"Poetry is born of insecurity: wandering Jews, quaking Japanese; by living on a rug
that jesting nature is ever ready to pull out from under them, they've got into the
habit of moving about in a world of appearances: fragile, fleeting, revocable, of trains
that fly from planet to planet, or samurai fighting in an immutable past. That's called
'the impermanence of things.'"
- Chris Marker, Sans soleil
"All these fragments of memory...so we can retreat from the grand story and stumble
accidentally upon a luxury, one of those underground pools where we can sit still.
Those moments, those few pages in a book we go back and forth over."
- Michael Ondaatje, In the Skin of a Lion
If you want to gain a finer appreciation of the constant state of flux in which we live, drifting through seasons, across borders, into new chapters of growth and change, and even along the slippery axis of memory that shuffles scenes from the past into the stream of the present, you can do far worse than delve into the films of Edmund Yeo. For nearly ten years, the prolific young Malaysian filmmaker has been steadily producing works that track and study such movements across different times, places, and perceptions, all the while remaining firmly devoted to his characters' emotional states as they grapple with longing, regret, mortality, grief, and that keener awareness of life's fragility and beauty that comes from close encounters with death, loss, and momentous change. The people who fill Yeo's many short films and two completed features to date – River of Exploding Durians (2014) and the forthcoming Aqérat (We, the Dead) – attempt to face these formidable challenges as best they can, even as they are pulled along into new directions, environments, and circumstances that force them to carefully reconsider who they are, where they come from, and where they are going. Movement or progression in one form or another is what seems to unite them, as they always seem to be headed someplace, whether journeying back into an inescapable past, making a determined effort to leave something behind, or greeting the future with a steady gaze, an open mind, and a ready heart.
This underlying focus on transitions and passages may at first seem contradictory to the natures of the films themselves, which so often place the characters in key locations where they take pause, reflect on their states of mind, and in a sense recharge before heading back out into the world. But Yeo's work is anything but static or frozen, as he draws upon a wide palette of cinematic methods that transport the viewer into and between memories, countries, neighbourhoods, prefectures, and emotions with a restless, fluid quickness – it is all too fitting that his longtime online pseudonym is "The Great Swifty." Having himself thus far lived an especially busy – and blessed – life built upon the joys of work and travel, Yeo now has to his name a series of beguiling, intricately constructed film-objects (most of which are available to watch online and are listed, with links, below following this piece), each one assembled out of an eclectic medley of images, ideas, and effects, yet in their finished forms possessing a sense of impeccable completeness that enchantingly and concisely illustrates the myriad sensations that define our experiences of the world here in the 21st century, wherever we are within it.
Edmund Yeo was born in Singapore on March 6th, 1984 to Eric Yeo, a producer for PolyGram Records, and Chik Soon Come, a pop singer. They moved to Malaysia when Yeo was two, settling in Kuala Lumpur's neighbouring city Petaling Jaya. When it came time for him to pursue his education, he moved to Perth, Australia, where he completed a Bachelor in Commerce (with a minor in English literature) at Murdoch University. By this point, Yeo had already begun to try his hand at shooting and editing footage using his Sony camcorder and home editing software, marking his first steps toward realizing his long-standing ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. He decided to stay on in Perth for one more year in a graduate diploma course in media production, providing him with training and hands-on experience through student film projects. Upon his return to Malaysia in 2007, he joined Greenlight Pictures, a Kuala Lumpur-based production company founded in 2004 by Woo Ming Jin, whose first feature film as writer and director, Monday Morning Glory (2005), played in several film festivals worldwide, including, most notably, the Berlin Film Festival in early 2006. Yeo signed on as co-producer on Woo's follow-up, The Elephant and the Sea (2007), assisting in post-production work for the film by securing its Malaysian theatrical release, editing a new cut for Malaysian screens (involving the removal of two sex scenes to avoid trouble with the censors), and even contributing additional music to join Ronnie Khoo's guitar score. It was the beginning of a close friendship between Woo and Yeo that would prove to be mutually beneficial for both men's careers. Yeo continued to produce many of Woo's following films (as would Woo serve as producer on several of Yeo's own films) while further honing his skills as a film editor on the same projects.
|Lim Ming Wei in Chicken Rice Mystery|
After he finished his work on The Elephant and the Sea, Yeo embarked upon his very first short film project, Chicken Rice Mystery (2008). A slight, sweet tale that follows a young boy (Lim Ming Wei) as he interviews various family members to find out why his mother (Kimmy Kiew) won't make her fabled "chicken rice of love" anymore, the film offers a rare foray into light-hearted comedy for Yeo as well as telling glimpses here and there of the style that would soon emerge in the films to come, including sequences devoted to nature and city life (one serendipitous highlight being a scene between the father, played by Chye Chee Keong, and his son in an outdoor restaurant as lightning flickers in the dark sky above them) and a shuffled time frame. Made with the help of friends, family (Yeo's cousin Choong Hing Yip and sister Sandra Yeo assisted the shoot), and even a few luminaries of Malaysian cinema (including beloved actress Lai Meng and New Malaysian Cinema pioneer James Lee, both of whom appearing in small roles), Chicken Rice Mystery went on to win a Best Acting award for Kiew and an Honorable Mention in Malaysia's 2008 BMW Shorties short film competition.
