A Month of Hungry Ghosts

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More Than Just A Dead Month
Snigger, roll your eyes, or be held in horror.

By Tay Huizhen

As the familiar scent of incense and burnt joss sticks permeates the air, there is no bigger clue that Qing Ming Festival has arrived.

While the Chinese Tomb Sweeping tradition takes place over two weeks in the late Spring, the Hungry Ghost Festival that follows a few months later, lingers for an entire month. American director Tony Kern unravels the mysteries behind this local tradition in A Month of Hungry Ghosts. Nominated for Best Film at the inaugural Singapore Film Awards, the documentary is a palette of the rich cultural tapestry of the local Chinese tradition, and which succeeds in bringing out both the fantastical and the grotesque in its depiction of local culture.

The Hungry Ghost Festival falls on the Seventh Month of the Lunar Calendar, during which the lives of Singaporeans momentarily grind to a cautious halt, as those steeped in their beliefs faithfully follow through the requisite rites of the ghoulish month. Combining a mix of vivid storytelling with heavy cultural motifs, Director Tony Kern’s lush cinematography brings to life this Chinese tradition that has so mesmerized and captured the fascination of the locals.

While the film shows that the emotions of the masses during this period is a mix of reverence, fear and even excitement as they celebrate this pivotal period, their fixation with closely regulating their every move during this time is clearly apparent, as all levels of society, from construction workers to average Joes and even children under the guidance and instruction of adults are overtly beguiled and transfixed by this long-held tradition.

The introduction to the Hungry Ghost Festival is portrayed through shadowing the lifestyles and rituals of believers during the month, from taxi drivers and other laymen to devotees and priests. As characters explain their practices with much trepidation, audiences will be intrigued by explanations of the varied, numerous superstitions that run the gamut from appeasing the spirits with offerings to refraining from specific taboos.

While one would think this web of fear renders the month a grim one, the locals are apparently a brave or confused lot, and go to great lengths to cater to these spirits they call ‘good brothers’, by offering the dead with what else but the personal touch of live entertainment. Indeed, it is the fanfare and accompanying activities of this festival that lends the month an almost incongruous festive flair. The pomp of local Street Opera (Wayang), dramatics of auctions and the dazzling lights and sounds of Getai lends an effervescence and jocund twist to the seemingly macabre festival. The lively activities are in stark contrast to eerie forays by believers into cemeteries and altar-worships gone awry.

The spectacle and vibrancy that comes with the celebrations also throws up varying interpretations of the festival between the young and the old, even offering social commentary of the festival as being a crucial part of community.

There is much added mystique in many scenes achieved through elaborate cinematography, lending the documentary an apt otherworldly quality. Intentionally or not, the tranquilised dead-eyes or monotonous voices of the people giving testimonies are at times ironically portrayed as being the dead themselves. Depending on how serious one takes this film, such an idea may serve to elicit greater chills for some, or cause others to stifle hysterical laughter.

Nonetheless, the visual treat, while embodying a multi-textured flair, attempts an exploration of myriad debates that arise out of this phenomenon with startling nuance and depth. Superstitious tendencies guiding such practices are simultaneously parodied and accorded vindication in an exquisitely subtle manner.

Not shrinking from difficult issues, a large part of the documentary is also devoted to the concept of the paranormal in shaping such beliefs. In many ways, the documentary also skims the surface of deep metaphysical questions akin to existentialism in deftly portraying how Singaporeans come to terms with universal issues of the afterlife and concepts of death.

The creators were careful not to portray believers in the Hungry Ghost Festival as merely superstitious or religious and interestingly reflected the festivities within a uniquely pragmatist and even commercial urban Singaporean context. The documentary must be credited in stretching narrow perceptions of the festival, even suggesting social and moral values of compassion and filial piety to be a cornerstone of this practice. Highlighting the probability of profit-driven enterprises and economic potential behind the festival was yet another refreshing aside and a poignant moment came when an interviewed Taoist priest noted how the ‘human hunger is more excessive’.

While the documentary does play up the exoticness of the festival and thus may more directly appeal to foreigners and those new to Singaporean idiosyncrasies, it may also be an eye-opener for the average Singaporean as lesser-known practices of the Hungry Ghost Festival and the motivations of their followers are revealed.

Indeed, what one walks away with this film in mind is the extent of the locals’ fixation in the rituals as a close-up on a Wayang performer’s unwavering blood-shot eyes, sees her delivering chillingly, with full conviction, how one ‘must believe’. In reconciling urban myths and cultural heresies, A Month of Hungry Ghosts is a colourful documentary which highlights a uniquely local tradition that both spooks and transfixes the locals.

A Month of Hungry Ghosts has been nominated for Best Film in this year’s inaugural Singapore Film Awards (part of the annual SIFF Silver Screen Awards) at the 22nd Singapore International Film Festival, going on from April 14-25 at various venues around town.  Please visit www.filmfest.org.sg for more details.

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