Film Review: In the House of Straw (2009)

Was Chris Yeo masturbating his brains out when he made 'In the House of Straw'? (My apologies if the opening remark is scalding.) The filmmaker is indeed unabashedly challenging its viewers by making them sit through a 2 hour long experiment like this. Therefore, he should be expecting a strong reaction. ‘In The House of Straw’ is a film that would seriously divide the camp into people who will applaud its subversion of all narrative and cinematic rules and people who will be crying for help in its quicksand of indulgence. 

The film takes the children’s tale of the 3 Little Pigs, translates it into a modern day Singapore context and builds a web of thematic extensions from it, mostly tinged with a mock-moralistic slant. It is mock-moralistic in a sense that the series of events seem to invite you to interpolate some kind of message or moral (as the fairytale ‘base’ of the film would suggest). Yet, scenes later, something else happens that refutes or disorientates the message. It’s no fun to cock-teased for 2 hours and get nowhere from where you began.

For the benefit of those who have yet to watch, ‘In the House of Straw’ begins with the story of Zhiwen who is at the cusp of his school summer break. Sick of staying at home with his parents, he decides to live out on his own. Strangely, he found a place with 2 bicycle thieves of his own age and decides to live in with them. These 2 boys who get money from selling stolen bikes live their lives in a capsule, oblivious to the tunes of society at large. The capsule is not exactly surreal or unfamiliar. It has the atmosphere of university rebels who choose to skip class, live on the edge and indulge in a lot of inconsequential intellectual banter.

In this realm where the conventional rules of life are eschewed, Zhiwen has not exactly found the utopia that he sought. When the party is over and the beer has settled in his stomach, the hidden catches of the deal start to surface. The boys have their own issues and prejudices (including misogyny). And in the culture that they create, Zhiwen seems to have merely gotten himself into another world as imposing as his family. Epitomising the esoterism of the 2 boys is their trip to Haw Par Villa. 2 local boys who steal bicycles making a contemplative, introspective trip here? It is hard to make sense out of it except to conclude that the all 3 boys in the story and their adventures are really the inner musings and fetishes of the director played out. 

It is a handful of inclinations if you pay attention. There is of course, the fascination with Chinese mythology in the Haw Par Villa episode. There are strong visual references to Christianity with even close ups of biblical statues. There is that capricious reenactment of the yellow brick road scene from the Wizard of Oz in which the costumes are reinterpreted using household items like straw, mops and aluminium foil. Off the Christian track, it also meditates the issue of creation and rebirth, with a visual reference to a Tibetan fabric painting of the 6 realms of existence in Buddhism.

As much as this is a highly contemplative film, it is driven by its rich and layered visuals as well. The visuals are rich not in their colour or filmic qualities. It is hardly a pretty film. They are rich because of the double entendres and metaphors inherent in them. One classic scene is when the camera fixates on the face of the statue of the Goddess of Mercy, followed by an utterance of the word ‘Ma’ by the bicycle thief who professed to be a school dropout. This lends a wryly humorous touch to kind of reverence many Chinese people have always paid to the ubiquitous Goddess of Mercy or Kwan Yin (in fact, recently popularised by the movie 12 Lotus). Another clever visual metaphor is the scene of the amusement park. This is juxtaposed with musings on life and death. The visuals are particularly appropriate because we see people hurled up and down or following the circularity of the ferris wheel’s journey, like having the motion encapsulating the highs and lows, the surprises and the trappings of life itself.

Unfortunately, these philosophical gems are but isolated moments that do not add up to give the film a strong and definite voice. The mood of contemplation adds up throughout the film, in fact, sometimes even veering towards the eerie and the suspenseful. But the ideas and the points don’t add up. I would risk guessing that perhaps an overall point was not important to the director Chris but more the intellectual journey in making this film. So in fact, in making this ‘yellow-brick-road-movie’, Chris was himself on his journey of discovering and making sense of life. It helps to know that Chris was pursuing a degree in Philosophy during the span of the year (or 2?) that he was piecing the film together.

This in mind, can his 2 hours of indulgence be justifiable? Perhaps. A filmmaker’s personal and highly esoteric journey can certainly be an excuse for a film. There is even some form of a structure to this journey (which does not owe too much to the story of the 3 Little Pigs)... Zhiwen leaves school at the beginning of the film… goes through a deep dark journey… through his journey, we learn about the world of the 2 bicycle thieves which gradually get more interesting than that of Zhiwen…and so on (so as not to spoil the film). It ends back in the same spot in the school campus except that the school dropout’s decided to return to school. But point of this journey is mostly lost through the lack of accessible reference points or characters that we can identify with. It is paradoxically local yet alien. There are noticeable entry points into the psyche of the characters but in the very next instance, you lose grip of them when the director decides to reshuffle the cards. Masturbating is often a fulfilling experience in a personal realm. However, when you watch someone else masturbate, it is a subjective experience in which you are either seriously entertained or painfully disturbed.
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