here, not there

After Transformers on Wednesday, I can confidently say Here was definitely more enjoyable. It was playful and beautifully filmed, playing up the density of nature and the cold concrete of the hospital. Friends, if you are thinking of visiting the cinema today, why not spend your 90minutes and $8.50 on a film by Singapore artist and filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen at the Picturehouse/Cathay?

Warning: Spoilers ahead

Here's film-within-a-film (within-a-film...) structure is not new. But it did give rise to some interesting devices. The mockumentary and multiple "videos" made of and by the mental patients constantly shift the audience's gaze, keeping our curiosity about the screen. In one transition, the closeup of a tree outside a window blurs seamlessly into what an impressionist rendering of the image would be, a sublime moment of nature, colour and transformation that takes the viewer in.

Another device of introducing each character via a shot of their signature on a consent form (consent for participating in the "documentary") takes place throughout almost 90% of the film. This serves as a kind of default opening credits. Of course, this could mean that the film that we are watching is, in effect, only the repeated opening and closing sequence of the lead actor killing his wife, followed by his arrival at the Island Mental Hospital.

This loop of action and arrival - is it meant to reflect the mental patients' state of being trapped in their particular moment of criminal action or obsession? Or is it in fact reflective of their conscious choice to remain in their "here" and "inside", the safe "island hospital" where they are happily drugged and made to perform repetitive tasks that aim to condition them for the world "outside"?

"The island hospital", supposed to be previously an actual asylum. Photo taken from here

For J, the film was rescued from contrivance by the "non-acting" of the amateur actors, giving it the charm of a mockumentary. Plus you can't deny the humour with some of the characterisation and situations. The wannebe-actress auntie and the toastmaster man...J recalls and impersonates over lunch today.

But for me, there are places where the film's cleverness inevitably runs into contrivance. Scattered through the film are the usual predictable references to the state of being "here in Singapore", an island. The hospital assistants are dressed in a white shirt and trousers, held up by a black belt (*yawn*). The hospital is called "Island". The patients fantasise about being watched by an abandoned house on a hill. The cleverness of the film is, of course, whether the patients' paranoia reflect the state of paranoid fear among us islanders, or whether the audience's reading into these signs is itself a sign of our self-reflexive paranoia. Are we reading too much as an audience? How much is this a critique of the audience's condition "here" on this island, a conscious choice to remain in a safety zone?

At the end of the film, the narrative suggests a romance instead. We are first prepped for this by the nostalgic strains of 80s song <我找到自己> by Liu Wen Zheng, a musical cue borrowed from Tsai Ming Liang's inspired use of Ge Lan's music in his films. The final shot, resting on a female mental patient (acted by Jo Tan), confirms their enduring and redemptive relationship. Perhaps the decision to settle for a sort of emotional resonance provided a necessary balance and relief.

And so expelled back out there, we were able to go for a late dinner of fish and chips.

For an interview with Ho Tzu Nyen on his film, see this blog and here. Criticine also features another interview.

Post-script: Singapore comix found this journal article about the day release scheme for patients at the previous View Road Hospital, where the film was shot.


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