Review - 'As You Were' by Liao Jiekai


If there is a filmmaker who exemplifies visual poetry more than the others, it would be Liao Jiekai. In the same veins of ‘Red Dragonflies’, ‘As You Were’, while dealing with themes of time and loss, is a breathtaking attempt at layering our perception of the everyday and taking things out of their ordinary context and putting them in a somewhat strange and surrealistic setting (even though they are actually real in the film). I may actually call him a surrealist-realist but that’s where his films seem to be pitched at – fables told in realist strokes.

‘As You Were’ is part fable part naturalism, though the fable quotient is heavier. The film is presented in three parts – ‘The Hill of Misfits’, ‘Song of Tomorrow’ and ‘As You Were’, but all seamlessly joined together by overlapping sub-plots, character journeys and motifs. The core of the film is built around a fable, albeit one built of historical realities. St John’s Island is the centerpiece in the film. The film stays faithful to its historical roots of being a quarantine centre, penal colony and home for exiles, by being a reform camp for delinquents. The whole of ‘The Hill of Misfits’ is dedicated to establishing this premise, in which the audience is taken through military drills and mundane labour in a physical setting that seems lost in time and distinct from the modern metropolis that Singapore is. In the this chapter, with the eventual escape of one of the delinquents, who swims over, mainland Singapore is portrayed as a kind of promised land or gold mine.

This relationship between mainland Singapore and St John’s Island seems reversed in the second act ‘Song of Tomorrow’, in which the island is portrayed as an escape from Singapore, relentless in its pace of transformation. Peiling visits Guo Hui, her childhood sweetheart whom is a counselor in the reform camp at St John’s Island. It is a long-awaited reunion as they have not met for 20 years. Most of the time on the island, Peiling seems caught between a mood of yearning for something lost and also fearing for the unfamiliar. Taking us through some unchartered waters and untrodden paths on the island (which is actually a visual treat in the film), we escape with her into a world that is begging for time to stop. Her journey is also delightfully interjected with flashbacks of her days in primary school with Guo Hui. In particular, the scene with them as children floating used stamps in basins of water stands out as a poignant reminder of an iconic fragment of our past.
At this stage, it feels like the film is getting closer to the point it is trying to make but yet between this and the full picture, is a road ahead filled with a dozen smoke bombs. In one of the scenes in ‘Song of Tomorrow’ Guo Hui chides Peiling for always never completing what she wants to say. The film seems to echo the same disposition, taking a ‘touch-and-go’ approach through the characters’ individual journeys. Think of it as a dream, in which unexpected encounters titillate, subvert, excite and intrigue you, but you are never brought close enough or to a point of lucidity to crack the code. The identities of the delinquents in the first act are kept a mystery and it is not even clear if their presence in Acts 2 and 3 is real or simply figments of the main characters’ imaginations. Even the identities of the main characters are kept slightly amorphous, with the patchy character exposition, causing the characters to seemingly ‘float’ along with the tide of the narrative and the thematic exploits of the director.

Nevertheless, the blurred timelines, the loose spatial references and the disjointed memories do contribute to some undeniable aesthetic qualities in the film. There is something intriguing about loosely intertwining the natural beauty of the island with the dark mysterious regimental past of the island. There is also something hypnotic about characters criss-crossing segments challenging our linear view of the course of events in the film. In Act 2, ‘Song of Tomorrow’ when the delinquents surreptitiously appear at the corner of the screen through Peiling’s room’s window, one wonders if it is just a transient ghost of the past or has Peiling walked herself into the fable the film tries to create? Like a mirage of the Act 2, in Act 3, when Guo Hui is seated next to his new found flame, Cheryl, at the camp fire, Peiling appears also seated opposite the fire in a shot that seems partly imagined but also real, making us wonder if we were done with Act 2.


In ‘As You Were’, the final act, the film finally tries to cut the rope off the complicated tangle created in the first two acts (note that it does not try to disentangle) between past and present and fable and reality. The new girl, Cheryl, who appears in Guo Hui’s life is a breath of fresh air both to Guo Hui and the audiences as well for her endearing screen presence and beguiling voice. Her trip to the island, which by now seems to have shed its detention camp past (or is it still there?), helps bring some closure to Guo Hui’s emotional entanglement with the past, maybe a tad too surendipitously. The point of this chapter is moving on. In honesty, the way the film has meandered around in the character interactions and its dealings with the past and memories has made it difficult to do so. But the bright spark in this segment, apart from being entertained by Cheryl’s singing, is a metaphorical off-shoot at the end, in which a young boy, testing his eyesight at the optometrist’s, is asked to take a walk out of the clinic into the open corridor outside. The POV (point-of-view) shot awakens as much as it affirms. Almost like waking up from the director’s long and artful hypnosis.

Review by Jeremy Sing

This film was screened recently at the 5th Singapore Chinese Film Festival,  the 25th Singapore International Film Festival last Dec and has its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival. 

As You Were Trailer from JIEKAI LIAO on Vimeo.

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