Review - 'Snakeskin' by Daniel Hui

If you ever wonder what it feels like to be a wandering spirit in Singapore, ‘Snakeskin’, Daniel Hui’s film, will simulate the experience of drifting around the streets, looking for meaning and finding epiphanies in the darkest corners of Singapore. ‘Snakeskin’ is a collection of narratives interweaved with one another to form a tapestry of memories associated with Singapore, most of which are haunting, or the fact that they represent a lost and obscured figment of our past. 

A political fugutive recounts his experience of running from the authorities, covering a journey up north past Johor into Taiping. Over the footage of whizzing through a chaotic Geylang Street and of pitch darkness in a room, textured with moving images from a film projection, he reignites the feelings of fear but yet with a hint of wanderlust.
An arts programmer tries to reconcile her feelings about her overly-prudish mother who would judge her choice of friends or partners. Then by chance, she discovers an old picture which carries a still from an old Cathay film, in which her mother was supposedly in, and appears to going in a more liberated state of her life.

A young girl attempts to analyse her truncated relationship with her neighbor Miss Salmah, whom she never saw again after she accidentally witnessed Miss Salmah submitting to a man in bed. The circumstances behind the ‘act of compromise’ are unclear and perhaps will never be given a chance for clarity. In an eccentric offshoot towards the end of the film, the girl consults a time travel wizard (who looks like your typical boy next door in shorts), who issues her an inconsequential looking helmet which can supposedly take her back to her dotted past and ‘rewrite history’.

The common thread running through these stories seem to be attempt to dismantle a complex past that seems too abruptly abandoned. It’s painful and thorny yet it keeps beckoning you to go back and relive the moments. These attempts at revisiting the past are a counterforce to the characters who want to preserve a certain version of ‘history’ in these stories, like authorities or the religious mother or the elusive Miss Salmah. In the wake of the recent death of former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and the debates that have surfaced about who owns the Singapore story (or rather ‘success story’), the characters’ confrontation with the past bestow the film with sudden political relevance. 

To label ‘Snakeskin’ a political film seems to water down some of the robustness of the conceptual debate about history stirred up by the film. It is hard to ignore the parallels between the story of the legendary leader who created a tribe of followers that believed in his absolute, legitimate power, willing to even jump into a fire, with what Singapore witnessed in its past and present political landscape. However, the film is balanced with attempts to extend the idea of reclaiming history in more social and personal situations, communicating to the audience at a more intimate level as well. So is this really a socio-analytical film that harbor political truths and lessons? Or is it ultimately a political film, masked through a series of stories that are obtusely directed at a common message?
What’s clear in the film is the heavily deliberated narrative that director wants the audience to hear. While the film is a varied collection of voices, it is also tightly curated to have many of the voices sing similar tunes. The lines between fiction and documentary are blurred in several instances. The identities of the interviewees are not fleshed out clearly, as if they are just vessels of the directorial message. The premise of the film, which is a time-travelled look from the future back to the present time, lends a hypothetical tint to our understanding of the stories. Of course, the oddball ‘cat’ account in the film, is not only genre-shifting but a reflection of the director’s attempt to tamper directly with the narration. 

Oh the other side of the coin, the film does offer some morsels of objectivity or rather, what seems like more objective takes on pockets of history. An academic re-examines the events centred around Singapore gaining independence in 1965. A Sikh historical researcher expounds on the use of Sikh guards in Chinese cemeteries at Bukit Brown, relating it to social attitudes of a generation gone. A retired Malay film professional who worked on many films during Singapore’s cinematic golden age in the 50s and 60s offers a peek at how the film industry naturally united all three races on and off screen. He quipped that films in the past had a natural multi-racial face, unlike films of the present in which token minority races are planted by way of ‘propaganda’. 

While it is hard to point a finger at the guiding voice of the film, never really sure where fact and fiction ends, the film does have a discernible visual style that helps fill some of its conceptual gaps. Alternating between wide establishing shots of locations and observational shots of characters, the cinematography achieves a uniform quiet ambience that allows us to meditate on the personal accounts and read in between the lines of what is being said. The ambience is also dual in nature, both nonchalant and complex at the same time, with its complexity derived from the ambiguous nature of some of the scenes. 

Indeed, this film has an ambiguous temperament. Sometimes, we snuggle up really close to the characters and find moments of honesty. Sometimes, you get the ‘wandering spirit’ feeling again, able to hear a snippet of a personal account, but missing out on the context of the story. It has stories that make you angry but at other times, you feel a sense of detached helplessness (like you were observing it from afar (like San Francisco, as suggested in the film)). You emerge wiser from the film about distinguishing between fact and fiction but somewhat suspicious about the world around you, ultimately behaving like that cat in the film, whom for all we know, is the incarnation of Daniel, the director.

Review by Jeremy Sing

The film was screened in Singapore during this year's Southeast Asian Film Festival in May. While there are no immediate plans for another screening, we will keep you posted if there are new screening opportunities. Stay tuned on our Facebook page here.

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