Dealing with Demons: Daniel Hui on trauma, dissociation and power

“Why should I use you as my actress?” asks Daniel (played by Glen Goei), as he sits across from Vicki (played by Yanxuan Vicki Yang), a prospective actor seeking to star in his new theatre production. They sit in a brightly lit room, windows open as a crowd gathers outside, observing them intently, almost with voyeuristic delight. Indeed, it does take a voyeuristic turn when an onlooker crudely asks why Vicki hasn't taken her clothes off yet, to which Daniel responds, “They want a show”. What happens next isn't shown on screen, but the allusions are clear enough. Daniel’s choice of words are telling––the active act of ascribing a gender to the profession rather than opting for the neutral alternative down to the verb in question: use. The question is tricky as it implies the willing exchange of power and perhaps questionably, of consent. 

A few minutes later, we see Vicki sobbing as she sits with her brother, Viknesh (played by Viknesh Kobinathan), and he says something along the lines of, “This is what you wanted though, isn't it?” The circumstances are more than problematic, but it's the context in which these characters are situated, and it's clear from that moment on, what this film is about. 

This is how Singaporean director Daniel Hui’s Demons (2018) opens, in medias res, as we see a clear delineation of power and authority between director and actor. Following from Hui’s experimental documentary feature Snakeskin (2014), Demons is autobiographical in its exploration of trauma, dissociation, and power. As Hui described during the post-screening Q&A:
Fundamentally, [the film] is also an exploration between the inner self and the other, and how you can easily become the ‘other’ to yourself. That is kind of like my obsession in filmmaking, how you can become the biggest stranger to yourself––when you don’t trust yourself or when your self betrays you or when your self keeps interrogating you. That boundary between that very stable sense of self and that self that does not exist anymore. A person who experiences trauma would not be able to say very comfortably ‘I think this way’ or ‘I feel this way’ because you are constantly doubting yourself... I am more interested in the idea of power, how it can be abused in many ways, in an artistic process, or lyrical process or even sexual process.
Though the film made its debut at last year’s Busan International Film Festival, it was screened for the very first time for Southeast Asian audiences at this year’s Singapore International Festival of the Arts as part of the Asian Film Archive’s Singular Screens selection

To describe the film, I’ve seen descriptors such as psychological drama, a personal take on the horror genre, a horror comedy, a satirical horror, or even “Lynchian in a contemporary way”. In many ways, I, too, have struggled to find a cohesive way to describe the film. Highly conceptual, it certainly flirts with the realm of horror and satire, but it never fully dips its toes into either of the two. Perhaps that's why by the end, I felt somewhat unfulfilled and dissatisfied with its ending.

If we argue it’s a horror film, the stylistic references are certainly there. The bright, contrasting hues and splashes of strobing light harken back to the Italian giallo films of the 60s and 70s, and most notably, the sinister, distorted repetition of “obscure” as lights flash in technicolour, mirror the hushed, unsettling repetition of “witch” in the titular track of the score of Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977). Much like Suspiria which takes place within the tight-knit community of a dance academy, Demons takes place within the confines of a theatre community. While there's no trace of supernatural matriarchal forces here, Demons is still a film about power: the abuse of it, the displacement of it, and how it manifests in psychological, physical, and emotional ways. Similarly, the grainy, monochromatic, high contrast, slow staggered shots in the void deck of an HDB, overlaid with a drone and chanting vocals eventually came to remind me of the visual and auditory aesthetics of E. Elias Merhige’s Begotten (1990). 

