Cinematic Lounge

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

When sound is reborn in silence

The other night something happened. I was planning on finishing my notes on Victor Erice's The Spirit of the Beehive for the Contemplative Cinema Blogathon after I finally had the chance of viewing Eric Khoo's Be With Me. But until the end credits I no longer felt or thought the same - feelings of mixed sadness, ambition and determination were weaving into galoping thoughts on what is essential and how we often mistake vanity for something of prime importance. And the film took me over, gradually and subconsciously, until the morning...when I knew it was this film I wanted to write about. Here's what followed...


In a day, a young girl loses her hearing. A few years later, she's no longer able to see with her left eye. By the age of 14, the same happens with her right eye. Thus, deaf and blind, Fate builds a physical wall between the girl and the visual and aural side of world.

A husband loses his wife. In time, life whirls his son away and the two are separated by an unspoken distance of memory and unfulfilled redemption. Thus, alive but only physically, Fate builds a wall between the husband and the reconciled world.

A man has never had the richness of life. His unrequited love suffocates him with its inability to say itself out loud. He finds refuge in the never-rejecting lap of food. Thus, having nothing to lose, Fate builds an unwritten wall between the man and what he only cannot lose.

A girl finds love unordinary but true. By the time she realises that, it has already become unhappy. Thus, with a lonesome feeling that needs a mate, Fate builds a silent wall between the girl and what she desires to explain.

Be with me is a tale of four stories, only one of which is real. But they are all possible and they all have happened and will happen again.

Love, Hope and Destiny are the pivots around which the filmic experience is created, yet they all seem to find cause and reason in the theme of communication, or rather the lack of it. Unspoken words, unwritten letters and unanswered messages intensify into an unbearable silence of scattered moves and gestures. The only person who "listens and hears" constantly throughout the film is the one who can't - Theresa Chan, whose autobiography of a life in darkness and silence has inspired the script. She manages to compensate her loss - sight and sound - by using Block language [print-on-palm], but also by speaking a foreign language she never heard resonating in her mouth (she learnt English in America, where she was granted a scholarship to study). Furthermore, she passes on her experience by teaching disabled children and even more - she never stops exploring and questioning, and communicating. Theresa Chan isn't disabled. On the contrary, she has found the ultimate path towards relating to other people - writing. The words that we're shown and allowed to hear rattling away on the typewriter retain in our mind and we understand that even more vividly in the end of the film when she types the last letters in complete silence. Even the tender piano music that accompanies the stories almost ceaselessly is mute. This screaming silence when we're left only with the image, but inside our head the music and the clatter deafen us, comprises a desparate warning and reminder that we might be even deafer if we do not realise how rich we are. Thus, through the absence and memory of music an extremely luscious atmosphere is created, one of deafening sounds. If we consider contemplative cinema as literally musicless, then Be with me is not contemplative - Khoo uses melodramatic piano pieces that provoke emotions. But there's something more. He makes us remember them, the beauty of their sensetivity - because sensual music is the one which stays with us the most. He shows us a world abundant of noises - stark, prolonged and elusive. And in the end he takes that away with the power of his frame - for a second we're deprived of everything aural and left with the memory of it - still bright in our ears. And this is much more powerful than if he used a constant soundtrack or none at all. And that's why, I'm wondering if music isn't a vital part of contemplative cinema. Or at least the notion of it that lives in the silent passages of film. Those moments when one is either bored to death or fascinated hopelessly.

By disquilifying the film for Oscar foreign-language nomination, the committee made an interesting but, alas, wrong point. They judged a film that tried and succeeded, in my opinion, to rise above nationality and language and place an importance on communication in principle. If Theresa was deaf and blind, then all other characters were mute - but by their own will or lack of it. The inability to find the right pace of the dialogue results in horrible consequences. In fact, the film consisted of so much dialogue: the speech of the touching palms, the new alphabet of Internet and mobile phones - ringing tones, and the signs of food! All characters spoke one of those languages and created a universal dialogue that needs no translation. And English - this was the foreign language a person learnt to speak without having heard and write without having seen.

Theresa's character is the thread that unites and generalizes the other three stories. She's the role model but also the hope: the last words of her autobiography that we see her typing transcend the message of the film - its welcoming and encouraging invitation to be with it, reaching out a hand of hope that might help us overcome destiny.

