A Month of Hungry Ghosts - hungry for knowledge

The documentary starts with a visual treat up Tony Kern's alley - stock footage. I first saw Tony's work at First Takes. It was a daring attempt at covering something unusual in Singapore - the spooky Mitre Hotel. Then he shared during the Q & A that he ran a stock footage business. That opening stock footage of Singapore in A Month of Hungry Ghosts(AMHG) was superb, perhaps rarely seen and a real treat for foreigners. But the message I got was this was docu on Singapore seen through foreign eyes. It gave a general description of our cultural make-up and history with its direct relevance to the Hungry Ghost festival not very apparent. And almost a tad patronising.

But as filmmakers, we choose our audience so while locals will yawn at the touristy bits of information, thousands worldwide would tune in to this exotic fest. Indeed, it spared no effort in combing every tradition and ritual associated with the festival. Let's look at the list: Wayang, Getai, Priests, Burning money and possessions, 18 Courts of Hell, Ulambata Festival, Puppet Shows, 1st Day rituals, 15th Day rituals, Last day rituals and err.. SPI Paranormal Investigators (?) You wonder how they managed to squeeze all that coverage into a one and half hour documentary but they did.

While I do not doubt the educational and cultural value of this documentary, I could not help but feel that it sensationalises the 7th month phenomenon. At its best, it is like an encyclopedia of 7th month practices and beliefs. At its worst, it is angled for exotic spooks in the same way `The Maid' was devised.

Right at the start, CGI is deployed to recreate the gates of Hell that look more like a scene from a computer game. It leaves little to the imagination while its `computer game' look slights the mythical quality of the subject. Then, at a Chinese cemetery, we are taken for an in-your-face supernatural ride with a segment that is geared for YouTube viewership. At a Chinese Wayang, the invisible directorial hand continues to lurk heavily through the choice of errie shots of opera actresses with smudgy makeup. Then, as expected from the opening shot of the Haw Par Villa entrance to the Hell exhibits, there was a montage of the exhibits during the introduction of Hell. By then, the film was beginning to take the shape of a Haw Par Villa sound and lights show.

Among the kaleidoscopic topics, there were two that baffled me. The segment on SPI paranormal investigations and the 2 min puppet show. The SPI segment kinda exposed the real intentions behind the documentary - to up the spook factor. The puppet show was the real mystery. It was the only unnarrated part of the whole documentary and looked like the filmmakers were lacking in shots.

But of course, there were ingenious moments as well. A woman's visit to a shop that sold burnable Hell offerings unveiled tender moments of her relationship with her lost family members. Spooks took a back step for some black humour when she introduces us to the many `worldly' items she is burning for her kins. Inherently witty was the part when she picked a young man's set of clothes knowing that her baby son would have `grown up' to be a handsome young man now in the netherworld.
Somewhere towards the end, the documentary amassed a series of death counts from the world's biggest massacres and wars. It gave me a sense of the extent of the `world' beyond the living world. While still sensationalistic, it was new information in a different package. Most of all, tehre was a link, these deaths all coincided with the 7th month. Not exactly convincing but an interesting info bite.

While local filmmakers will never seem to get enough of the Hungry Ghosts Festival, this is one film that will set the benchmark for leaving no stones unturned in unravelling the festival. While this time-capsule piece will prove its value years down the road, I left the cinema with only the same impact as having watched a Singapore Tourism Board video. It was on one hand insightful, yet on the other transient, like the myriad fast-fowarded footages used in the documentary that resembled a Channel NewsAsia advertisement. AMHG bravely attempted to answer everything leaving me with a little indigestion. More importantly, I begin to wonder with this film, along with 12 Lotus, 881, The Maid, : what else can we expect to see about the Hungry Ghost Festival next year?
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