By Khoo Gaik Cheng
Ho Yuhang’s Sanctuary, which had garnered a Special Mention at last year’s Pusan International Film Festival, distinguishes itself from mainstream cinema in many ways: minimal dialogue, slow pace and almost humdrum nature, seeming lack of suspense and seeming absence of narrative drive. ‘Seeming’ is the keyword here as it is all these traits that trick the unwary filmgoer into a lull (“Eh, nothing happen one. Never mind, I just close my eyes here for a while … zzzzzzz”).
The q & a highlighted the tension between those who embraced art films and those who wanted to but didn’t find them accessible because of the slow pace. What is the point, they ask. In Sanctuary‘s case, the filmmaker emphasises the fact that there isn’t an ‘it’ to get. At least, not the kind we have been conditioned to expect.
It is precisely in the mundane accumulation of banal daily details – napping at work, walking home alone, sitting together in silence – that we get a sense of how the characters live, and gradually, how they relate to one another (without communicating so much through speech as through actions and small gestures). It is, in fact, the deceptive method whereby the story develops and unfolds. A hint from the filmmaker: since there is so little dialogue, all the more attention we should give it.
There is no doubt Sanctuary makes the audience work. But even so, there are no single answers or possibilities about the main narrative [warning: spoilers ahead]. A guy (played by Loh Bok Lai) and a girl (Chua Thian See) are living together. He is Lai, a pasar malam toy gun seller, and she is See, who works at a photocopy centre. They seem like brother and sister. Their grandfather has decided to live in an old folks’ home, ostensibly, in order to care for his ailing woman friend.
Each character negotiates some kind of loss: a son in mourning tries to come to terms with his father’s suicide; an old man, who finds meaning by caring for his partner, has to redefine what that peace is when she dies. Finally a family secret, uncovered in the last 10 minutes of the film, may account for several unexplained estrangements in the relationships among the characters.
Ho’s stated intention is merely to observe lived reality. The camera, in the able hands of Teoh Gay Hian, is a documentary eye, always one step behind its subject (character). It clings to the giraffe-like neck and shoulder of the brother, caresses the sister’s pixie face, and focuses tightly on the grandfather’s fit, tan upper body and muscled arms that display years of hard work. Grandfather may live in a home for seniors but he is fairly active – shampooing the dog and taking it out for walks, dressing neatly, combing his hair, turning off the lights in the home before he turns in for the night.
In Ho’s first feature film, Min, the camera watches always from afar, almost too deliberately cautious in not using close-ups, for fear of giving away too much emotion. Yet, the close-ups in Sanctuary may bring us nowhere closer to the psychology of the characters. The shot is always cut just shy of an actual verbal transaction between Lai and See. Ho explains the minimal dialogue in the film by saying that we don’t talk that much throughout the day anyway. And perhaps he is right.
Some things are best conveyed more meaningfully through other ways. Especially for film, which also consists of sound design (background sound, music). Combined with visual cues and composition, these two cinematic elements evoke mood, feelings, and metaphorical meanings: like Sanctuary in the title, (or its Mandarin title, Fog).
The sanctuary the characters seek appears to be with one another. The brother, a chronic pool gambler, despite his stature, is actually a little boy – literally and figuratively – trying to fit into his father’s yet unworn coat. The tailor tells him it suits him but Lai only half believes this as he keeps putting it on and taking it off, trying to find a connection with his dead father. He mourns, curled up fetus-like on the motel room bed (possibly where the father committed suicide,) wearing the jacket over his own shorts and T-shirt. Like an adolescent giraffe, he is still playful yet already burdened by sexual maturity and soon, adult responsibilities.
The sister too is equally playful at times, winding up toy cars or making frog calls on the wooden frog clapper to her brother as their shared personal signal. To make up for the lack of dialogue, the movie is filled with sounds around us, private or industrial. We hear See even before we see her: it’s the sound of her trailing her umbrella noisily along a gravel road in Petaling Jaya. The only time she uses the umbrella as shelter is towards the end of the film, while riding on the back of Lai’s bike. This scene mirrors an earlier scene where See, carried on Lai’s back, holds a large palm leaf over them.
But these softer touches – of night rain, frog calls, sheltering umbrella and palm leaf – what do they offer a shelter from? Industrial urban life, or perhaps, even the vicissitudes of life itself? Of monotonous days working in a photocopy shop with its repetitive whoosh, the constant snarl of traffic and pounding of construction piling, factory work, the irritating mechanical repetition of toy gun fire… The only relief seems to be the echoey darkness of the pool hall, being goaded on by the camaraderie of the local pool shark (Pete Teo). Or coming home to a cluttered house, to the quiet company of another familiar human being.
This film cannot be read in isolation of all other Malaysian and non-Malaysian films as it will constantly be compared to the rest. It raises a lot of questions for the patient involved viewer precisely because it avoids judgment and didacticism. Simultaneously, even as it bears comparison to fellow indie filmmaker and producer James Lee’s works, Ho’s style and approach to the alienated urban world of Chinese Malaysian society is quite different: less deliberate, less emotionally detached, quieter. He gives the impression of simply allowing his characters the space to be. In fact, the quiet dignity of the three main characters makes the overly loquacious characters (the pasar malam vendor who refuses to lend Lai money, the tow truck driver, the pool shark, the pastor) seem contrastingly crude, comic and akin to so much ambient noise. Loneliness isn’t a matter of a lack of verbal communication, it’s ultimately a human condition of experiencing love and loss.
Ho Yuhang’s Sanctuary is presently screening at the Rotterdam International Film Fest (Jan 26 – Feb 6) with six other Malaysian feature films, including Amir Muhammad’s Tokyo Magic Hour, Deepak Kumaran Menon’s Chemman Chaalai and James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine.
Khoo Gaik Cheng is a Postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, Singapore.
First Published: 27.01.2005 on Kakiseni