The theme of finding hope inside loss haunts the widowed-man segment, which, for me, became an example of the notion of refusing to reconcile with the death of a beloved one. The very tone of passive existence, pure existence in the biological and natural sense (the recurring significance of food) speaks of resignation, which substitutes desperation. It's an impulsive reflex of survival without the conscious necessity of it. Blurring death and life, the man sinks in blank everyday-ness. One could even go further and call it unfaithfulness - betraying the sacredness of marriage and its oath ("til Death do us part").

When separation is unwanted and against the will, it becomes aggressive. Such is the case in the other segment "So in Love". The mute communication in the first part ("Meant to be") opposes the flow of one-sided wordness here. Similarly, in the third part ("Finding Love") communication is never established - the unwritten letter, which is forced out of its path when finally created.

Let me then draw a parallel with Johanna's post on Je, Tu, Il...Elle and extract a joint similarity - broken communication. The inability of words and feelings to coincide and people to truly be with each other.


Paul Martin said...

I saw this film at 2006 Melbourne International Film Festival and it made it into my top 20 films of the year. I knew nothing about it before seeing it.

I found it utterly enthralling, and found the synthesis of fact and fiction at first confusing, but ultimately rewarding. The fact that this woman was truly and severely disabled but had yet created a fulfilling life for herself was inspirational.

The director did a great job of creating warm human stories as a device for introducing the documentary aspect to the audience.

HarryTuttle said...

I loved this film too, especially the charisma of Teresa Chan, who was initially the subject of a short documentary, but Eric Khoo turned it into a feature length fiction. The side stories aren't as good and I think Teresa would have deserved her own film.
I've seen watch Werner Herzog's documentary on deaf-mute people : Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), with Fini Straubinger who is a similarly resilient character. Their courage is all the more humbling when seeing those deaf-blind who don't struggle to keep contact with the outside world and become prostrated and autistic. This neverending sensory isolation is just unthinkable in human terms...

Regarding narrative techniques, I don't think score is as distracting/compensating for visual language as voiceover commentary can be. It accompanies the meditation. If a film has no plot drive/action/resolution and no overt dialogue, then my guess is the melodramatic music by itself couldn't spoil the contemplative experience. Direct sound is purer, but calm music if fine.
The three interlaced stories also add a narrative gimmick (which leads to a rather awkward punch line actually), but I see this film contemplative in nature, as the camera is always a distant, unobstructive observer. Not to mention the gorgeous HD image.
All the part of the widowed-man has a beautiful mise-en-scene to signify the missing person. It looks just like a Tsai movie.

Marina Uzunova said...

Thanks for the comments, Paul and Harry!

The interlacing of the stories indeed softened the initial documentary feeling and that's one of the reasons for which the film functions well enough the way it is.

Harry, I wasn't aware of the short, but, for me, the other stories added more texture to Theresa's life and, eventually, made it feel even more inspirational. The distinction between her and the other stories is obvious and not surprisingly, she is the strongest of all and the one able to provide hope. She has found, preserved and lost her love, but also reconciled with it, thus being able to undertake further goals. What's more, through the secondary parts, the viewer participates directly, something which an one-person-focused documentary hopes to provoke, but is less likely to.

This neverending sensory isolation is just unthinkable in human terms...

That's what I mean. Often when we see a documentary or biographical film about a person, who has gone through many struggles and faced injustices (physical or moral), we sympathise but there's a certain wall and that's our not being able to imagine what it would really be like and to what extent is our life different. You end up with the conscious of this victory over Fate and the strength of will, but not with the idea of how it corresponds to your life. There's a link that's missing. And Khoo's film provides that link and makes the experience double-powerful.

It accompanies the meditation. If a film has no plot drive/action/resolution and no overt dialogue, then my guess is the melodramatic music by itself couldn't spoil the contemplative experience. Direct sound is purer, but calm music if fine.

Yes, remember the "Music for Meditation" discs...
It seems to me that music here is more intentional, since it also tries to bring us closer to what Theresa's life truly is, by getting us used to sound first and then for a short moment, just as she lost her hearing for a day, take it away. For me, the climax is there, when we're finally made aware of how it feels.
But there's also voice-over commentary. I mean it was silent, wasn't it? Only the subtitles passing the words. And that's a nice choice.