Two formative events followed: in 2008, Yeo moved to Tokyo to begin his Masters in film at Waseda University as part of Professor Kohei Ando's film lab (Professor Ando would lend his support as executive producer to a number of Yeo's future films). A few weeks after moving to the new city, Yeo dug up one of the DVDs he had brought with him: Chris Marker's Sans soleil (1983). Seeing the classic cinematic travel essay for the first time one spring afternoon, Yeo came away feeling newly inspired, to say the least, later writing, "I realized my life was changed, my senses realigned, and it opened me up to the infinite possibilities of cinema." Guided by Marker's extraordinary example, Yeo turned to footage he had shot during a trip to India in early 2007, fashioning a meditative piece that cuts between rickshaw drivers coasting along dusty roads and the noise and bustle of Shibuya, a gathering of blind Indian children singing and eating together and wizened old Tibetan refugees in a nursing home, a visit to Bodh Gaya and sunset over Tokyo Bay. As in Sans soleil, an unseen traveler shares these moments with a young woman in a series of letters, filling them with his musings on the vividness of dreams and vision, the fragility and resonance of beauty, the inherent desire to leave behind traces of oneself and one's memories, how we perceive the flow of time and seek solace from life's hardships through simple pleasures and the possibility of connection with other people. Seen today, Fleeting Images feels like a thoughtful, succinct opening statement for the journeys and films awaiting Yeo, alive with curiosity and appreciation for the wonders of the world while openly exploring the philosophical layers of time and travel that would become familiar subjects throughout his films, further pursued and refracted through the prisms of fiction.
Another significant moment arrived when Yeo, a voracious reader whose studies in Perth left him with an insatiable appetite for the treasures of world literature that remains to this day, turned to the works of short story master Yasunari Kawabata for the first time for a new film project. His adaptation of the 1926 short story Love Suicides, shot in Kuala Selangor with Kiew once more serving as his lead actress, is a moody, minimalist piece in which Yeo pushed himself further towards careful compositions and a finely wrought atmosphere, establishing a tone of mystery and lurking dread throughout its twelve-minute duration.
Fleeting Images would go on to win the Grand Prix at the CON-CAN Movie Festival in Japan (drawing words of warm praise from jury member Naomi Kawase) while Love Suicides screened at the Paris Cinema Festival, the China Mobile Film Festival (where Yeo earned a Best Director prize), and the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it made its North American premiere in 2010. Yeo's next project, however, elevated him to a new threshold of innovation and confidence in his craft, signifying his first major "breakthrough" work as well as my very first encounter with one of his films. Kingyo, based on Kawabata's 1924 short story "Canaries," chronicles a nighttime reunion in the busy, brightly lit realm of Tokyo's Akihabara neighbourhood between a middle-aged professor (Takao Kawaguchi) and the young student (Luchino Fujisaki) who was once his lover. When he meets her, she is dressed in a French maid's outfit as part of her job giving paying customers tours of the area. Thus, with the passing of a 10,000 yen note between them, they set out into the night and back into the past, venturing through quiet back alleys, empty parking lots, and crosswalks as they speak of their shared history and divergent paths following their breakup. Painful details gradually emerge: the professor's wife (Qyoko Kudo, credited here as Amane Kudo), calmly inhabiting the cool domestic stasis of their home, unware of the affair; the pair of goldfish the younger woman gives to him as a parting gift; the significance the creatures continue to hold for him as living embodiments of his memories of his lover, even as they are cared for by his wife, who dies shortly later. The man eventually reveals that, following his wife's passing, he killed the goldfish and buried them in her grave, perhaps seeking to snuff out all memory of love within him after having suffered through so much loss.
What makes Kingyo particularly distinctive in its deft handling of this story material is Yeo's bold decision to split the frame into two equally proportioned halves for the majority of the film's twenty-five-minute runtime, allowing for a succession of poignant juxtapositions and varying editing tempos that, beyond visually emphasizing the emotional distance between the two former lovers, add multiple layers of poetic resonance to the polished images captured by cinematographers Yukibumi Josha and Yoshio Kitagawa. The nocturnal stroll shared between the professor and the maid becomes an introspective hall of mirrors in which their innermost thoughts and feelings are contrasted onscreen with their actual words and expressions, chilly grey afternoons spent among the skeletal tree branches, rippling waters, and splashing ducks of Inokashira Park slip into the urban oases through which they walk, and the wife's smiling face accompanies the blazing orange bodies of the goldfish from the depths of the professor's haunted soul. Fortunately, the film ends on a welcome note of earned levity, with the 10,000 yen going to a trio of street musicians who play an upbeat tune for the tour maid as the last of the film's many subway trains coast by behind them.