There are also elements of high absurdity, such as when Daniel comes to Vicki and Viknesh’s home for dinner and gifts her what is supposedly a hat but what we see is a fish. She stares at it in disbelief as both her brother and the director ask her to put it on her head while encouraging her to “moo” like a cow, because she supposedly does it so well. Reluctantly complying, she parts her lips to vocalise and no sound comes out; all the while, Daniel and Viknesh continue to laugh. When taken with the overarching theme of the abuse of power, the scene would seem humorous yet unnerving. The laughter from the audience is similarly disconcerting because it implies that we, too, are complicit in enabling Vicki’s trauma––think of it as a form of voyeuristic schadenfreude. When asked about his treatment of irony and of trauma, Hui recalled an apt anecdote:
This film director Seijun Suzuki was very prominent in the 60s in Japan. He was involved in the Pacific War and in the navy and one day, his ship got bombed. The ship sunk and all of them were like striving to survive in the water and he was saying how he was holding on to a plank and he almost died. But he could not stop laughing––he didn’t know why and he just this urge to laugh. When we are made to do something horrible, laughing is a way to help us survive and I think it is a very natural urge for us to laugh. ... Laughter is a kind of defense, something we use to protect ourselves. And even today, when I go through the most terrible things, the first urge is to laugh.
However, the extent to which absurdity is effectively conveyed ultimately falls flat (at least for me). For a film that is naturalistic, engaging with the realms of the real, we're forced to contend with moment of unreality: whether it be by way of scenes of characters putting their ear to a plant, strange noises that only some can hear, doppelgängers that make (unconvincingly) threatening phone calls, and a bizarre crescendo that culminates in a cult-like gathering. The key to effectively conveying absurdity is to clearly define the rules that underscore its manifestation. Are those sounds really being heard? Does the gathering at the end really take place? Are the doppelgängers real? To what extent is the reality unfolding a shared experience––is it just a hallucination? When coupled with elements of horror which naturally demand the suspension of disbelief, the two clash and neither one successfully triumphs over the other.

Despite it all, there are technical elements to be valued. The lo-fi quality of the film, the realistic wardrobe choices, and the occasional hand-held camera work all lend to the naturalistic atmosphere of a reasonable chunk of the film. Much like the gathering crowd in the first few minutes of the film, we feel like observers as much as voyeurs, with many sights, sounds, and situations so familiar. When interspersed with scenes on void decks and common areas of HDB housing, there comes a menacing feel to life in the heartlands of Singapore––hinting that beneath the sunny, clear-skied veneer, there is dormant madness lurking.

Beyond that, it merits unpacking more of the imagery in Hui’s film as that was arguably what I found most satisfying and well-executed. After an unsettling night drive with Daniel, Vicki awakens in her bedroom the following morning. She sits up and cradles her head in her arms and as the camera pans out, nine swords mounted on the wall behind her. 

As an audience member rightfully pointed out (after some proactive googling) during the post-screening Q&A, the arrangement of the swords and Vicki's form exactly mirror the Nine of Swords tarot card. It's a clever, though overt reference and one that I personally appreciated––after all, seeing the Nine of Swords appear during a reading fills me with utter dread. Described as one of the worst cards in the entire Tarot deck, it represents one’s fears, doubts, and pain, heavily weighing on them as signified by the swords overhead. Whether the right side up or reverse, its presence is an ill omen. There is some satisfaction in the nine swords becoming eight later on and how the events in the end of the film eventually mirror a positive reading of an Eight of Swords card in practise instead. 

I left the Oldham Theatre with mixed feelings––captivated in by the rich imagery and symbolism but not entirely convinced with what I'd just seen. For a film that bravely delves into the deepest recesses of the mind, engaging with fears, with the threat of power, and the burden of accountability, I so badly wanted to be able to empathise with these characters a little more. And yet, I found myself unable to.  For me, the problem with Demons is that it's somewhere in the middle: where the rules of this absurd world are unclear and unwritten, and yet despite the universality of the themes being explored, it's hard to feel anything. But maybe that's just my own trauma speaking and maybe that's the point––trauma is personal, the burden of it can be collectively shared but only ever individually felt and eventually, you become too desensitised to feel anything at all.

SINdie had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Daniel Hui. Read on to learn more about his thought process, visual references, and how his thoughts on obedience and authority, shaped the film.

SINdie: The power dynamic that underscores the relationship between director and actor is something that's been in the limelight for the past few years, especially with the rise of the #MeToo movement in 2017. To what extent did this impact your decision to create the film a year on since the movement started? 
DH: We actually started shooting this film in 2016, so way before the #MeToo movement started. We wanted to sort through our own traumas and our own nightmares, and this film comes from that. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the authority of a director—you have so much control over your cast’s words, gestures, emotions, and even thoughts, and that authority has always made me uncomfortable. But of course here, I wasn’t interested in just talking about the power of a director. I wanted to talk about power in general, and the director just represents that. I think there is a sense in certain circles that, since a lot of value is placed on art, artists are beyond reproach as long as they make good art. That is a straight path to abuse of power. But this is definitely not exclusive to art. Obviously it’s the same in politics as well.

