"Be With Me" The Enthralling Art of Minimalism By Borislav Andjelic

in 20th Fribourg International Film Festival

by Borislav Andjelic

One of the highlights of the competition at the 20th edition of the Fribourg International Film Festival in Switzerland was Be With Me by eminent Singaporean auteur Eric Khoo.

The third feature by Eric Khoo, a darling of the Cannes film festival, whose Be With Me is his first solo outing since 1997 with 12 Storeys (Shier lou) in the section Un Certain Regard. Be With Me opened last year the Directors’ Fortnight. It is a touching, virtually wordless evocation (with scarcely ten minutes of dialogue) of universal lust for love, hope and communication.

Three bittersweet stories, two fictional and one half fact based, are crisscrossed through the modest means of excellent cinematic storytelling, fine performances of leading actors, a clean composition of dark tone of the camera work (Adrian Tan) and with emotionally disturbing images.

The film opens with an unseen person, later revealed to be amazing Theresa Chan, a deaf and blind 61-year-old woman who is a kind of South East Asia’s Helen Keller whose real life story is mixed with other fictional vignettes in Be With Me. Typing on an old manual typewriter Chan poses and answers the question: “Is a true love truly there, my love? Yes, if your warm heart is”, which sets the tone for the fictional characters’ search for love in a rather emotionally bleak world.

Three fictional stories are all obliquely mixed with the documentary true story. The first story (Finding Love) focuses on a security guard Fatty Koh (Seet Keng Yew), who lives with his abusive family, and is equally addicted to fatty food and a beautiful girl (Lynn Poh) who works in the neighborhood. The second story (So in Love) involves two Singaporean teenage girls. Sam (Samantha Tan) and Jackie (Ezann Lee) are dedicated to text messaging. They fall in love with each other. But romance fades away as soon as one of them meets a boy. In the third and most complicated story (Meant to Be), we are faced with an old shopkeeper (played excellently by Chiew Sung Ching), who cooks and cares for his ailing wife. After the death of his wife he finds new inspiration in the autobiography of Theresa Chan (starring herself) as his life crosses with hers in a blend of fiction and reality. This awkward combination unfortunately does not work dramatically well and undercuts the highly achieved level of the film’s minimalism with documentary quotes from Chan’s life.

Though some of Khoo’s admirers can complain that Be With Me lacks the touch of sardonic critique of Singapore’s sterile life as shown in his previous films, Khoo has made an excellent film: a work of fine art, an enthralling experience of minimalism, with a deep, touching and lasting expression.