Completed and screened in 2009, Kingyo was Yeo's first production working with a mainly Japanese cast and crew and earned him the distinction of being the youngest Malaysian filmmaker to ever compete in the Venice International Film Festival, where Woo Ming Jin's third feature, Woman on Fire Looks for Water, which Yeo co-produced and edited, also screened in the same year. These twin milestones marked the beginning of a thrilling new chapter in Yeo's career, soon giving way to an extraordinary flurry of activity between 2010 and 2011, during which he worked on no fewer than seven different projects. The films Yeo wrote and directed during this productive period, starting with Kingyo, could be seen as comprising a cinematic anthology of short stories on love, loss, and memory set against the pan-Asian landscapes of contemporary Malaysia and Japan, to be sampled one by one over time or consumed in one breathtaking sitting. I, however, personally view these films more as an assortment of hand-picked objects not that dissimilar from the silver pocket watch rescued from the snow in Yeo's Last Fragments of Winter (2011) - a series of delicate clockwork mechanisms steadily accrued and treasured over time as Yeo generously shared and discussed them with me throughout our correspondences with one another (I reviewed the Japanese works for the Toronto J-Film Pow-Wow as they were completed). Through their mesmerizing ellipses and perceptively rendered details, they would gradually reveal the thrilling bloom of both Yeo's talents and his lasting faith in the power of art and the capabilities of cinema. I have little doubt they were just as eagerly anticipated and cherished on the festival circuits in which they first appeared, lighting up screens in Hong Kong, Manila, Jeonju, Rotterdam, Dubai, and beyond, more than fulfilling the promise made by Kingyo of a new, refreshingly creative and humanistic voice in the contemporary Asian film scene.
In the summer of 2009, Yeo came back full circle, in a sense, to both Yasunari Kawabata and Chris Marker, turning to another of former's miniature tales, The White Flower, by way of the latter's most iconic film, La Jetée (1963). As Marker did so effectively for his revelatory foray into science fiction, Yeo used mostly still images to portray a young woman's (Zhu Dan) journey to recovery from tuberculosis and freedom from her past and the objectifying gazes and desires of the men she encounters, including her Japanese doctor (Toru Inamura) and a Thai filmmaker (Kong Pahurak) who is released from the hospital on the same day as her. As with the split screen effect in Kingyo, the use of still images enables Yeo to play with the perception of time to marvelous effect, here speeding up and slowing down the barrage of stunning shots captured by Niklas Kullstrom according to the sensory rhythms and emotional currents the characters experience along this compact odyssey of vision, texture, light, and simulated motion.
The White Flower contains some of my favorite passages in all of Yeo's cinema, placing one elegantly composed image after the other upon the screen, installing a kind of gallery in the mind's eye that tracks the motions, gestures, and countless details that make up the woman's passage towards health and independence. Early in the film, the Japanese doctor takes his patient to a bizarre observation platform – the Meiji Centennial Observation Tower in Futtsu Park, Chiba, overlooking Tokyo Bay – to see the sunrise. Carrying her in his arms, the two of them appear as dark shapes in the dim blue pre-dawn light as the arachnoid configuration of flat squares, steps, and railings towers over them. Once they successfully climb the structure, a stunning stop-motion sunrise unfurls from the shifting clouds over the bay; afterwards, they walk along a beach lined with kelp, driftwood, and debris. Certain objects – a rusting bicycle wheel hung on tree branches like some kind of ceremonial ornament, dog statues guarding a small makeshift shrine adorned with flowers and a Buddha statue – evoke a whole world of beauty, age, and decay perched on the edge of the perpetually renewing expanse of the sea as doctor and patient walk, him describing to her a former patient of his who had drowned herself in those very waters, drawing disturbing parallels between the two women. The film's comparatively lighter second half, which finds the woman accompanying the filmmaker to a shrine and soaring through quiet streets on his bicycle, likewise includes environment as a crucial participant in the pair's shared experiences. Twice, we see the world through the filmmaker's camera, briefly animated through the grain and motion of rolling film stock. But it is yet again through still pictures that the segment's most memorable imagery – a crow hopping and cawing through the temple, a butterfly's severed wings scattered on moss-covered stone, the rippling surface of a wall covered in a layer of peeling pink paint - leave their impressions, keeping the two wanderers anchored in the textures and small wonders of the world around them.
