Review: I Have Loved

It's impossible to look at I Have Loved and not get excited. It's a local film with evidently high production values. It's adventurously set in Siem Reap, one of the most culturally and historically rich places on Earth. It deals with love and loss, set across two separate times. And of course, it's got Glen Goei in a starring role. But, try as you might, it's a very difficult film to get into. It is an art film which fits the layman's definition of an art film, and in the end, it may have done better with the title I Could Have Loved.

In two narratives that run side by side, over different points in time but in the same place, we follow a young woman, Marie (Eryn Tett). In the earlier timeline, she's on holiday in Siem Reap, happily married to an older writer (Glen Goei) and has a light-hearted aura about her. In the other, she's returned to Siem Reap, and hangs out with an American-accented local (Amarin Cholvibul). She's clearly lost something very dear to her, and her sadness overwhelms her. As if following Marie's thoughts, we're shown the past, the present, disjointed fragments and images that are barely identifiable.

On the surface, I Have Loved seemed like the perfect ode to Siem Reap. It is a place where people from all around the world gather, if only for a day or two. It is a place where chance encounters and fleeting moments dominate; interludes which have the potential to change lives. The film's synopsis seemed to imply that this would form its heart, but from the very beginning, you realize that it isn't going to take that route. First frame to last, it adheres to (for the lack of a better term) the art house formula to the detriment of its story. Instead of introducing the characters to us and making us feel for them, we are given silence, long, seemingly irrelevant scenes and no insights into who the characters are. It is deliberately opaque in a manner that is alienating rather than alluring. One ends up struggling to piece the plot together instead of focusing on the events unfolding on screen. It isn't easy to identify with characters we don't understand and at the most, I Have Loved leaves you with that feeling you get when you read about a faraway tragedy. You recognize what's happened, you might feel some sadness, but then you fold up the paper or close the window and get on with your life.

Glen Goei is tragically underutilized in the film and probably has about 10 to 15 lines throughout. Most of the focus is on Marie and her relationship with the young man she meets on her second trip. That, in itself, is a downside, but also dampens the impact when the film reaches its climax.

Even as a travelogue, I Have Loved doesn't quite satisfy. There are two or three gorgeous shots of the temples, a lakeside and the Siem Reap river, but most of the film actually takes place in hotel rooms and other mundane spaces. When one of the best known portrayals of the Angkor temples is in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider this has to go down as a missed opportunity (Two Brothers captured it sublimely though). Glimpses of the temples are limited, and there's no sign of Angkor Wat; it almost seems as if what we got is a result of the filmmakers not having full access to film in the complex.

Regardless, it is necessary to express praise for the film's ambition. It has a boldness that is admirable because to go away to Cambodia to make a Singaporean film that doesn't have anything visibly Singaporean about it is no small undertaking. However, perhaps the most valuable purpose I Have Loved serves is to show that filmmakers should not force themselves to create “art” based on a tried and tested concept of what “art” is. Yes, Eric Khoo utilized silence, long takes and a piano-heavy score to groundbreaking effect in 12 Storeys, but that was 14 years ago. We need to move on, loosen up and not be afraid to make films where people talk and things happen. Ironically, we needn't look further than Glen Goei's two films to see how it's done. Until then, if you're looking for a film about interracial lovers, memory, tragedy and spending a lot of time in bed, go watch Hiroshima Mon Amour.

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