Ali, Azam and Minah on their nighttime trip.
My second set of evening screenings was something of a disappointment after the excellent Afghanistan forum featuring Finding Ali. The Year Without a Summer (Malaysia 2010) is one of those festival films that require patience and perfect viewing conditions. I think I made the wrong choice at the time. The film was screened in a small auditorium, clearly a product of a conversion from an old large single screen cinema (as most of Oslo’s city centre cinemas seem to be). The image wasn’t masked and the film was projected from DigiBeta. Unfortunately the first half of the film was mainly nighttime scenes with only minimal lighting and little movement. It was hard to stay awake and concentrate. There was an introduction in Norwegian but that didn’t help me.
I’d chosen the film since it was an independent production by a Malaysian woman. I’d only seen commercial Malaysian films before and this offered something different. The story is simple. Two boys grow up in a small fishing community on Malaysia’s east coast (actually the director’s home region). Azam agitates to leave home and try to make it in Kuala Lumpur (or ‘KL’). Ali wants to stay home. After several years away, Azam suddenly reappears and with Ali and his wife Minah takes a night-time fishing trip to an island where the two men reminisce – but the trip ends badly. The non-linear narrative means that we learn more about the two boys’ childhood in the second half of the film. Without a great deal of narrative excitement as such, the main pleasures of the film are the beautiful locations, the insight into local customs and practices and how this informs our sense of the sadness caught in the unusual title (see below). The writer-director Tan Chui Mui does attempt to introduce more symbolic elements and moments of surrealism (e.g. there is discussion of various myths about mermaids) but I failed to decipher these.
A little research reveals that Ms Tan is an important figure in the Malaysian independent film scene (with her own company Da Huang Pictures) who has produced and directed several short films that brought her recognition at festivals including Rotterdam and Busan – this film was made possible partly by funding from the Hubert Bals Fund (associated with Rotterdam) and another fund via Busan as well as further support from Switzerland and France. I found this comment on the company website:
“I found the title The Year Without A Summer from Wikipedia, which I am addicted to. It was 1816, and there was no summer in that year. In some places in America and China, there were even snowfalls during summer. I can imagine the climate abnormalities must have stirred a sense of doom day at that time. The crops died, the sky was often orange tinted, famines and war broke out everywhere . . .
Many years later, scientists believe that the climate abnormalities was mainly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years.
My story is not about volcano eruption, nor climate abnormalities. My story is about how people often live, without knowing much about what happened to them. In a way, my film is about history of sadness.”
My research suggests that I should have got much more out of the film than I did. Perhaps it’s just a function of moving between films with such different institutional and artistic contexts in the same day and perhaps you do need to know a little more about what to expect. For once, approaching a film without any kind of preparation didn’t work for me. I think if I watched this film a second time I’d get a lot more from it.
Chiew Sung Ching plays the lonely old shopkeeper in 'Be With Me'
Eric Khoo is one of the featured directors in the festival with three of his films showing. He’s one of the most important filmmakers in Singapore – arguably the most important as he operates across film and television with his own production company and has produced films for younger directors as well. To some extent he has been a ‘representative’ of Singapore Cinema with screenings at Cannes and festivals around the world. The first of the films to be shown in Oslo was Be With Me, shot very quickly in just 16 days on HD on location in Singapore. The film was inspired by the true story of Theresa Chan, a woman who lost both her hearing and her sight as a child, but who was able to learn to speak and write in English, as a second language. The film weaves her story (she was born in 1943) into a fictional narrative involving three other sets of characters. As the Production Notes explain, Ms Chan’s story stands for ‘Hope’ and the other two ingredients are ‘Love’ and ‘Destiny’. All three stories involve a sense of the need for a loving relationship. In one an overweight and lonely security officer pines for a beautiful women he sees every day near his apartment and endures an abusive relationship at home at the hands of his father and brother. In the second a young woman develops an intense emotional and sexual relationship with a high school girl and is devastated when the affair ends. The Teresa Chan character is shown teaching and writing her memoir. Her social worker’s father meanwhile is trying to come to terms with his wife’s illness and eventual death. Ms Chan urges the son to visit his father more often and eventually she becomes part of the relationship, accepting the wonderful food the father cooks.
Be With Me is a simple but profound film which I found deeply affecting. It has very little dialogue and tells its story through carefully observed scenes augmented by text messages (between the teens) and Teresa’s typed memories and thoughts expressed through subtitles (and her speech which though subtitled is perfectly decipherable). I realise that I didn’t even notice how much of the film was in English. (This is actually an issue when a critically successful film like this is considered as a possible contender for a ‘Foreign Language Oscar’.) Some of my favourite scenes dealt with food preparation and I was especially taken by what I think was a dish of kailan (Chinese broccoli) expertly carried out by Ms Chan. In a later Q&A session Eric Khoo said that he would one day like to make a film all about food and eating, a compendium of short stories, a kind of ‘Food Actually’ (riffing on the Richard Curtis film title).
In some ways the style of Be With Me is like a form of neo-realism (using non-professional actors) with long takes but a nonlinear narrative and a strong sense of detachment since there are relatively few other people in any of the shots. The generally realist feel is broken by two fantasy ideas. The security guard imagines giving a beating to a neighbour who abuses his son and in the scenes with the lonely shopkeeper we see his dead wife in several scenes since remains in his thoughts even though she is gone. The visible presence of the ghosts of close relatives is not unexpected in Asian fictions. The film cuts between the three stories, which do finally intersect, in what is becoming a familiar structure on the festival circuit. The actual mechanism which brings the three stories together is perhaps the weakest part of the script, but I think it is necessary to make the link between very different lives. With this film and descriptions of his other titles I take Khoo to be interested in ‘real’ characters in family situations, so I was intrigued as to what he would do with his new film Tatsumi, a biopic/’literary adaptation’ in the form of an animated film.