|Be With Me
Consuming Be With Me: of Food, Love and Survival
Reviewed by: Khoo Gaik Cheng
Be With Me marks the directorial return of Singapore filmmaker Eric Khoo after a long spell of producing instead of directing. Khoo's last directed feature was 12 Storeys (1997). Between then and now, Khoo acted as producer for other independent films like 15: The Movie (Royston Tan, 2003), and Zombie Dog (Toh Hai Leong, 2004). Be With Me premiered at Cannes this year as the opening film for the Directors' Fortnight where it won accolades but was rejected from participating for the Foreign Oscar category because it had more English than Mandarin and Hokkien dialogue.
Inspired by the life and autobiography of Theresa Chan, one of the characters in the three-vignettes-in-one feature, it is the story revolving around Theresa which is indeed the heart and soul of Khoo's film, infusing his usually emotionally austere work with genuine warmth and wonder. Particularly striking is the quietness of the film. The dialogue of the film is told mostly through subtitles, short messaging service text (SMS), typewritten words, a love letter handwritten in Mandarin, e-mail and internet chat text, and hand signals for the blind and deaf. The soundtrack is minimal and the muted romantic piano music that underscores much of the first half of the film which focuses on the two vignettes--"Finding Love" and "So In Love"--is thankfully reduced to a minimum, particularly for the story that revolves around the oldest couple entitled "Meant To Be."
While the film is generally silent in conveying its narrative, it is more vocal when it comes to making a subtle political critique against the state for its mandatory death sentence on drug smuggling. This film's Cannes premiere coincided with the recent spotlight on the death penalty in the island state: two men, Singaporean Shanmugam Murugesu and Australian Nguyen Tuong Van were hanged for drug smuggling under the mandatory death penalty in 2005. Early in the film, when we are first introduced to the social worker of the third vignette, he is shown writing a report about a family struggling to make ends meet after the father was hanged for marijuana smuggling.
Briefly, "Finding Love" is about a shy, overweight security guard, Fatty, who is infatuated with an attractive professional woman working in his building. He practically stalks her but we're shown on two occasions that despite his grotesque physical form (he is hirsute and fat), he is a compassionate, generous man. The security guard's marginal existence harkens to the typical Eric Khoo theme of alienated, working -class characters, from the Mee Pok noodle seller in Mee Pok Man to the poor young woman who is the target of abuse by her old mother in the HDB (Housing Development Board) flat in 12 Storeys. Ironically, our guard here plays the hapless loser brother of bit actor and real-life security guard, Lim Poh Huat (previously in Khoo's produced film, Zombie Dog and also the subject of a short documentary named after him in 2004, directed by Lee Wong).
Teen love between two girls is aptly portrayed in a quick succession of images accompanied by light Japanese-pop: two girls chat online, meet and fall in love while clubbing and malling together. But just as fast as it takes to send a SMS, the intense affair is over for one of the girls, Sam. Structurally, this narrative is quickly gotten out of the way, perhaps reflecting the fleeting and fickle nature of youthful love. While much media attention has been drawn to the banned poster of the two girls kissing, the film is surprisingly chaste and its sexual politics, almost nonexistent.
Despite the clever use of realism and little to no dialogue, these two stories are forgettable. Instead, it is Theresa Chan's story of hope, strength and personal survival which frames the three stories and which is where Khoo builds characters that we care about. Particularly moving for me is the actor Chiew Sung Ching who plays an elderly shopkeeper who loses his wife and retreats into depression. Chiew's creased hangdog face is beautifully shot and composed against a greenish-yellow melancholic hue. Chiew's character is kept busy marketing, preparing and cooking food for his loved ones. In the beginning, we see him select the choicest ingredients at the wet market to make soup for his ailing wife in the hospital. He feeds her and sits by her bedside till dark before going home. When his social worker son comes to visit one day, bringing a translation of Theresa's autobiography, after reading about her experiences, Chiew is inspired to cook for her. The climax of the film consists of his flashback to his wife's last moments (which I won't betray) and his tearful breakdown at Theresa's dining table only to have her hold him in her arms. This scene isn't about love between Theresa and the man who has recently been cooking her meals three times a week; it is about the lengths we will go for those we love, even at risk of losing them anyway. To quote Theresa, "love does not die although bodies may perish from all sorts of hurt."
The combination of Theresa's autobiography and film fiction yields a simple Christian story of hope, love and redemption: just as Theresa tells us she lost her true love on Christmas in 1968, she gains a potential beloved in the present Christmas period when Chiew shows up at her door with her dinner. The film ends with her typing "Be with me, my beloved love, that my smile may not fade." Yet, I am reluctant to draw a link between the scene of the pair hugging to the typewritten words implying romance between them. The ghosts of the past may have made their stage exit ( i.e. Chiew's wife); nevertheless, memories and feelings for them remain, hanging in the air, fluttering like a time-spent handwritten love letter blowing away on the pavement or the belated hint of guilty recognition of someone's marginal existence, read in passing in a newspaper column.
While the unpublished memoir is a powerful one of a woman who triumphs against her double handicap (we see her cooking, eating with gusto and washing up after herself, going swimming, and teaching young students), the lengths the film goes to retain elements in order to keep the biography unaltered weakens the script. For example, the poetic typewritten lines that open, intersperse and close the film feel prosaic in their repetitiveness ("true love truly..," "beloved love") and capture the naive literary engagement with English of an earlier generation of Singaporeans. Also of ambivalent effect is the mix of fact and fiction which makes it harder for the viewer to be critical of the text alone, upon realizing that the real Theresa Chan is also acting in the film.
Nevertheless, this is sensual cinema despite the lack of sex (only a few kisses), sound and dialogue. And this sensuality is partially conveyed through our reliance, like Theresa, on touch and smell, rather than on sound and visual effects alone: the social worker communicates with Theresa by writing with his finger on her palm and Theresa weaves her fingers in between her student's in order to teach him to weave paper.
Aside from the close shots of talking hands, sensory delight for Southeast Asians also comes mostly from the film's representation of food and its importance in negotiating relationships without the need for words. Chiew cooks up a visual feast in the numerous dishes he makes that are displayed either stewing in the pot or on the dinner table. Going marketing with him is also a visual treat for film viewers. But it is the smell and taste of food that brings the most pleasure for the film's characters. Hawker fare substitutes for the emotional and sexual comfort Fatty seeks but is unable to obtain from Miss Ann: fried oyster omelet, steak and chips, and additional comfort food at home – bread dipped in canned stewed pork. One of the young women, Sam, betrays the other, Jackie, when she opts to have gelato with a boy instead and lies about it. The old man is happiest cooking and feeding others, and Theresa, whose father had a restaurant business in the past, connects with him through his home-cooked meals, after first bonding with his son, the social worker, through their grocery shopping trips together.
Be With Me has had mostly positive reception since Cannes and despite wide media coverage in Singapore, the film performed less well at the local box office than expected. The film has been picked up for international distribution but its DVD version is being distributed by Film Movement, a US-based film distribution company that “brings first-run, award-winning independent and foreign films to fans all across the country via its popular DVD-of-the-Month Club, the Film Movement Series, as well as via traditional channels.” An interesting avenue to explore for those in cities where the film will not be shown commercially.