A Letter to Mr. Eric Khoo
Dear Mr Eric Khoo,
Please pardon me for saying this, but you really don’t make it easy for me to watch your films. Or to write about them in my monotonous start of the week. Your films are so personal that they are more disturbing to watch than a horror film. And they get me so depressed that I can’t even begin to analyze them.
But Mr Khoo, please do keep making films. And I will watch them. As I have done.
Three films in a row – Mee Pok Man, 12 Storeys, and Be With Me. I watched these films of yours not in this particular order, but I can sort of tell how one film leads to the other. Each film shows signs of its times, and seeing items like Brands Chicken Essence and a mobile phone with an antenna makes me light up in recognition of them.
I have a feeling the people who are reading this will soon be irritated with me, because the only people who will read this probably do not even include you. Yet, I am getting engrossed in this little game of faux letter-writing.
I’m hoping you will see there is a sort of nice touch to it as well, seeing how the characters in your films keep diaries or write letters which were never meant to reach their audience. It is strange how I’m not really planning for you to get a hold of this. This is such a twisted idea, isn’t it?
Jackie in the painful throes of love in Be With Me
But your films have shown me that twisted ideas can be carried off well, such as the unexpected necrophilia scenes in Mee Pok Man. Thankfully, I didn’t find that too hard to swallow. I’ll still finish off a bowl of Mee Pok heartily on any day. But that is hardly your point.
Anyway, I have a few things I’ll really like to speak with you about. Virtually, that is. It’ll really help if I can be direct about it, so that is how I am going to continue.
I have to start with talking about my viewing experience of 12 Storeys, because I watched it most recently and it was exceptional. The guy who was sitting beside me while I was watching the film just couldn’t stop laughing! Not even when the poor Chinese guy who lives alone in your film jumped from his HDB block and died. I don’t see what is so funny about that, particularly as I thought the actor you cast for this role was cute too.
Yet, the guy who was sitting beside me was not being understanding about how upset your film was making me, but I couldn’t take it out on him because I don’t know him, and it was just my luck that he was watching something of a completely different genre in the cubicle next to mine in my University’s Audiovisual library in Melbourne. The 12 Storeys DVD is kept in the library reserve collection. Thank God for the library DVD, but no thanks to the guy who sat beside me.
Anyway, let’s not let this affect my discussion of your film. (I feel sorry this is just one-way)
I hear that you’re into horror films. I am glad to see that it shows in your films. I’ve noticed how you include human apparitions in your films… Like the aforementioned guy in 12 Storeys, Mee Pok Man’s father, and the wife of the faithful shopkeeper in Be With Me.
It’s nice that you keep them as ‘clean spirits’. They sort of stick around to be with the people they care for, which is a very good thing indeed. It is comforting that the motif of gentle human spirits (and not the monstrous, blood-dripping kind) runs through your films.
You don’t leave out showing a hideous view of death though. Death is so prevalent in these three of your films. In 12 Storeys and Be With Me, your characters commit suicide. In Mee Pok Man, the poor prostitute dies in the midst of making love, though not because of it. But, it can’t be anymore in the viewer’s face! There is no avoidance of the subject, and this lingering sense of death in your films makes me dwell upon it quite seriously.
Oh, and there’s a lot of crying in your films too. Should I really be writing this on a Monday?
But, there ought to be a better reason for me to talk about your films than thinking about their potential of spoiling my Monday.
Seeing the human souls scattered throughout your films gives me a sense of their fragility and entrapment. Mee Pok Man is seen wandering about the high-rise residency in which he stays. Yet, while he wanders among high-rise buildings, he also passes through abandoned houses and laneways.
Mee Pok Man’s noodle shop
I feel for the places you have preserved on film. Years down the road, some of the places you have filmed won’t even exist anymore. It is now the year 2010, and Mee Pok Man is a 1995 film, so technically I have seen this film 15 years late!
Or, could I be just on time? Looking through my 2010 vision glasses (I think the closest thing to this is probably the funky bright-colored plastic sunglasses sold as New Year celebrations party wear), I see that some of the places in your film have already changed in appearance. I have always lived in Tampines, and I’m sure I recognized my neighborhood in some of your shots.
There is a scene where the Mee Pok Man wanders to a makeshift amusement park ride placed in the vicinity of some HDB blocks, and I could have sworn that is Tampines as I remember it! Now, we won’t be able to see those makeshift kiddy rides with their neon bulb lights glowing in the night like the ring lollipops we used to have back then. That open grass patch beside the Tampines MRT station is now covered in concrete walkways with pillared shelters, so there is no way of fitting any amusement park rides in there anymore.
This made me realize that change is happening now. Clearly, change is always happening, but seeing the film Mee Pok Man 15 years after its making just makes the places from 15 years ago stand out all the more now.
It is pretty surreal to watch a movie so many years after its making, and then realize that it kind of makes perfect sense for me to see it now. I would not have understood this film at the age of 8! And I would not have been as gratified as I am now that I have seen Tampines as it was many years ago. It wouldn’t be quite as significant to have this record of a place if I could just take a step out and nothing’s changed, right?
To me, change is one of the reasons for your characters’ fragility and entrapment. The landscape and the country’s infrastructure changes, but perhaps the characters’ lives do not.
Your characters are tragic, Mr Khoo. Your films are really homegrown tragedies, but that makes me identify with them. I am part of Generation Y, so I guess that explains my identification with the real-life drama of your 1997 film, 12 Storeys. I understand what it’s like to have grown up with the general aim of ‘study, study, study’ and always having ‘exams around the corner’.
Trixie getting a earful from elder brother Meng in 12 Storeys
I understand the clubbing and mobile phone texting motifs in your 2005 film, Be With Me. But, it’s not like I grew up with a mobile phone as my playmate, so I don’t sentimentalize much about that. There’s still a lot of the same technology around right now, so perhaps I should schedule another viewing of Be With Me in the year 2020?
Your films lead me to wonder, Mr Khoo. How do you know which parts of life to film? It’s fascinating to think about the possibility of making a film that still has relevance in years to come, and perhaps even increasing in value. Like real estate property? Haha.
I feel that your films capture the times with a glimpse of places familiar to us all, and stories of simple people who are trying their best to get by in this ever-evolving and yet still cold and concrete jungle-like city we live in called Singapore.
But, all is not lost. Your most recent film Be With Me offers a spark of hope. The film ends with Madam Theresa Poh comforting the faithful old shopkeeper as he sheds some tears over his beloved wife’s demise.
This ending stood out for me, because I don’t remember seeing your films Mee Pok Man and 12 Storeys ending positively at all… Not that I like their endings any less for it. (I think I like them even better) Yet, it’s just moving to see how Madam Theresa Poh is a real inspiration and beam of support throughout the film.
Mdm Theresa Poh teaching at a school for the blind in Be With Me
Your films have taught me that stories need not be metaphorical or abstract to capture deep emotion. Obviously, real-life stories have the capacity to capture people’s hearts. But, I still like the fictional way in which you’ve told your stories, and still kept them so completely true.
I’m going to finish up this letter right now, with this one last thing to say. I am beginning to understand what is Singapore Cinema. And I’m glad that while we apparently have one of the most stringent censorship boards in the world, your films show that it is worthwhile to not just tell imaginary tales, but to be blatant and bold in portraying true circumstances of the people who live around us, and of the people we care about.
Kudos to you, Mr. K, for not covering up what we are capable of showing the world in the capacity of a film.
Bunny in Heaven