Wong Woan Foong's score, accompanied by cellist Mark Shuping (both of whom would become regular collaborators with Yeo), alternates between the soothing tones of a prayer bowl, notes delicately plucked from a guzheng, and the eerily human-like wails, screeches, and sighs of strings, aurally evoking the grasping tendrils of illness the patient peels and pulls herself away from until the cathartic final series of shots depicting the healed woman's departure from Japan, rolling luggage in hand, the determined sound of her footsteps clicking on the soundtrack. She won't become the doctor's helpless patient, held captive by his projected, controlling desires, nor will she be the subject of the filmmaker's camera, captured and framed within his filmed and spliced interpretations of life, nor the object of her ailing brother's unsettling desire. Newly liberated, healthy, and in control of her life, she sets out on her own, ready to receive the world as it is - but on her terms, and no one else's.
A young woman's desire for freedom is also at the heart of Inhalation (2010), a spin-off from Woo's The Tiger Factory (which Yeo co-wrote, co-produced, and co-edited alongside Inhalation's multi-talented cinematographer Kenny Chua) that follows Mei (Susan Lee Fong Zhi), a supporting character in Woo's film, as she attempts to escape from the suffocating atmosphere of the Malaysian pig farm where she works. As in The Tiger Factory, we are shown in graphic detail the processes of semen extraction and impregnating carried out amid the beasts' howls and grunts. Mei turns to her boyfriend Seng (Ernest Chong Shun Yuan, the male lead of Woman on Fire Looks for Water) for money and assistance for an ill-conceived journey to Japan by boat. She makes it to her destination, only to end up getting deported a few weeks later, much to Seng's frustration when he picks her up in the middle of the night. Argument, scolding, and uneasy consolation ensue under the bright orange glare of streetlamps and the soft drizzle of rain in deserted, trash-strewn parking lots and along an array of closed-up storefronts - here, as in so many of Yeo's enveloping environments, one could easily imagine a program of his work bearing the title Private Fears in Public Places. Seng follows after the defeated Mei, exasperated with her irresponsibility yet not quite ready to completely abandon her. He gives her a lift, driving through the night while ruminating aloud on the inevitability of everything from Mei's adversity to change and naive belief in a better life awaiting her in Japan to the riots of May 13th, 1969 that broke out between Malays and Chinese in Kuala Lumpur, marking the first time Yeo - himself a third generation Malaysian Chinese whose work within his home country has consistently focused on representing that particular Mandarin-speaking facet of Malaysia's complex, multi-layered national culture - would directly refer to troubling events in Malaysia's (and Asia's) recent past. Seng and Mei finally arrive at a pier to watch the sun come up over the sea together. One brutal cut later, Mei is back at the pig farm.
Inhalation is noticeably more naturalistic and direct than Kingyo or The White Flower, staying close to Mei before and after her brief, brave flight from the drudgery of her life in Malaysia. Yeo avoids showing the journey itself, however, opting instead for a clever in-camera ellipsis in which a freight train slowly drifting through the shipping yard where Seng drops off and later picks up Mei visually fills in the passage of time, its trajectory from the left side of the frame to the right carrying us across a span of thirty-eight days. The technique, and the looping effect it creates, stresses the painfully limited nature of Mei's agency - try as she might to flee, she only winds up back in the same places she tried to break away from, with little changing from when she left. Yet the film's closing moments offer a glimmer of hope and transcendence as Mei's gaze drifts away from the pig stalls to drops of water dripping from a leaky tap that land, by way of another miraculous editing trick, in puddles of water dotted with fallen cherry blossom petals somewhere in Japan. The puddles give way to a rushing river current thick with the delicate floral offerings until the screen is filled with swirling clusters of petals seen from above, setting us adrift in an alluring, abstract vision of natural beauty. Though her flight was short-lived, and though she can't be there to see the cherry blossoms for herself, for Mei Japan is still a place of solace and hope, present, beckoning, and accessible - if only in the comforting haven of her imagination.
