On Grief, Ritual, and Displacement: An Interview with Siyou Tan on 'Hello Ahma' (2019)

Siyou Tan’s Hello Ahma (2019) opens with FaceTime footage. We see an eight-year-old Singaporean girl later revealed to be named Michelle (played by Sofie Yu Xuan Yang) in the corner, watching as a cremation unfolds. Her brow furrowed, the camera pans out, and we see her laying down, smartphone in her hands as she says, “Ahma” (grandmother) out loud. Bathed in a warm glow, she watches as the procession takes place and is asked by an unnamed girlish voice on the other end of the line, “Do you think she can still reincarnate?” The scene cuts to a turtle wading in shallow water.

Funerary rituals are often communal by design, prompting a gathering of both familiar and unfamiliar faces––the result is a shared expression and experience of grief. However, grief in the modern world is perhaps aided, as much as exacerbated, by the advent of technology. No longer bound to one’s physical location, an affair as intimate as a cremation or a funeral procession can become an experience felt beyond borders, though admittedly reduced to pixels on a screen. As a passive viewer, the experience is thusly rendered distant, almost surreal and bordering on the unreal. 

Tan conveys the struggles of internationalism and globalism well in her short film. I'd experienced the bureaucracies of immigration too many times to count and there's nothing worse than having that coincide with a death in the family. Filmed as a personal tribute to her own grandmother, it turns out that Michelle's predicament is not so far from what Tan herself had experienced when her grandmother had passed away in Singapore while she was in the United States. Her inability to leave the country due to visa restrictions closely mirrors Michelle and her family's inability to attend the cremation due to passports that hadn't been renewed in time. Instead, they are left stranded within the confines of their new life in America, forced to contend with the realities of grief from afar.

Despite the move, Michelle's family carries traditions with them––an commemorative altar in their home is flanked by candles, mandarins, and Ahma’s favourite chocolates. In her childishness, Michelle takes a chocolate––the significance of traditions and ritual seldom translate fully into childhood, much like grief and sadness. Perhaps, in the naivety of childhood, an interpretation of reincarnation leads her to identify a turtle at a pet store as her grandmother. She decorates its tank with a drawing of her family and speaks to it, calling it Ahma. Her mother instead says one evening, “I only have one mother”. The manner in which grief is processed and dealt with is more than just a ritualistic goodbye, as the family engages in towards the end of the film, but as they say, a matter of acceptance, in whatever shape or form. Letting go, be it the sweeping of ashes or releasing a turtle into the wild are but a few examples and those that Tan’s film touches upon with great care. 

There are little touches I especially adore in the film, an attention to detail placed toward both image and sound. In one, you hear Michelle’s steps as she wears the oversized sandals that her Ahma gifted to her, clacking across the hardwood floors in her home––in view, the burning incense sticks and her Ahma’s portrait on the wall. The sound of crickets and the cooing of Asian Koel bird fills the evening air, reminiscent of a natural soundtrack that belongs more so in Singapore than America (and as Tan explains in our Q&A below, this was in fact intentional). Such details convey the intrusion of the past and a psychological yearning for a place that one so deeply desires to return to, but is unable to. The way they come to permeate present circumstances mirrors the manner in which grief as much as guilt can be so pervasive. 

At a little over 15 minutes, Hello Ahma is a thoughtful mediation on the nature of grief and how it manifests in the eyes of a young girl who finds herself displaced from familiarity. It's also a story about the realities of immigration and the many moments––both banal as much as significant––that one comes to miss. For myself, reviewing Hello Ahma struck a chord for many reasons as I, too, recently found myself in the same position as Michelle earlier this summer. All I had were images and videos to go by as proof that this loss in my life had in fact happened. Even weeks on, it didn't quite feel all too real.

Loss truly is a fickle thing––we know the sensation well, or eventually, we all do, when the performative traditions are unable to fill the void and we are tempted to find those we’ve lost in some of the strangest places––be it a turtle, or something else.

SINdie took the time to speak with Siyou Tan to discuss he story behind Hello Ahma. Read on for more.

SINdie: Hello Ahma is arguably a film about how grief is processed differently by individuals, and I find that we see it best when you contrast the scenes of Michelle versus her mother. What was the inspiration behind this short film?

ST: The inspiration is from many years ago when my Ahma passed away in Singapore. At that time, I just moved to Los Angeles after graduation, and I was on a visa that prevented re-entry to the US if I left. Ahma passed away quite suddenly, and jobless, far away and with the visa complication, I missed Ahma's funeral. With both working parents, Ahma was a huge figure in my childhood, and I felt very guilty that I wasn't able to be there for her final goodbye. This grief and guilt stayed with my for many years, and so when I had the chance to make a film on a larger level, I wanted to make a love letter to Ahma and my family in general.

SINdie: Symbolically, I know that in Chinese cultures, the tortoise/turtle carries allusions of longevity and tenacity. Is there a specific reason why you chose a turtle?

ST: In the temple in Singapore where I used to go, there's a large pond outside the main hall where turtles bask. I returned to that image when I was thinking about this idea. And after that, I thought that turtles are quite fitting and not too far fetched. They're kinda wrinkly, move at a stately pace, and just seem quite kindly in general... and so, reminded me of my Ahma.

SINdie: In watching the film, I felt that colour plays a critical role in conveying mood and atmosphere––the blue-hued shots compared the the warmth in the opening scene was very evident for me as a viewer. Did you have any references/inspiration from a cinematographic standpoint? 
ST: Yes, lots! For films, Hou Hsiao Hsien's The Time to Live and the Time to Die, Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Tokyo Sonata, and Kore-eda's films in general. Also Carla Simón's Summer 1993, Lucía Puenzo's XXY and Sean Baker's The Florida Project. I also love Ed Lachman, Mark Lee and Łukasz Żal's cinematography.

SINdie: Sound also appears to play an important role––with Michelle clacking away on the hardwood floors of her home as she wore the slippers her grandmother gave her accompanied by a shot of her grandmother's portrait. I also noticed the sound of the Asian Koel bird in some scenes as well as crickets, that seem more reminiscent of Singapore than America. Was this intentional?
ST: Yes this is intentional! Thank you for noticing. I had to shoot the film in Los Angeles under very strict restrictions, and although the film is set in America,  I wanted to convey the sense of Singapore through the choices in sound design, and populate the film with sounds of Singapore as a place the family yearns for but cannot return to.

Whenever I come home to hot, humid Singapore, it is such a huge juxtaposition from dry Los Angeles, sonically. Singapore teems with life in its heat and humidity, and I miss the sounds of trees swaying, insects, and the Koel (which I used to hate every morning at 5am, ha). I wrote the script to these sounds, and in a way, I guess I was also trying to convey the girl (and my) homesickness through this.

Sound is very important to me, and I had to fight AFI to extend my deadline as I wanted to do my sound in Singapore, and luckily for me, the scheduling stars aligned and I was able to work with Nikola and his team at Mocha Chai (shout out to Grace, Ye Min, Jossy, Amelia!) on this. We had our AFI showcase at the Samuel Goldwyn theater, and with its crazy amazing projection and great speakers, I really felt the film through its sound design.

Hello Ahma recently had its worldwide premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of its Short Cuts Programme.

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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