by Desmond Wee
Films are one kind of resistance that allows you a cinescopic pleasure through a sanctioned voyeuristic gaze: we sit in the privacy of darkness indulging in seeing for the sake of seeing. If you do this long enough, like seasoned vampires such as Susan Sontag and John Berger, you realise that the cinema extends into daylight, onto a medium of the everyday with invisible screens. But no, this gaze need not be egocentric: all it needs is an appreciation that you too are somehow involved, especially in a rhythmic space somewhere between the West and the East. Yet, this tale is cautionary, as elusive as Lao Tze’s mountains: sometimes there, sometimes not and sometimes there, once more.
Would you like to watch a film with me?
You see, I was europeanised in the East, speaking a unique blend of English in Singapore that hinted of postcolonialism, multiculturalism, transnationalism and many helpings of diaspora. My father rejected all things Asian and taught me the prowess of the Western repertoire on the piano, stubbornly claiming that the only way to Albeniz’s Suite Espagnole was to live in Spain. My grandfather, a virtuoso violinist who listened to radio static in the evenings, showed me how to bow in the way of the Samurai, the same way Kurosawa would. I knew nothing about my great-grandfather, who was apparently of Portuguese descent, but I use him as an excuse to connect with Fernando Pessoa, que amor é esse, que me faz ir e voltar, Lisboa? So I began to come and go across, within and in-between spaces, as I watched film projections of myself evolve, disappear and then evolve, elsewhere.
When I arrived in Europe, I saw mirrors all over the place and the contradictions ‘In the Mood for Love’ (花样年华) by Wong Kar Wai. The captivating film embodied not love itself, but what went around it, in a surrounding close to a Lacanian gaze: one about desire rather than the object of desire. This lack is really nothing new in the politics of cinema and Slavoj Žižek for example, but what if desires are able to grow within the very sign and dance as signifiers across the spaces of films? Are there other kinds of thoughts that move like this?
Thanatos dealt the final blow by way of Ming Wong’s ‘In Love for the Mood’ at the 53rd Venice Biennale, most valiant for his play of self-identity, inversion of love and diagnosis of a serious case of mood disorder in Singapore. This was where my last memory stood with Maggie Cheung at the top of the stairwell, in Italy and in Hong Kong as well, while Tony Leung was still ruminating the existence of dumplings below. (If you are hungry to know where exactly, look no further than ‘Chungking Express’ where the first Wong grew up; no not on a train, silly, but in the city, 0.01 cm a-part of each other.) This bittersweet nostalgia survived for only one reason: Shigeru Umebayashi’s mesmerising theme had the ability to pause time through every step, especially on stairs of flights. The violin led me to my own reflection on each tread, and the very many others between Europe and Asia, just as François Girard’s ‘Le violon rouge’ travelled all the way from Cremona to Shanghai.
Likewise, Peter Sarstedt. Surely your early childhood in India had something to do with the lush of the European jet set. Tell me the thoughts that surround you while you run for ‘The Darjeeling Limited’, in slow motion with Wes Anderson. You walk down the aisle and look out of, the window to notice Jim Jarmusch, on yet another ‘Mystery Train’ whizzing past, with a Japanese couple watching Elvis singing Blue Moon. But I am there too on the other side, in Aditya Chopra’s ‘DDLJ’, running with Kajol towards Shah Rukh Khan on board, somewhere between Switzerland and your childhood.
Trains, like music, are special because they move along different tracks in vivid contemplation over ground bass. I was not on a train when I first heard Rodriguez’s Concierto de Aranjuez, but it sure felt like it as a little boy, especially when I confused the guitar with rustling leaves. This amorous landscape was probably no less important for Lucia Nagib and Laura Mulvey, whom I had the visual pleasure of listening to in the last years. For some reason, you remember the music on board trains more than you do on board planes.
Would you like to be on a train with me?