While directly linked to The Tiger Factory, Inhalation shares a connection with another, quite different film that Yeo also completed in 2010. Exhalation is a Japanese production shot mostly in Fujino and Sagamiko, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the end of 2009. A lengthy post-production period freed up enough time for Yeo to shoot, edit, and screen Inhalation at the Pusan International Film Festival in October 2010 a few months before Exhalation's eventual world premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, prompting Yeo to jokingly refer to the pair as his very own Chungking Express (1994) and Ashes of Time (1994). Indeed, whereas Inhalation is simple, direct, and observational in its mostly handheld, verité-style approach, Exhalation is noticeably more polished, its compositions - most of them rendered in sumptuous, high-contrast black-and-white by Shin Hayasaka - more elaborately arranged and executed (this was the first time Yeo used dolly tracks for a shoot), its mood more somber and reserved. The film stars Kiki Sugino, who also served as a co-producer, as Naoko, a young woman drawn back to her rural hometown by the death of Yosuke, a former classmate. She is picked up at the train station by her old friend Sayuri (a quietly compelling Tomoe Shinohara), and the two of them speak of the past, memories of school and Yosuke, and their respective lives in and out of Tokyo. They visit the place where Yosuke was killed in a car accident, located at a busy, sharply curving forest road adorned with a small huddle of mirrors to warn drivers of oncoming traffic, the shimmering panels looking like objects out of a strange fairy tale. Amongst the trees and fallen leaves, the two women slip into a dreamy reverie in which traces and signs of Yosuke's lingering presence - small paper squares appearing in a ravine, a crisply folded paper crane held in Sayuri's cupped hands, an obscured figure clad in white - mysteriously appear and vanish. Naoko and Sayuri proceed to the desolate ruins of a long-abandoned building (the derelict Sun Hills Hotel in Sagamiko) where, enveloped in swaths of inky black darkness kept at bay by the brilliant white glare of a lantern, they meet another former classmate, Shinji (Hiroyuki Takashima). He tells them about a strange dream he had in which a young woman had her head shaved bald by a group of strangers, "Either for art or religion, I can't remember," he says, before going on to tell Naoko that Yasuke loved her. After the two women pass the night in the ruins together, Naoko decides to skip the funeral and head back to Tokyo, much to Sayuri's dismay. The final moments of the film find Naoko and Sayuri now physically separated, but still sharing the same dazed wavelength of grief, each of them contemplating and, in a sense, re-discovering the connection that continues to tie them to their fallen, beloved Yosuke.
With its occasional switches from monochrome to color, slow pace, mesmerizing long takes and tracking shots, and lingering focus, both thematic and visual, on nature, decay, and dreams, Exhalation clearly bears the influence of Andrei Tarkovsky, whose work first cast its spell upon Yeo when he saw Stalker for the first time in 2008. As in the Soviet master's films, time is dilated and distorted and the fabric of cinema woven into an immersive, poetically charged space, shaping Exhalation's meditative journey to reflect Naoko and Sayuri's emotionally charged states of mind. In keeping with Shinji's description of his dream, most of the film bears the solemnity of a ritual, with Naoko and Sayuri convening on the sacred ground of their hometown where Sayuri remains like a patient guardian, there to enact rites of remembrance and mourning for the man whom they both cherished. The film's title further invites a consideration of the processes of grief, recollection, and forgiveness: an exhalation of forgotten or suppressed memories, of old feelings and resentments, all awakened in the days and nights following the opening scene when Naoko's cell phone rings on a busy street in Shibuya, bringing Sayuri and Yosuke back into her life.
As for considering Inhalation and Exhalation as a linked diptych based on their matching titles, even though the films stand far apart from one another in terms of technique and subject matter, there is nonetheless fascinating potential for meaningful correlations to be drawn between these two works named for those two most fundamental acts of human survival. Inhalation, for example, could be associated with Mei in terms of the sharp intake of breath she would surely draw as she readies herself for her risky, potentially momentous voyage, whereas Naoko and Sayuri can be perceived as spiritually exhaling a flood of pent-up feelings and memories triggered by Yosuke's death over the course of Exhalation. Or perhaps the characters in each film are caught in the currents of something far greater and more mysterious than themselves that affects their movements towards and away from their films' key settings, with Mei caught in a force that, try as she may to break away, only ends up pulling her back to Malaysia, whereas Naoko can only stay for so long in the emotionally intense atmosphere of Fujino before impulsively fleeing back to Tokyo, swept away from the town and the trappings of her former self - or so she thinks. Whatever meanings, if any, the imaginative viewer may draw from these films and their titles, they nonetheless stand out as two of the richest and most satisfying creative exercises in Yeo's remarkable body of work.
As shown by the formidable range of themes, approaches, and captivating effects seen throughout this fertile period, Yeo had by this point reached a new threshold of ability, intuition, and harmony with his gifted collaborators. Kingyo, The White Flower, Inhalation, and Exhalation all bear the thrilling traces of an artist gradually yet purposefully discovering with fresh clarity the unique expressive capabilities of his chosen medium, his efforts bringing about quietly stunning revelations of light, color, and sound – veritable bouquets of cinematic surprises. Even in the case of a comparatively minor work like Afternoon River, Evening Sky (2010), there are wonders to be found, such as the beautiful vision of a restaurant kitchen framed as an arrangement of bright red, orange, and blue plastic water tubs placed throughout the glowing white space, counterbalanced by the lush greens of garbage bags and a small stool occupying their respective sides of the frame, or a pair of sky shots worthy of late Godard, the first bleeding pink and orange onto the side of a building, the second momentarily reveling in the crisp, icy blue of a digital sky faded to white in a large splotch overhead. Work, heartache, and the spectacles of water, wind, vegetation, and people going about their daily lives in Port Klang and Petaling comprise this slim, lovely piece in which Yeo once again carefully renders his gathered findings from the world around him into passages of gentle lyricism.
