Review: 一路來 // Through the Border (2018)

When faced with the awareness of one’s own impending mortality, learning how to navigate this newfound knowledge must be perplexing. Teo Qi Yu’s 一路來, or Through the Border, rests on this premise. Screened at the Yamagata Documentary Festival 2019, 一路來 traces the story of Teo's grandfather, affectionately trailing the last few months of her grandfather’s life in a documentary-styled short film. The film explores what defines a home, as well as investigates one’s family history and their own sense of belonging.

The film's compositional sense is reflected in its overall minimalistic style. Many scenes comprise of exploring the social environments which Teo’s grandfather frequent, often with static encounters overlayed with voice-overs or narrated conversations. Occasionally, memorabilia such as old photographs of Teo’s grandfather in his heyday are brought out, providing deeper context to the life of Teo’s grandfather and allowing viewers to compare the living circumstances of the past to the present.

Exploring one’s ancestry can be a boggling task, but Teo steers away from dry historiographical investigations and instead vouches for something more personal. Through multiple interviews and spoken conversations with the grandfather and close family members, Teo explores her grandfather’s past through these verbal vignettes of his past. Expect less of a historical documentary per se, but look forward to personal recounts of shared and collective familial histories. The film’s key focus revolves around the sense of belonging that Teo’s grandfather still possess towards China, and the personal relations that exist between him and his family. As such, the documentary’s strength lies in establishing a close connection between audiences and the grandfather with all these anecdotal stories of his nostalgic past. We identify more closely with Teo’s grandfather as a person, rather than as mere case study of the older generation.

As we learn about the nature of his work in his electronics shop business, Teo’s grandfather explains the differences that arise over the generations then and now. One such difference which is a mounting obstacle is the prevalent use of English as the predominant language of the customer, which Teo’s grandfather is not linguistically familiar with. Despite these challenges, Teo’s grandfather simply states: “We still have to continue the business. What else can we do?” This is part of the film’s appeal: its ability to shed light on how tenacious attitudes enable certain systems of the old to continue to exist amidst the currents of the new. 

Yet, the film resists any sense of melodrama. As such, the tone of the film is gentle and warm; perhaps even inviting to the viewer. This is made clear right from the opening scene: in response to learning about his diagnosis, the grandfather humorously tells his wife that she will no longer have the chance to scold him anymore as he only has a few months left to live. The grandfather’s stories of his difficult journey from China to Singapore is also painted in a similar tone, as he explains in a humored voice that he was faced with only $10 in his pocket, which got lost along the way. In spite of the harsh circumstances then and now, Teo’s grandfather maintains a sense of peace: he laughs, he jokes, and most of all he recounts and reflects in a profoundly endearing manner.

Running at just 29 minutes long, 一路來 captures reality at its most visceral and serves as a heartfelt tribute to Teo’s grandfather. Ultimately, the film addresses the question posed at the beginning: how should we handle the awareness of our own mortality? Teo’s film hints at an answer: by celebrating a life well-lived.

We caught up with director and producer of 一路來, Teo Qiyu, to trace her experience making this short film in our interview with her.

How long did the project span?

I started shooting towards the end of 2014. After my grandfather passed away in mid 2015, I left it for about 2 years before I started editing again. I shot more footage thereafter and finally completed it in 2018.

How did your grandfather initially react to the project idea?

I did not propose any film idea to him. I simply told him I would like to document him and his shop. I can't exactly remember his reaction, but probably there wasn't much of a reaction at all.

What was the filming process of capturing a person’s life like? Were there any difficulties in effectively capturing the story of your grandfather on film?

I guess living with my grandfather for the past 20 years, I knew his present life pretty well, I was able to decide which aspect of his life I would like to capture and present it to the audience. I guess there were a few challenges, one if it is to decide if I wanted to be a director, or a granddaughter. In capturing his life, I cannot be both. I started the journey being a director, doing my best not to interfere with his life and observing him from afar.

However, as his illness got worse, I was unable to do that anymore and had to put down the camera. Another challenge is the emotional stress especially after he has passed on. The attempt to cope with his death and work on the edit without bringing much emotions in was pretty challenging. I had to put the edit aside for about 2 years before I could start editing as I would cry non-stop everytime I see and hear him. I guess the editing process was extremely emotionally draining and that was one of the most challenging parts of the project.

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