If you can follow so far, you will probably realise that I am indulging in Juzo Itami’s first noodle Western, タンポポ, wading in streams of consciousness, choking over the counterpoint between the cowboy trope of Gozo and a culinary finesse of the everyday in ‘Tampopo’. Remember the Ramen master who taught us the art of Shirouto (素人): cherishing three slices of very ordinary pork, in an extraordinary class in which we are all a part of. But not too loud please, because we have arrived at the chic European bistro while twirling spaghetti. First pianissimo, listen carefully to hear if you make any noise, then crescendo and finally surrendering to il galateo fortissimo, or the high culture of slurping.
Akira Kurosawa had no spaghetti when his seven samurai, 七人の侍, boarded the train Westwards that defined a genre and a primal connection between the East and the Western. Perhaps you might agree that there was a lot less walking into the sunset than John Sturges’s ‘The Magnificent Seven’ some years later. The amazingly heroic cast were historically iconized for their coolness, underpinned perhaps by the lesser-known friendship of James Coburn and Steve McQueen, with Bruce Lee. All this set the backdrop for the grandeur of Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable theme (endorsed by my father), which must be at the same time, complimented with the sombre symphony Fumio Hayasaka weaved (endorsed by my grandfather). Engraved in a kabuki as katanas were drawn, samurai or cowboy, dead or otherwise, there were always only seven.
Would you be my eighth?
A lot more compression came with spaghettification, after Sergio Leone pit ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in the middle of nowhere. Sure there was Clint Eastwood, but the person who resonated beyond the sauce was Ennio Morricone. His passing last year reminded me of a walk I had in Milano when I saw a note stuck onto a lamp post saying that he would be with an orchestra live at the Duomo. I told my Italian friends ecstatically and only two (of the seven) came with me, probably for sheer pity of a lost romantic. But something magical happened when the Tema finale of Giuseppe Tornatore’s ‘Cinema Paradiso’ arrived at the station (yes, the same place where the eighth Samurai, Hachikō the dog, had been waiting all these years): it began to rain. Nobody moved in a crowd of hundreds. Instead, umbrellas burst open one after another, and people drew even closer, together in black and white, rekindling a timbre we are all so familiar with. At the end, one of my very wet friends thanked me for shedding tears; in a similar manner to how Rutger Hauer cried in the finale of ‘Bladerunner’ before he sadly moved on as well, with a quote that was not part of the script as Ridley Scott had planned:
I’ve seen things, you people wouldn’t believe, hmmm…. All those moments will be lost in time like tears in rain. Time to die.”
Once I attended a film seminar by Jacques Perrin about geese, but all I could see was Toto recollecting the past in Directors cut, alongside the tears of a young Marco Leonardi and an even younger Salvatore Cascio. Like Toto, I too listened to Morricone’s whistle echoing with me in frisson, as I grew up all the way from Europe, to Asia, to Europe, al cinema paradiso.
Strangely in the original Italian text, there was no mention of a film fading from view. Instead, one note grew into another note somewhere between spaghetti and ramen, nodes that existed only because they elucidated little, meandering lines of thought that informed a kind of Lebenswelt. It is hard to deny the agglomeration of film through memory and lived experience. That the stuff we keep after we walk out of the black box, adds to the kaleidoscope of images that frames the making of our very own theatre. It is no surprise that here in Germany, I salivate when I see Rahmen in front of art stores. The frames that put paintings into perspective are also the same frames that make the motion picture, once they move per second. When you hold this page in my flipbook, you see the moment preceding other vicarious images that come alive; only to look back at us, capturing us as part of our very own film, when we’re noodling around, of course.
Would you like to make a film with me?
For more on this piece:
Wee, D. (2020) Revisiting ‘Singapore’ on Tour at the Venice Biennale. In P. Mura, K. Tan and C. Choy (eds.) Contemporary Asian Artistic Expressions and Tourism, Springer, pp. 105-126.