SINdie: I think it's interesting that halfway through the film, the narrative shifts in perspective. Based on what you mentioned during the Q&A last Saturday, there was no script for this film. What led to your decision to change perspectives and was that shift planned or something you decided throughout the course of shooting?
DH: There was a script. I just didn’t follow it. I’d been writing the film for two years, but when we shot I would rewrite everything from scratch, based on what we shot the day before and how everyone was feeling that day. So I knew where we were going, just not how to get there.

Anyway, the structure has always been there. This is a very personal film for me, so both characters represent what keep me up at night. In a sense, they are both me. But I wanted especially to show the perspective of the abuser because we all think abuse is something that is only perpetrated by deviants. The reality is that anyone in a position of power is capable of abuse, and the scariest thing to me is that you could have already inflicted trauma on someone without even knowing it. Our position of privilege and power often blinds us to the consequences of our actions. So I wanted to show the abusers as all of us. Because we are all capable of hideous things.

SINdie: There are many striking visual elements in the film--be it the shift in colouring towards the end of the film to the strobing effect that takes place when we Vicki's face splattered with blood. Who were your and your cinematographer's sources of inspiration from a visual standpoint?
DH: For most of the film we didn’t work with visual references. I wanted the film to have the texture of reality, so we mostly shot what was in front of us, which is how I’ve always worked. But for the last scene, things had to be a bit more heightened and hysterical. So I showed Wan Ping, the cinematographer, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954) by Kenneth Anger, which was one of the films that marked me when I first started watching cinema. Of course that places our film into a tradition of queer experimental cinema, which continues from Anger through Pink Narcissus (1971). I guess we gays really love our lurid colors.

SINdie: One of the things I really appreciated was the Tarot imagery and the way the cards that featured in the film were pertinent. So, why the Tarot? What made you want to include the imagery in the ways that you did?
DH: I’m not the most knowledgeable person about the Tarot, but I chanced upon the Nine of Swords one day waiting at the airport in Nice. I was in France for FIDMarseille, and I had just missed my flight because of a bad train connection. It was only a few days after the Nice attack, and so the airport was crawling with soldiers carrying huge machine guns. I was stuck there trying to find a flight back home, and it really felt like there was a war going on. That was when I chanced upon the card randomly on the Internet. I thought then that it encapsulated everything I felt — and feel often. Nine swords hanging over a person sleepless and distressed in bed. It totally visualizes the crushing anxiety and depression that paralyze us.

SINdie: I've read in some of your previous interviews that one of the feelings imbued in this film is that quiet sense of rage that one feels in Singapore, the way it gets under your skin and the fact that it has nowhere to go. As a result, you experience this sense of displacement and internal madness from the pressure to conform. When coupled with the theme of the abuse of power in the film, what do you feel that it all says about the culture of authority and obedience in Singapore, and how it comes to affect the way people behave/think?
DH: I want to clarify and say that every society demands conformity from individuals. Perhaps it is much more visible and present in Singapore, because the collective is very important in Singapore. Punishment is often carried out through collective humiliation which, in turn, reinforces the bonds of the collective. Seeing someone else getting punished reminds us that that’s them, not us. It gives us an identity. I still remember how kids were whipped in front of the entire school assembly when I was growing up. Even today, the newspapers still publish the names and pictures of people convicted of the pettiest crimes.

But every society enacts a certain violence on individuals in order for it to function. I guess that’s what I’ve always been interested to explore in my work—the price we pay to tell a coherent story of ourselves, and the trauma this inflicts, whether it is historical or personal.

SINdie: For the most part and from what I've seen, reactions to Demons have been mixed––whether it's from critics or regular viewers who've seen the film during Berlinale and BIFF. What do you think the reaction will be like in Singapore and why? What do you think it says about the culture of arthouse films in the country? 
DH: The film will be released in the cinemas on 15 June, and I’m excited to see how audiences here will take to it! So far it has been very polarizing. This time I’m working in a popular idiom—the horror movie—and of course people will have different opinions on how it should behave.

What I would say about the culture of art house films in Singapore is this—I find it very heartening that the audience for these films here are mostly young people. If you go to see an art house movie in a Western country, you’ll see that the audience is mostly made up of older, retired people. You’ll hardly see a young person in the audience. This is the reason cinema culture is rapidly dying out in these countries. But in Singapore, as with many countries in Asia, the audience is usually very young. It is young people here who are curious and interested in different things. This gives me a lot of hope for cinema here and in the region. It means we have a future. 

Demons had its Southeast Asian premiere at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts’ Singular Screens programme on 18th May and is screening again on 26 May. It will be released in cinemas in Singapore this summer. 

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 

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