For the film that, in my eyes, represents the pinnacle of his achievements in short-form filmmaking, Yeo found inspiration from "The Moon," a short story by the Japanese writer Mieko Kanai whom he discovered by chance in a Roppongi bookshop in September 2010. It was also by chance that he came across one of the film's key characters: while taking the bus back from the airport one day in early 2011, he spotted a girl in the street with an old camera that caught his interest. Yeo promptly got off the bus to inquire about the fascinating contraption. The girl, named Miho, showed him her Mamiya RB67 as well as the junk shop she liked to frequent, giving Yeo the last few missing pieces of inspiration he needed for his take on Kanai's tale, which he would call Last Fragments of Winter. Sure enough, the film opens on a young girl (Arisa Koike) wielding her own Mamiya RB67, using it to take pictures of the Japanese mountain setting in which we find her. Completely alone, a crimson scarf wrapped around her neck, she quietly treads through the crystalline arrangement of snow, trees, huts, trickling streams, and awesome mountains that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Shirakawa-go, Gifu Prefecture, taking in and snapping shots of the wonders around her, never speaking a single word. The film that follows slips between this immaculate realm and a balmy Malaysia some years later - though no direct indication of a jump in time is given, the chronological distance between the two settings is undeniable. The "present" passages, filmed between March 15th-18th, 2011 (just a few days after Japan was thrown into crisis by the magnitude 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake and resulting tsunami and meltdown in the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor, hence the bowing volunteers seen gathering donations for relief efforts on a train platform and audible sound from a television broadcast reporting on the disaster), follow a family living in a small apartment in Kuala Lumpur. A young boy (Foo Kang Chen), still in his white school uniform, is given money to buy bread and soy bean milk for his mother (Tan Ley Teng), who cannot leave the apartment due to illness (an echo of Qyoko Kudo's similarly contained heroine in Kingyo). The father (Berg Lee, star of Woo Ming Jin's The Elephant and the Sea and The Second Life of Thieves (2014)) takes a train to a Buddhist temple to offer his prayers at the funeral ceremony of a woman named Teng (Lum Kay Li) and lend support to Teng's grieving partner (Aron Koh). Afterwards, the father converses with Teng's spirit on a grass-covered hill, a passing train signaling her arrival and departure as he speaks, tearfully voicing his sadness from the inevitable prospect of losing his memories of her. Meanwhile, the mother herself slips ever further from the present-tense of life and closer to the past-tenses of death and memory, her actual point of departure itself lost in the memories of both her husband and son as time continues to build and pass around them. Nonetheless, other memories flourish, returning again and again like insistent dreams: the boy and his mother in a wooden boat on a calm river somewhere in Kuala Selangor, in the cool blue space of a room with clean white sheets on the bed the boy plops himself down upon, in a green expanse of field where the mother raises the same Mamiya RB67 she had with her years ago in Shirakawa-go, locates her son in the viewfinder, and snaps a picture.
Though Yeo has cited Tarkovsky and Krzysztof Kieślowski's The Double Life of Véronique (1991) as the most significant cinematic influences on Last Fragments of Winter's similarly spellbinding treatment of time and space, it is Alain Resnais who stands out as perhaps the most interesting point of comparison. Here, as in Resnais' Hiroshima mon amour (1959), Last Year at Marienbad (1961), and Muriel (1963), time and memory are unstable agents in which voices, faces, and even whole events are steadily erased in the ongoing, merciless march away from the people and places of the past and towards the ever-consuming maws of present and future. The loss of memories of special people and places in our hearts is a constant danger that Yeo's characters resist with meaningful acts of remembrance and preservation. An absent older sister is recalled as the father tells his son, himself likely too young to properly remember his lost sibling, about how she used to buy her favourite soy bean milk by herself. More often than words, though, the characters rely on technological memory devices so as to track and prevent the slippage of time through their fingers – one might think of Resnais' wonderful 1956 nonfiction short All the Memory in the World and its army of archivists who dutifully toil away within Paris' Bibliothèque nationale using cameras, microfilm, protective plastic sheets, and more to preserve its vast stores of recorded knowledge. Similarly, but on a more personal scale, there is the Mamiya RB67 in Last Fragments of Winter and the Thai filmmaker's camera in The White Flower, both of which deployed to capture and preserve memories in the moment (and, in the case of The White Flower, affixing further meaning to them via the lens of art). There is also the ticking silver watch the girl finds in the snow that stays with her, along with her trusty camera, into her other life in Malaysia, all the while measuring out the passing seconds one at a time. These two items serve as irreplaceable tokens of memory as well as instruments of documentation and measurement – precious artifacts that take the mother – and us with her – back to the snowy solitude of Shirakawa-go just by their very presence. We never see any of the pictures taken throughout Last Fragments of Winter, though the pleasant poing! sound the Mamiya RB67 emits becomes a familiar refrain throughout the film. Yeo instead gives priority to the meaningful moments that warrant the taking of the pictures, placing us there beside the characters in the wondrous places they briefly inhabit, motivating us to use our own powers of memory to hold on to these events and ones like them in our own lives.
