Be With Me

(Singapore - 2005)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Theresa Chan, Seet Keng Yew, Ezaan Lee, Lynn Poh, Chiew Sung Ching, Samantha Tan
Genre: Drama
Director: Eric Khoo
Screenplay: Eric Khoo & Kim Hoh Wong inspired by Theresa Chan
Cinematography: Adrian Tan
Composer: Kevin Mathews & Christine Shame
Runtime: 93 minutes

There are many films that are too wordy, and then there’s Be With Me, which literally seems two wordy. If Ki-duk Kim were a humanist rather than a masochist, he might make a film like Be With Men, which instead is more toward the work of Hsiao-hsien Hou and Ming-liang Tsai. The reason the film is virtually silent is it deals with modern day communication problems. The characters are looking to escape the loneliness of the urban world, a situation director Eric Khoo surprisingly avoids cynicism towards. He claims to be a pessimist in real life, but here he’s crafted a film about hope.

The centerpiece of this mix of fiction and documentary is Theresa Chan, whose autobiography was the primary inspiration for the film. Meningitis robbed her hearing and vision just into her teens, but she’s a determined optimist who chooses to succeed. She still learned things like foreign languages, dancing, ice skating, horseback riding, and wound up heading a school for similarly “disabled”.

The three fictional stories, one somewhat involving Chan, deal with loneliness brought on by separation from the one you love at the three stages of adult life. Young Internet lovers Sam (Samantha Tan) & Jackie (Ezann Lee) both turn out to be women. One day their relationship is great and nothing can keep them from happiness everlasting, the next Jackie flees back to the straight world like a thief in the night. Security guard Fatty Koh (Seet Keng Yew) is a shy, clumsy, and overweight middle-aged man who admires from afar a younger successful career woman who works in the building. He knows he’s not smart, attractive, or well off enough for Ann (Lynn Poh), so it’s hard for him to even figure out how to try to sell her on him. Even he can’t believe in the possibility of her reciprocating, but when he realizes he has nothing to lose he musters up the courage to try in the form of a letter. An old shopkeeper (Chiew Sung Ching) prepares meals for his longtime love, his sick wife, while she’s in the hospital. When she passes away the nearly mute man is left with nothing, but he recovers when his son starts him cooking for Chan.

The first two stories are regularly exploited dope opera material, while the third is thin though touching. What makes the film is the way the stories are told, and the fact Khoo is tender and understanding where the cruel networks only see another freak show for some cheap creeps and chuckles. This is a film of thoughts, feelings, and emotions rather than dialogue, events, and melodramatics. The details are provided through the typewriter, SMS, and e-mail. Theresa writes her book in her head as well as on paper, and since she can’t hear there’s no sound, just a stream of consciousness that’s subtitled. The other characters are silent from the despair of love that respectively isn’t, never was, and no longer can be requited. Khoo’s sensitive cinema puts the characters thoughts and feelings on the screen nonetheless, with a tender and subtle passion that makes you understand and care for the characters a lot more than if Robert Redford contrived a headshrinker to pull their feelings out. The cast of largely non-professional actors deals in movement and expression, saying so much with their body language there’s no need for words.

One thing I liked about the film was how free of contrivance it felt. Usually ensemble pieces with multiple concurrent stories become overloaded with silly connections, intertwining stories that might just as well have nothing to do with each other for no reason beyond the gimmick of it. Be With Me has one ridiculous twist of fate, but generally it has faith in its premise. Chan is the heart of the film, urging the audience not to give up, to find strength to go on because she did and you can’t possibly be worse off than her. If her health problems weren’t enough, she even lost the one love of her life to cancer on the Christmas before they could be married.

One reason Khoo’s minimalism works so well is his settings are vacant. Most directors make the mistake of replicating reality, cluttering urban dramas to show the characters are more ants clogging the road. By eliminating all but the essential, we see the quiet despair of those we should be focusing on. Be with me isn’t just silent, it’s also still. But once again, less is more.



* Copyright 2007 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *