A School Imagined: 'The Wandering' takes us on a wet ride

There is a lot a narrative film cannot achieve that a dance film can - a long hard gaze at physical space and dimension. The real star of The Wandering, a dance film co-directed by Yeo Siew Hua who made A Land Imagined and Russell Morton, is the abandoned school visited by the players in the film. Looking like a anachronism in modern Singapore where virtually no old building has been left alone un-gentrified or put on an enbloc sale, the school building alone personifies so much of what the characters are feeling and trying to express in motion, a complex mix of loneliness, fear and escapism. 

Not explicitly established in the film but explained in the synopsis, a man (without a name) has lost his job and decides to bring his family to a childhood haunt in hope of seeking some answers to his hopeless situation. Obviously, in an parallel, more realistic universe, this man would simply be drowning himself in a few beers at the neighbourhood coffeeshop or quarrelling with his wife who feels her peaceful nest is suddenly shaken. But in an artist’s reimagined, metaphysical take on life, it does not take a leap of logic to dance your troubles away. 

The film starts on relatable ground, right in the house of the family, with the cast of dancers, acting like the most pedestrian local family in a middle-class neighbourhood (middle-class because the house has two levels akin to a HDB (public housing) mansionette). Some commotion is going on in the master bedroom, followed by husband and wife emerging from the room with the quintessential working-class look of ‘sian-ness’ (a mix of apathy and resignation). They are preparing to leave for a sudden excursion and go on to hurry their son. ‘Eh, you still lying there for what!’ The father yells at his son, which manages to jolt him into action, albeit relunctantly. Other than the cryptic action of the son leaving the kitchen sink water tap on, much of the Mise-en-scene bears trimmings of the atypical, acrimonious HDB family drama. 

Once they were out of the house, the film starts to bend subtly into its intended genre, as if the actors had slowly switched to a different language. The son goes from making a grating request to his father to turn the car back for his mobile phone, to being engaged in a spontaneous, sinewy dance of the forearm with his mother. This invites us to connect at the characters on a different level. From here on, one almost gets a sense that the players find relief in signing off as actors and proceeding on to what they are meant to do and the main business of the film - interpretive movement.

The film thereon, largely anchored in the abandoned school, becomes an aesthetically well-engineered work of visual poetry and beauty made out of something physically quite ugly. The derelict school compounds provide an ironic of backdrop to the refreshing work of choreographer Rizman Putra, one that seems to swing from the subtle and more tongue-in-cheek movements, exemplified by the mother character to the more irreverent and accentuated stylistics exemplified by the father character. There is also an interplay of medium with the use of animated figures, which pop in and out of scenes, supposedly symbols of the ghosts of memories past. While subtle in the execution, with every apparition figure being set to a certain frosted glass transparency, the CGI touch tends to also take away a sense of mystery about the place. 

Of course, music plays a central role to this piece, with Samsara, an experimental music album by SAtheCollective, co-launched with The Wandering, being a source of inspiration for the film. Alternating between the eerily atmospheric (with even pops of ghoulish sounds) and the percussive, the dancers deliver an equally eclectic repertoire of moves. 

Finally, it is interesting to note that water is the glue that pulls the family together at the end both figuratively and literally. One might even draw stylistic references to the plumbing issues that characterise Tsai Ming Liang’s absurd musical-silent drama The Hole. It becomes apparent towards the end that the film’s recurring motif of running tap water would amount to some meaning when it creates a river current the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources would disapprove of and builds up to a little lake at the end on which the dancers would glide. Water is such a universal symbol that this ending is open to numerous interpretations but the folksy bits in some of us might say, luck is finally flowing back to those in need.

Review by Jeremy Sing

The Wandering is screening from today (12pm) till Sunday (18-20 December) as part of a programme of the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. You can watch it for free in this link.
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