Anyone who has felt the near-dawn ache of loneliness and despair will identify deeply with home-alone, 11-year-old Xiao Wu (given an incredibly dynamic performance from Xiao Li Yuan) and his thirty-something tenant, Jung (thoughtfully portrayed by Kim Young Jun). With this production (a natural progression from his previous work, cross-reference below) director/co-writer Royston Tan most assuredly moves from the category of filmmaker to artist.
The narrative is seen through a young boy impatiently waiting for his manhood to become visible. He gulps down daily doses of body-mass enhancers and, hilariously if somewhat psychotically, harvests a pubic hair from his perpetually passed-out Korean “Uncle,” then tapes the purloined strand into a three-dimensional diary. Mother’s sole appearance is via the telephone. In reply to her sometimes petulant son’s “When are you coming home” inquiry, he slams the receiver in her ear as she evades a specific answer pleading so much work yet to do (the ongoing gag of Xiao’s disruption of Qi Gong Elders’ morning Tae Kwon Do sessions displays character wordlessly). In the longest string of words in the film, Xiao uses 150 to describe “My Hero,” where he upgrades his suicidal role model (the attempted hanging drew too many laughs, one of the few blemishes) to his dream father. Apparently, regular dreams evade Xiao. His painting assignment on that subject for school comes back a bleak study of black and gray. Ninety minutes later, the next edition of that disturbing testament to a hollow soul packs an emotional punch with every stroke.
Tan’s brilliance (masterfully captured by director of photography Lim Ching Leong) subtly reveals itself in many ways. The theme of self-reflection is frequently underscored through images that look back: mirrors, for once-removed facial expression; bathtub water for drab tiles even as below the surface bubbles attest to another desire to leave the planet; gleaming furniture, convenience store display cabinets and—richer still—a line-for-line reiteration of a husband and wife quarrel (tellingly, Xiao dubs with the distraught actress). All of this reinforces the degree to which the lost soul has no one to turn to but himself.
But that’s just the beginning. The deliberately slow-paced tempo alternates between extreme close-ups of the “proagonists” and a series of truly framed shots: doorways as both dividers—when on detention at school, and opportunities—the medical clinic that dispenses body-building supplements for one and hundreds of valium for the late-shift worker; stairwells, when even the living space is unbearable; windows that certainly bear viewing from either side of the pane. After symbolically ripping his lover out of a photograph—yet another frame—Jung’s grief wells up as he stares into emotional oblivion out of his room. Just when it seems there’s nothing left to say, the piano’s angelic, top pitch swings the camera round to reveal Xiao’s knowing visage as he shares the moment and the pain; the third window is clearly that of the viewer, magnificently playing to the voyeur in everyone and drawing us into their plight in an unforgettable manner.
Hualampong Riddim’s original score—beautifully set for cello, guitar and piano—adds another wonderful layer of dark truth as, inevitably, Xiao’s (the saddest boy in the world) fragile world dissolves around him.
Here’s required viewing for anyone who contemplates bringing another life to the planet. JWR