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Chinese Cinema, Festivals and Conferences

Films From the South #4: Be With Me (Singapore 2005)

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.

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