STOP10 Mar 2017: 'The Longest-Distance Relationship' by Lee Sin Yee

The Longest-Distance Relationship is a light-hearted Singaporean documentary on a serious topic. Its premise is that a team of four film-school friends—one Buddhist, one atheist, one Christian and one Taoist—take turns to explore each other's religion and their personal takes on their faith. The documentary is made with the lightest of touches, peppered throughout with a casual humour about the contradictions and confusions that each of the four filmmakers has in their relationship with their faith.

This buoyant personal approach means that the documentary does not seek to be comprehensive in exploring the state of inter-faith relations in Singapore. Yet, as it turns out, this approach pays off with huge dividends, offering a glimpse into how Singaporeans can broach such a sensitive topic with thoughtfulness and curiosity, but without crossing over into offence.

Here are three key insights to be drawn from the film's approach:

1) The film shows how it can be okay to start out without a comprehensive knowledge of others' religions—or even of your own. In one unforgettable early sequence, the young filmmakers visit a temple and ask an auntie selling joss sticks why there is a statue of Confucius for visitors to pray to, even though Confucius was a mortal. This one earnest question leads to a hilarious pile-up of people being drawn into the scene, as the auntie asks her various acquaintances in turn about the statue's theological significance.

Religious sceptics may be quick to scoff this scene as a sign that people can believe in things and engage in practices that they don't even understand. Yet, on the other hand, the scene also reveals how many of us don't need to have a full picture of everything in order to start making meaning out of what we're given. Likewise, it shows how a single harmless question about an under-examined practice can spiral into a far longer journey of interrogating what we don't know. In other words, the film tries to be sweetly forgiving in its recognition that not everyone has the answers or wants to seek them; but it also manages, at the same time, to insist on having the curiosity and courage to ask.

2) The film also shows how we can adjust our beliefs for the people we love. Another sweetly forgiving (and funny) scene comes courtesy of one of the filmmakers' Taoist mothers, who initially disallowed her children from eating beef at all. Gradually, however, she loosened her restrictions because of her daughter's anaemia—to the point where she would even buy the braised beef cup noodles for her children, but insist that they not eat it at the coffee table in front of the goddess' altar. (Yet, as one of her children jokingly points out, it isn't as if the goddess wouldn't know!)

Again, a harsh interpretation of this scene would harp on the mother's lack of consistency, and on the arbitrariness of the religious rules in the first place. This harshness can be understandable, especially when it comes from people who have bore the brunt of such arbitrary rules from others who don't know them well. Yet the scene also teaches us that harshness may not always be the solution, because it is the loving relationship between the mother and her children that led to her eventual shift in her beliefs, even as they extend her the dignity of letting her keep a smidgen of her rules intact.

3) But the film also shows how we might not always come to a consensus, and must sometimes accept that we disagree. The film isn't so naive as to believe that people will always adjust their beliefs in the name of love. Instead, it dares to dwell willingly on some of the more fraught aspects of loving people who share different beliefs. For instance, in an uncharacteristically tense scene of this film, one of the filmmakers admits her struggle with her belief that her friends are headed to hell. How can one respond to that? Her admission, after all, is made from genuine concern for people she cares about, and not from the heinous dismissal of strangers who play no real part in her lives. The film dangles at this moment, unsure of how to proceed—perhaps understanding that, within the scope of its shooting schedule, the issue is not something that can be so quickly resolved.

From these insights, we can thus see that The Longest-Distance Relationship is a crucial first step in raising the level of discourse that Singaporeans need to have about our nation’s melting pot of various religions and faiths. We need that discourse more than ever, now that we find ourselves in a global age of rising sentiment against feared minority groups. We cannot assume that Singapore is immune to this trend just because we have yet to encounter a state of emergency—an economic recession, an immigration crisis, a terrorist attack—that shuts down our rational selves and unleashes our unfounded suspicions against the other. The efforts made in The Longest-Distance Relationship take us some way into addressing this danger.

But we need to take these efforts a step further. For all of its strengths, The Longest-Distance Relationship is still centred only on four Chinese women; does not touch upon Islam, Hinduism or other faiths; and doesn't quite have the scope to answer all (or perhaps any) of the questions that it has the boldness to pry into. Nonetheless, it achieves enough to absolve it of the charges of 'egotism' and 'narcissism', two labels that the filmmakers pre-emptively slap on themselves in their film's opening moments, to ward off accusations about the film's limits. If egotism and narcissism can lead us to such witty and revealing insights about a topic that Singaporeans don't explore enough, then perhaps our film scene only deserves a lot more of it.

The film is available for viewing from Viddsee's Singapore Film Channel.

Reviewed by Colin Low

For the full list of March 2017's 10 films under STOP10, click here.
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