Film Review: ‘Light of a Burning Moth’ Transcends Genres in its Abstract and Experimental Illustration of Artists6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
A dancer stops speaking to be a “voice” for silent people. Meeting an old artist, she faces her trauma of her mother’s disappearance.
Director: Liao Jiekai
Cast: Ha Young Mi, Han Arai, Akko Tadano
Country: Japan, Singapore
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Runtime: 120 minutes
This year’s Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) will showcase a series of Singaporean and international feature films specially curated by the Asian Film Archive (AFA). The programme, dubbed Singular Screens, opened on 14 May with the film Light of a Burning Moth.
Light of a Burning Moth is Singaporean director Liao Jiekai’s third feature film. Having lived and studied in Japan, the film reflects his experience by telling a story that, likewise, takes place in Japan. The film was made for his graduation from Tokyo University of Arts, where he was the first foreigner to be accepted into the highly competitive Masters in Film Directing course that takes in only four applicants a year. The film later premiered at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2020.
The story revolves around a dancer, Rin (Ha Young Mi), and a mime artist, Sei (Arai Han). When Rin was a young girl, her mother unexpectedly disappeared in the town of Ose, leaving a deep sense of trauma within her. As an adult, Rin now pursues dance and uses it as her method of expression. She begins a practice of not speaking to divert her focus to her other senses and outlets, such as her physical movements. The trauma of her past still haunts her, and she appears to wrestle with it in her practice as an artist as well.
Sometime during Rin’s journey, she forms a connection with Sei and they converse with each other through handwritten letters delivered the old-school way. In fact, the narrations of Rin’s letters to Sei are the only times when we hear her speak. Sei takes on the role of Rin’s friend, mentor, and confidant. As a fellow performer, both are able to discuss their artistic explorations and expressions. Despite being an established and revered artist, Sei still feels like he has not journeyed to where he wants to be yet, much to the obliviousness of those around him who respect him immensely.
Light of a Burning Moth takes a unique and experimental approach in its execution. The story has a narrative but it is not bound by it. It is vastly open-ended and left open to interpretation. From just its story alone, the viewer cannot fully appreciate what the film is trying to capture.
Interestingly, sound serves as a very integral device and a recurring theme in the film. A key element of our protagonist Rin is her practice of not speaking, while Sei is a mime artist who performs without words. It almost feels as though the absence of the human voice in their artistry helps them listen to the world around them better and thus amplifies the sounds of their environment. When the leaves rustle or water drips into a puddle, every little noise feels as though it is right next to our ear.
The film’s most striking element is its visuals. Like many arthouse films, Light of a Burning Moth is heavily driven by its aesthetic and symbolism. At times, the film allows us to simply gaze and meditate on long and contemplative sequences, revealing intricate details behind its characters’ most intimate aspects. The visuals challenge viewers’ interpretation of what is happening, making us question whether these scenes are real or not. There is a duality between the scenes in daylight where we focus on Rin, and the more mysterious, almost sinister scenes with Rei stumbling through the darkness. This contrast further adds to the sense of disjointedness and confusion that perhaps is meant to reflect the characters’ artistic journeys.
Towards the end, the film raises an interesting metaphor that explains its title. As Rin sits on the beach with a campfire, she is accompanied by a moth. An interesting point to note is that in some Asian superstitions, moths are believed to be the deceased returning to visit. As moths are attracted to light, Rin watches the moth before her dance around the campfire. It approaches the flame but retreats from the heat, but the light is too irresistible for the simple-minded creature and it perishes when it gets too close. This could be seen as an interesting theme that lends itself to the opportunity to be explored more in the rest of the film, but for the film’s unconventional storytelling methods it is hard to say.
Arthouse films are shaped by their boldness to deviate from traditional film genres, to walk outside of the boundaries that shape what the rules of filmmaking are. Light of a Burning Moth follows this same principle and dictates its own rules on how to convey a story. It is an avant-garde and highly experimental work that certainly caters to a more niche audience rather than a large conventional audience. Arthouse films are in direct contrast to films made for mainstream audiences, and there will always be a profoundness that not everyone will grasp. To lose this defining characteristic would be to water down the very genre itself.
Light of a Burning Moth is one of those arthouse films that perhaps only the director himself will fully understand. There is still a beauty that can be found through the eyes of the viewer, but the abstract storytelling also leans into a different beauty in its enigma and wonder. For those seeking to be challenged in what they understand of the medium of film, Light of a Burning Moth will defy what you know of conventional cinema. It leaves viewers perplexed, welcoming newcomers into the world of arthouse cinema while intriguing those who are already versed in the genre.
SIFA’s Singular Screens 2021 is happening from now until 30 May at the Oldham Theatre in the National Archives of Singapore and online. Asian Film Archive has curated eleven films for the project, including Light of a Burning Moth. For tickets and online screenings, visit https://sifa.sg/programmes/film/singular-screens-sifa-2021
SIFA 2021 also features a diverse range of other works, spanning across theatre, music, dance, and visual arts, which will likewise be showcased from now until 30 May. Find out more about this year’s programme at https://sifa.sg/2021-programmes