As in Inhalation, though now on a far more pronounced and captivating level, Japan is evoked throughout Last Fragments of Winter in dazzling fashion by Yeo and cinematographer Kong Pahurak as a tantalizing sanctuary – an actual place that becomes a compact, immersive vessel of solace and peace within the mind. Himself an avid traveler, Yeo very much understands how we carry pieces of the special places we've been deep inside us, preserving fragments of the people we used to be when we conducted such journeys. He knows about the special meaning of travel – the deep reflections on who we are, where we are, and where we're going, in the world and in our lives, that we undergo when we travel to different places – especially if we do so alone. I've gathered a few such places myself over the years, their impressions from just a few minutes or hours spent in their spaces leaving a lifetime of impressions: Amsterdam's Vondelpark, shrouded in stillness and snow, the skies above grey and overcast; the colossal, shell-like structure of the Vancouver Public Library, wrapping itself around me as I pass an arrangement of tables and chairs – a café made miniscule by the stores of knowledge that tower above; Paris' Montmartre Cemetery, a kingdom of trees and names, guarded by crows cawing above and cat slinking between stones and statues on carpets of tarnished leaves. Yes, these places are still as near and real to me as the woman's Shirakawa-go is to her – compact, intact, and ever-present, reassuring in their endurance. Yeo has managed to make this strange process of fusing place and memory into a happily productive way of life, with so many of his own formative travels bottled and preserved in the shapes of his films. Additionally, there is the generous output of writing, pictures, and videos on his web site, edmundyeo.com, that chronicle, always with a refreshing sense of humor and sincere gratitude for the success and incredible first-hand learning opportunities that have been bestowed upon him thus far, the events that have made up his adventurous life: school, cinema, travel, warm reunions with friends, family, and colleagues, the warmth and universal camaraderie found in film festivals the world over, the spirit of familial closeness formed with his many collaborators on each project, the location shoots and prolonged post-production sessions in which his films have gradually taken shape, reflections upon the life-changing works of cinema and literature that have captivated his imagination and fueled his creative impulses spanning from Theo Angelopoulos and Andrei Tarkovsky to Margaret Atwood and Gabriel García Márquez, and his candid, introspective thoughts on creativity, memory, genre, the joys and struggles of life as a young independent filmmaker, and what it means to be a Malaysian Chinese artist with an active interest in how his culture adapts and expresses itself within Malaysia and the wider, globally connected spaces of the modern world. Here, once again, we see the special meaning of passages, transitions, and acts of travel in Yeo's work – particularly Last Fragments of Winter, a film replete with entrances, exits, and streams of trains the characters ride and watch from nearby. But amid all this movement and searching, Yeo keeps a foot, and a piece of his heart, firmly planted in both Malaysia and Japan, and so finds and creates places of solace in each country in his film: the flat green field and winding rivers of Kuala Selangor; the small, sparsely furnished, softly lit apartment in Kuala Lumpur, and the quiet majesty of the mountain village in Japan. These places make up the ultimate collection – not of cherished objects or memory totems, but of homes in the world – safe places to rest one's head and catch one's breath, to stop and savor the sensation of being alive in one place and at one point in time among an ocean of multitudes, and to perhaps gain a measure of happiness as the mother does, surrounded and strengthened by the love of her husband and son. It takes thoughtful and special films like this one to remind us of such things every once in a while, lest we conclude our journeys only to find our film rolls empty.
Last Fragments of Winter had its world premiere at the 2011 Dubai International Film Festival and went on to screen in the International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Sapporo Short Fest, where it received a Japan Tourism Agency Commissioner Award. The following years have only brought more adventures, more avenues of discovery, learning, and good work for Edmund. His versatility and talent as a film editor have only improved, as indicated by the feverish intensity he brought to Woo's The Tiger Factory and the bold, abstract lyricism of The Second Life of Thieves. In 2013 Yeo directed a segment of the James Lee-produced horror omnibus 3 Doors of Horrors. Entitled Floating Sun, it gave Yeo the opportunity to apply his tropes and techniques to a macabre ghost story and introduced him to a young actress named Daphne Low, who went on to star in Yeo's first two feature films as the politically conscientious student-turned-conflicted human trafficker Hui Ling. 2013 also saw Yeo reunite with Kiki Sugino, who once again served as lead actress and producer for a short film project commissioned by Kao. In many respects the polar opposite of Exhalation, Springtime Nostalgia finds Sugino with a cropped haircut and storybook outfit of blue and red within a hazy, candy-colored dream realm where the art of ikebana blends into sun-dappled visions of an absent man (Akira Orihara), an icily mysterious ikebana instructor (Kingyo's Qyoko Kudo), and a little girl (Eriko Ono). With its hushed atmosphere (the thirteen-minute short is noticeably devoid of music) and stream of lush images, this film pushes Yeo's Tarkovskian aesthetics to their limits. Springtime Nostalgia is sweetly intoxicating, but constantly threatens to dissipate as surely as a piece of cotton candy upon the tongue. In stark contrast, the Charles Bukowski-inspired Love is a Dog from Hell (2016), written, edited, and directed in collaboration with Komaki Teng, employs a quick, rigorous cutting style (bringing to mind Resnais' similar editing techniques in Muriel as strongly as the smooth tracking shots of Last Fragments of Winter evoke Hiroshima mon amour and Last Year at Marienbad), crystalline cinematography by Lesly Leon Lee, and lovely fall imagery in its enthralling portrayal of romantic bliss and dissolution. One sequence revisits certain spots where the film's central couple (Mina Fujii and Yûki Kubota) had previously spent time together, evoking the famous final moments of Michelangelo Antonioni's L'eclisse (1962) and its similarly disquieting consideration of presence and place, while the repeated retelling of the folk tale of Narayama reframes the classic story so closely linked to tradition, endurance, and sacrifice to fit the film's very modern, youth-focused mode, with striking results.
