, a curious symmetry emerges in their portrayal of space. Details overlap: travelators, buses and train platforms arrange themselves into sidelong reflections between the films. In one uncanny mirror image, each film repeats a window view from Changi Airport’s viewing gallery almost exactly. Framed from the same wide angle, their characters appear diminished by the high-ceilinged, glass-panelled gallery, their presence seemingly peripheral to the place they are in. In the background, the same tailplane of a Singapore Airlines aircraft noses into view, pointing our gaze to it like a conspicuous arrow.

We think we move through the world, the films seem to suggest, but what if the opposite is true? Perhaps there might exist an inherent spatial order that organises the way we move and see. Press against the world and it presses heavily back, leaving behind an imprint on the shape of our reality. 

Still from Last Call (2021), dir. Eysham Ali

Like the other films in Selection 2 of the programme, which navigate the public and private spaces of everyday life, Last Call and state. are set in the space of the in-between. Taken together, their collective gaze is one that is trained on imperceptible borders and points of transit, revealing the ways in which the human condition is defined by perennial movement.

More specifically, Last Call and state. are concerned with what the anthropologist Marc Augé called the non-place—a space absent of individual identity and historical context, where relations are functional rather than organic. In non-places such as airport lounges, shopping malls and train platforms, “a person entering the space […] becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer or driver.” Surrendering to the present environment, he is relieved of the burdens of his identity and partakes for a while in active roleplay. 

This sense of roleplay presides over Last Call, in which a rookie ground staff worker must deal with a wilful elderly passenger who is adamant about boarding the most immediate flight to his estranged daughter’s wedding. The passenger Yusuf is confined to his immediate reality at the airport in his interactions with the employee Nadia. Throughout the film, Yusuf plays the role of a passenger faithfully, and Nadia, the airport employee. Though they interact primarily in Malay in an act of code-switching that fleetingly draws them together, they are for the most part deracinated and displaced from their individual histories. 

In encountering them as less than individual, the film is itself narratively mobile. Moving back and forth between its characters’ parallel stories, the film opens with Nadia’s workday routine before switching to Yusuf’s phone call with his ex-wife. While firmly grounded in realism, Last Call toggles between disparate points of view, as though it is perpetually in transit between its characters. The film’s narrative in motion asks us to imagine a polyphony of other narratives that must exist beyond it, yet the effect of this is to put the viewer at a remove. Like travellers moving through an airport, we experience the film merely as a conduit to move through, and any possibility for connection is foreclosed by this motion. While occasionally we might catch glimpses of who the characters are outside of the airport non-place—a phone call takes place between Yusuf and his daughter that greatly wounds him, and which coincides with Nadia’s equally strained relationship with her father—these relationships are never elaborated upon. To the viewer, the details of their lives arrive second-hand, as coolly disembodied as the automated voice announcement echoing overhead. 

Still from state. (2022), dir. Bernadette Toh, Sherrie See

In Last Call, its approach towards verisimilitude clearly maps out how space can shape our everyday interactions in a non-place. state., on the other hand, takes this one step further by employing the poetics of non-place as its aesthetic and subjectivity. 

Shot in one day, state. is, like its subject, restless and hyperconnected, traversing multiple planes at once. It is simultaneously a desktop film that plays out entirely on the computer screen, a work of docufiction that catalogues liminal spaces across Singapore—at one point, the question “WHAT IS A LIMINAL SPACE” is typed into a search bar on screen as a blunt statement of the film’s intent—and a sad-girl adaptation of Alice in Wonderland that straddles both the physical and digital realm. Interspersed with visual and textual references to Lewis Carroll’s fantasy world, its windows upon windows conjure up nondescript back alleys and laundromats through which a teenage girl roams, avatar-like, in her labyrinthine journey down the rabbit hole. 

