The Torch: Earth Review8 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
You might have missed it, but one notable entry from Singapore made it into the 66th Venice Film Festival earlier this month: the medium-length film Earth by visual artist/director Ho Tzu Nyen, which premiered on September 5th as part of the Corto Cortissimo section.
Here is a filmmaker who is taking some remarkable flight these past months, having been invited to such prestigious events like Cannes, Pusan this coming October, and Venice as mentioned, one after the other and each time with something different to show. So it should be well worth taking a closer look at the work of one director who with versatility, patience and maturity has not only made his initial mark on the film festival circuit but appears poised to become one more voice from Singapore to be reckoned with.
I have to add, though, that what I am referring to in this review is a near-finished, picture locked version of the film. Since music is a key element in it, a protagonist even, the reviewer as much as anyone who wasn’t there for the occasion must have missed out on an integral part of the work proper, when Earth was in fact screened to a live soundtrack accompaniment by Yasuhiro Morinaga and Stefano Pilia.
Even so, owing to its specific nature, which I shall come back to shortly, this need not be too much of a hindrance. Moreover, I would argue that none of the following contains any spoilers because Earth is possibly best described as the performance of a film rather than, say, some ready-made mainstream thriller flick. If you are game for a little cinema adventure (and trust this reviewer enough to just tag along), then maybe here is something for you:
“Earth”, the latest short or rather medium length film by Singaporean filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen (HERE), is a staged canvas put into motion pictures; which is not entirely surprising, given the director’s background in art history and theatre. As a whole, “Earth” is almost too accomplished to call it experimental, though technically that would be the category to fit a piece which is convincingly unwieldy in terms of reviewing — but not watching.
In the beginning, one is tempted to say, there is a black screen: “Earth” opens as a sort of genesis on starry lights and curly, indistinct shapes and forms as we witness a formation underway, something fluid that is happening we know not to what end. But as soon as we get to see the first shots of something recognizable, fragments and scraps of wreckage and human body parts, one might assume to be watching a post-apocalyptical allegory, perhaps. Electronic music and an industrial soundtrack add further to these first suggestive moments.
As a whole, “Earth” is almost too accomplished to call it experimental
The camera scans a carefully arranged waste ground in a single long take. We are being guided to survey a scenario of eclectic chaos, taking it in by way of a single fluid motion of lateral and diagonal pans. The image is near still. There is almost no movement, other than the camera’s gaze. Flickering neon lights impart their eerie sense of doom and otherworldliness onto the scene.
Human shapes begin to dominate the laid out view. There are tangled bodies lying around; are they dead? They are men and women, Asian, Caucasian, all strewn about amidst the remains of discarded goods and cables, a web of consumer waste. Eventually, it comes to focus on a trickle of something, presumably blood, flowing from behind the ear of an unmoving man’s face. This could be the search for something, and as it plays out we have a latent feeling, perhaps uneasiness, that someone wants us to see. All of this lasts for about 11 minutes, and then the title appears, EARTH, white on black.
The film continues with sparse movements, some glimpses of carefully measured temporary awakening, and all of it theatrically choreographed. We realize this is a study in gestures. We are reminded of a scene from a painting by Caravaggio. By now the score has morphed into an instrumental and spheric sound, enhancing our sense of this being not quite real. A petroleum lamp is switched on, and off again after a while, to perplexing effect. The ensuing change in lighting makes for an astonishing degree of drama in an unfolding which is otherwise poor in visual minerals, so to speak, anything narrative that would make it legible to the mind in a straightforward manner.
Again, a shift in focus of illumination and slight camera movement brings a character into centre frame, who wakes up and slowly, as if in a daze he cannot fully overcome, calls those around to life. Their indicatory gestures and finger pointing lead us upwards and out of the industrial quagmire towards nature and sunlight, the near equivalent of a paradise, or just a hint. Touched by a sunbeam, a young man cannot open his eyes. Not for being blinded by it, but we take his calm facial expression to mean that he is simply genuinely unable to open them. At which point, 22 minutes into the film, the title reappears: EARTH, this time black on white, a counterpoint.
And then back to the pit again. A downward movement takes us along to continue our stock taking journey and eventually it comes to rest on another young man. We only see his upper torso centre right, as he lifts his head to show his face and reveal closed eyes to the camera, while the back of his head is being capped (or gripped?) by another one’s hand from out of the depth of the frame. A light bulb switches on. The young man’s head is suspended in a rocking movement which seems passive, if not suffered, for shifting facial expressions alternately indicate feelings of confusion, anxiety or some kind of pain, as in troubled sleep. Scraps of sound and music complete the prevailing sense of irritation. Presently, his face is clouded over by these shadows of the subconscious or a dream, which lasts for nearly four minutes. Oddly — and deliberately inconclusively — the gesture and poise of this arrangement lends itself to sexual readings as well; the connotations are clearly there.
As the film progresses, the camera intake becomes gradually more summary. All the people we see here are loosely dressed and draped on crates and among garbage and the aforementioned wreckage of civilization and its markers. Physical movements are catatonic while accompanied by an ambient sound and white noise. An occasional human voice in interspersed musical intonations gives something like emotional highpoints to the visual composition before yielding to sympathetic, synthetic music again. Is what we see the world after Pandora’s Box has been opened?
In a climactic wide shot the full canvas is finally being revealed as the camera pulls back. Bathed in changing temperatures of light, the complete arrangement is given spatiality and a sense of overall plasticity. As is the case throughout this moving image, chiaroscuro techniques are used to astounding effect and bring about an influx of profound implications. The shapes temporarily appear to be lifted from their previous artificiality to attain something resembling communal life. Motion connects the isolated figures. This segment of the one encompassing scene that the film consists of means a consummate integration of arrangement and still life posture, dramatized (if not redeemed) by the play of light over surface. Here, the formerly surreal picture becomes sublime.
The final sequence has the opening water motif return to enriched meaning. The blindfolded man from before is singled out again, as the light drains from the picture. His aspect, which the camera passes over as a sort of clue, leads to another male figure that “awakens” to his own reflection – a dream? Has this even been a nightmare to begin with? We cannot be too sure, but we will be left to ponder and reflect on these images for some time as “Earth”, a little sphinx of a film, comes to a close.
As I’ve said at the beginning, this picture must be sat through and experienced for anyone to come to some kind of conclusion about. And what discovery this can mean I would dearly recommend to the sophisticated cineaste with a taste for a visual meal besides the fast and the obvious. I do hope that a film as peculiar as Earth will find its screen (and proper presentation) in Singapore to get shown to its home audience. Because this one — whichever way you look at it — is more than a trifle, enough to prove once more that “medium” and “mediocre” really are two different things.