Prolific and passionate as ever, Yeo has continued to pursue further improvement of his craft and a greater understanding of Malaysia's role in the arts, politics, human rights, and multicultural relations through his feature films, commendably building upon the crucial foundations and accomplishments so admirably realized in his short films. The selection of themes that so clearly define his work as well as the path he has chosen to tread as a transnational, multi-culturally-attuned contemporary artist were all encapsulated in one of the most unusual projects he has worked on to date. 60 Seconds of Solitude in the Year Zero was a one-of-a-kind film event held in the port city of Tallinn, Estonia, that called upon sixty filmmakers from around the world to each contribute a one-minute film about the death of cinema themed around one of five elements (earth, wind, fire, water, spirit). Each film was then edited into one hour-long piece that was screened only once, on December 22nd, 2011, at the Port of Tallinn's waterfront, before screen and film stock were set ablaze - a ritualistic ode to the temporaneous quality of cinema and life. Yeo and Woo were invited to participate, as were Albert Serra, Eric Khoo, Ken Jacobs, Mark Cousins, Naomi Kawase, Kim Jee-woon, Park Chan-wook, and Pen-ek Ratanaruang. For his segment, Yeo, ever the resourceful innovator, drew from two preexisting works of his, incorporating footage from NOW, the vibrant "one-minute epic" he made in 2010 for Prada Japan's Yo! Video Project, with images from the snowy Japan sequences of Last Fragments of Winter. By way of, once again, the split-screen effect that served him so well in Kingyo, he placed the Prada ad's cheongsam-clad young woman (The Tiger Factory's Fooi Mun Lai) and her pursuit of a young girl (Love Suicides' Akira Lee) to Port Klang's waterfront, directly alongside Last Fragments' Arisa Koike's wanderings through the snow. Here, then, in this lost, bifurcated minute of cinema titled I Dreamt of Someone Dreaming of Me, so many of Edmund's interests and concerns that echo throughout his films were shown to the audience gathered there in the cold: two facets of contemporary Asia, separated by gulfs of time and distance yet bound together by mysterious ties; two women, alone in their respective zones, yet, like Kieślowski’s Weronika and Véronique, dimly aware of and comforted by one another's' presence in the wide world; the tools of cinema directed towards achieving a greater awareness of the wondrous capacity for such bridges of empathy, incorporating frequent bursts of beauty, nature, and life. And in its ultimate destruction, another iteration of the Buddhist constant that permeates life and Edmund's cinematic world: impermanence. Thankfully, Edmund's films are bound to endure for some time to come, experienced and remembered around the world as luminous traces of dreams, fragments of life carefully collected and kept, shuffled around in memory's pockets until made smooth to the touch, gleaming flashes of emotion and feeling that become reassuring constants - daily gifts - in a world otherwise motionless, flowing ever onwards into a bright, beckoning future of possibilities.
Edmund Yeo - Filmography (Short Films)
Chicken Rice Mystery (2008) • Watch the film on Youtube
Fleeting Images (2008) • Watch the film on Youtube
Love Suicides (2009) • Watch the film on Youtube
Kingyo (2009) • Watch the film on YouTube
The White Flower (2010) • Watch the film on Youtube
NOW (2010) • Watch the film on Vimeo
Afternoon River, Evening Sky (2010) • Watch the film on Youtube
Exhalation (2010) • Watch the trailer on Youtube
Last Fragments of Winter (2011) • Watch the film on Youtube
Floating Sun (2013) • Watch the film on Viddsee
Springtime Nostalgia (2013) • Watch the trailer on YouTube
Love is a Dog from Hell (co-written, -edited, and -directed by Komaki Teng) (2016)