The girl-avatar neither speaks nor emotes, and her destination, if any, is unclear. Like the characters in Last Call, we see her not as an individual with a distinctive identity, but rather as an indistinguishable node along an entire network of relations—between passengers, travellers and users—that is constantly being mediated first through the physical non-place, and then through the digital interface of the computer screen that structures the film’s perspective. (In their own way, the Internet and the computer screen are digital non-places too.)  To this loss of individuality, the girl-avatar is silent and passive, yielding completely to the role she must play here. She slips lightly into the mantle of anonymity that the non-place demands of her, an act which resembles a performance—a pose—and a state of mind through which to view the world beyond. As such, the film adopts the anonymity of non-place as its aesthetic, which colours the film’s subjectivity. Much like flipping on an Instagram filter, a desaturated pink hue pervades the film and amplifies the homogeneity of non-place, calling attention to the factitious construct of the film’s gaze.

Still from state. (2022), dir. Bernadette Toh, Sherrie See

As in Last Call, the spaces we inhabit in state do not merely speak through us. They also animate a collective order that continually regulates our social existence and from which we can never completely disentangle ourselves.

In reproducing and performing the experience of non-place, both films portray constant motion across parallel stories or hybrid forms as a way of being in the non-place and, beyond it, the world. Mobility in Last Call offers a glimpse of other possible worlds against which we brush in passing, while in state. it gives rise to a sense of liminality, which is stylised with a present-tense nostalgia in its muted pink tones and a soundtrack of melancholy indie folk. Yet precisely because this mobility is predicated on the anonymity and interconnectedness of those in motion, the effect is instead of detachment, of the impossibility of connection in non-places of hyperconnectivity. A curious monotony sets in as we watch from a distance, away from the palpable realities of the characters’ lives.

While the non-place in these films is depicted as a mundane part of everyday life that can come to be appropriated or even desired, the reality is that the anonymity of non-place often engenders conformity and even subjugation to the existing rules that govern these same spaces. To this end, such non-places are also usually sites of surveillance, as in MRT platforms, transfer linkways and Changi Airport. Even the hypermediated space of the Internet, on which state. is modelled after, is entangled in the same physical infrastructure. 

Still from Last Call (2021), dir. Eysham Ali

Stepping into what the poet Christine Chia calls “the air-conditioned caves of Changi”, it is easy to give in to the almost spiritual hush of the airport’s clinical opulence, which has been designed just so as an effective guise for scrutiny and patrol. To move through Changi Airport is to be subjected to the gaze of the omnipresent techno-modern state, along with the global constraints of modern society. In Last Call, we might hear the click of the airport employee Nadia’s stilettos across the departure hall, but it hardly leaves a dent in the stillness of the space. 

In an early scene when Yusuf’s path first crosses with Nadia’s, Nadia is stunned into silence when Yusuf slams the check-in counter out of an angry refusal to join the orderly check-in queue. That Yusuf is prickly, recalcitrant and insistent about cutting the queue and getting his way upsets the airport’s carefully cultivated efficiency. Heads turn to stare at him, a woman behind him shakes her head in annoyance. The travelling viewer, too, snags on this moment of resistance to the established order. Yusuf’s palpable desperation and anger enable him to trace his own personal itinerary through a space that is otherwise apathetic to individuality, thus allowing us to glimpse his personhood and agency. It isn’t long, though, before his problem is solved with an available flight ticket. “No window seats?” he asks Nadia, trying his luck one last time even though the answer is clear. As he is inevitably whisked away back into the role of a passenger, we hear the wheels of his luggage rolling across the pristine floor. Soon, it recedes into the roar of an aeroplane flying overhead.


Further Reading

Augé, Marc. (1992) Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity.

Balasingamchow, Yu-Mei and Ruihe, Zhang (Ed.) (2016) In Transit: An Anthology from Singapore on Airports and Air Travel.


About the Writer

Krystalle Teh is a freelance writer. Her film criticism has appeared in the Singapore International Film Festival under the Youth Jury & Critics Programme.

Contact her for work at krystalle.teh@gmail.com

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