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The Chronicle of the Dying Days

Philip Cheah

Festival Curator

“My eyes wandered from one end of the mountains to the other. ‘Do you think they go on forever?’

“‘The mountains?’ Aritomo said, as though he had been asked that question before. ‘They fade away. Like all things.’”

  • From the novel, The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Malaysia, 2012)

My friend in Laos collects classic Nike t-shirt designs. For a good 20 years of his life, he has lived by the ethos: “Just Do It.” Doing is pretty much what we are obsessed with in our lives. When I started to speak about retirement, the constant barrage of questions was “but what will you do?” If only I was a Nike t-shirt, I’d know just what to say.

Another friend of mine works in a neighbourhood eldercare centre, the kind that is sprouting out all over Singapore where a Silver Tsunami is predicted to hit in 2030; when one in four citizens will be over 65 years in age. He says that old people constantly wander in just to make human contact. They don’t know what to “do” with themselves.

Doing and being are two different states of mind. Many of us “do” because we have forgotten how to “be”. Action seems the better option than calm when we are confused about being. Being is a state of mindfulness like slow eating when we try to taste all the different spices and textures in a mouthful of food. Or mindfulness of walking when we feel every step we take, in full appreciation of the environment that we are in.

This year, I saw again a film that made me excited about cinema. Ismail Basbeth’s new film, Sara (2023), is in a way a statement about being. It’s about a transgender woman (played by fashion designer, Asha Smarra Dara), who returns home to be with her mother (played by Christine Hakim). After 20 years of living in the city, she comes back to attend her father’s funeral. But because of the trauma of losing her spouse, her mother develops early dementia; she doesn’t remember her as the son who left home. Faced with a desperation to communicate with her mother, she makes a painful decision to cut her hair. But the even more painful decision is to become the person she has always hated – her father. Without adding more narrative spoilers in this commentary, the film presents another state of being that she is forced to accept unwillingly towards the end of the film. 

In Basbeth’s filmography, I’ve always loved Mencari Hilal (The Crescent Moon, 2015) and it’s no coincidence that while that film was biographically based on the director’s father, this new film is biographically drawn from his relationship with his late mother. Basbeth’s Sara, is then an examination of the multiple states of being that we are confronted with throughout our lives. In many situations, we are forced to be or become someone else against our wishes. To overcome this unpleasant state of being, we “just do it”. But the act of doing doesn’t negate the state of being. Sara cannot go back to what she is not anymore. She can just go back long enough to fulfil her duty of filial piety. Because after you are done, it all fades away…