Review: Mary, Mary So Contrary (2019) @SGIFF

Few names possess as much ubiquity as “Mary”. Connotations range from the Virgin to the starring figure of varying nursery rhymes to even a popular cocktail beverage.

Perhaps taking his cue from the multitude of meanings behind this name, director Nelson Yeo splices footage from two classic films with his own material to produce a hallucinatory, dream-fevered story about a girl named Ma Li in Mary, Mary, So Contrary (2019). Haunted by a lamb she lost to the herd when she was young, Ma Li eventually grows up and enters a world in which she must lose herself to regain her identity.

Yeo’s flair for matching frames to the emotional modulations of his voiceover narrative permits the audience a gripping and sensational ride. I do not mean to evoke "sensational" facetiously, but simply in the manner of fully immersing one’s senses in the experience.

Part of this trick plays out in his visual manipulation of pre-existing footage. Drawn from Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948) and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), the scenes he excises from their original renditions are variously duplicated, warped and overlaid with primary colours. By displacing these once familiar moments and inscribing new visual meaning upon them, even audiences well-acquainted with the original works can be persuaded of Yeo’s endeavour to reclaim these figures.

Another aspect of the film that gestures towards the visceral is, put very simply, its sound. Filmmakers often make the mistake of employing voiceover narratives like crutches, which distract rather than support, but the voice actors in Mary help transform the space within its brief universe into an auditory chamber. Their words, intoned so deliberately as to become mere sound, therefore transgress the boundary between sense-making and sound-emitting. If one watches the film consciously withdrawn from the process of linguistic understanding, the lines may even blend seamlessly into the shrill and wispy overall sound design. Through this set-up, one is easily transported into that state of ethereality Yeo demands from his audience.

His camera—which can equally be said to be not-his—also perspicaciously maintains its portrayal of Ma Li/Mary’s interiority while working within the limits of his source material. Part of this strength stems from Yeo’s sincere narrative. No doubt it borders on being inaccessible, particularly for audiences who don’t take too well to stylised philosophical meanderings, but his story is otherwise absent of pretensions. It is a visually arresting piece that embellishes itself only to up the ante on what you see, and not because Yeo considers the source material lacking. Mary is wholly, entirely and truly about Ma Li’s crippling existential anxieties. Anyone who tells you otherwise wasn’t paying attention.

Finally, the writing. Another moment worth celebrating is the clever references to Zhuangzi’s parable of the butterfly dream. It is not brought on as a convenient way to excuse itself from its own shortcomings; rather, because the reference takes root in the short film, it allows Mary to transcend its limits. Is Ma Li or isn’t Ma Li? Is she Mary? Who is and what does it mean to be? These are questions the short film toys with and stops short of providing answers to—other than to insinuate that if you look hard enough, you will eventually find what you seek.
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