[Film Review] Snakeskin (2014, Daniel Hui)

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This is a mature and important work that is absolutely timely for us. At its core, it’s a film about the Singaporean condition addressed specifically to Singaporeans, offering us an untimely solution to our malaise.

As our government calls for a mass celebration of Singapore independence this year, what better way than to approach that call with a more astute gesture – an inward reflection on the becoming of Singapore, and how the shaping of our histories (and also the shaping of our very ability to understand and remember history) have been refracted into that catch-all grand narrative of national identity and history?

Snakeskin is a bold attempt at addressing the mechanics of this history of control and refraction. It does so without any direct face-to-face representation or criticism, nor any dramatic devices (pulling your heartstrings, wave of nostalgia, amplifying the sacrificial disposition of the oppressed etc.). Instead it does so simply by delving into a subterranean labyrinth of associations that take place behind the functions of this grand narrative. Behind the artificially induced state of communal identity is the libidinal web of shifting and mutating subjectivities, where our identities and the historical meanings inscribed onto time past is fluid and in constant becoming with our agency in the present and the virtuality of the future.

Utilising the devices of time-travel, reincarnation and frank recollections of personal memories, Daniel Hui tells the stories of several characters which have just enough revelation as they have the ambiguity to fluctuate and weave into one another. They exist as memory fragments, spectral guests which fly into and out of our consciousness, exploiting and demonstrating that very important power of cinema, its oneric quality –  pure optical images captured and freed from its time and space, its plasticity achieved through editing, the projection of celluloid dream images within a darkened room, its call to suspend reason and utility and open our minds to receive these imagined narratives…

A voice tells us about his relationship with his dead cult leader, recounting the events which led to his exile and downfall, a film programmer at the Substation tells us about an event in her adolescence and her obsession with a photograph of an actress from the 1970s, a cat looks back at the circumstances of his previous life as a soldier in Syonan-To, a veteran from the golden age of Singapore cinema talks about how he received his name from P. Ramlee and the multicultural makeup of film production during that era… These are some of the threads explored in Snakeskin which are presented with such humane tenderness. Yet they are presented ambiguously, blending seemingly real and fictitious memories – some of which are anchored with references to specific historical myths and events, while others seem to mirror moments in our history through personal situations.

The film’s power lies in its persistence in veiling all these images… a veil that obscures its concrete allegiance to the factual, that breaks its narrative relation to one another. Veiled and made opaque, these cinematic images are free to follow the spectator’s own associations, moving into private tangents. It effortlessly conjures at the point of viewing, a state of feeling that a spectator generally harbours days and even months after watching a film – the swirling of afterimages and sensations that merges and connects with one’s everyday life. Most of the time, it is at such a distance from its origin (the point of viewing) that the unspoken ‘truth’ of an artwork reveals itself.

It’s a real feat that Snakeskin manages to conjure this revelatory state of mind with such immediacy. As the credits roll, we are affected by a mutated form of nostalgia, a nostalgia that comes too soon, a nostalgia for the future…. With flame in hand, the film enacts a call for us to burn, not just the bridges, but the baggage in our mind that prevents us from living. Fire becomes a tool to bypass the mechanisms of repression offered to us by that big other, through a symbolic form of direct action… arson.

Those that hold the flame exist within the shadows. But it is exactly within darkness that the act of starting a fire finds its purpose. The film conjures a community of fire-wielding time travellers and shapers, laying testament to the individuals that exist within the cracks of our history, as well as rallying those that have yet to come. Perhaps we all exist within the shadows of this bleak State. Perhaps the majority is unaware of the darkness. Perhaps they are contented to exist within it with the comforts of artificial light. But we see an allegiance to life itself, a joyful resistance, in the multitude that sees the darkness for what it is and go on to start a fire – which Snakeskin reminds us, is created from materials given to us readily by nature, and one of the most primal and universal actions in the history of mankind.

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