Eric Khoo’s “Be With Me” – 2006 AAIFF Review

“Be With Me,” a film by Singaporean filmmaker Eric Khoo, was my personal favorite of the 2006 New York Asian American International Film Festival. Despite its complex interweaving of three stories, “Be With Me” boils down to a moving exploration of the human need for love and companionship succinctly expressed by the film’s title.

Although fictional, the film contains documentary elements, having been inspired by the life and unpublished autobiography of Theresa Chan, a 61-year-old woman who has a major role in the film. Chan went deaf at 12 and blind at 14, and was subsequently educated in the U.S., where she learned English as well as dancing, acting, cooking and other skills. Her handicap often made her feel isolated and depressed. “It was as if someone had built a wall between me and the living, a wall which no one could tear or break down,” she wrote. She experienced many other tragedies, not the least of which was the death of her lifelong love to cancer, just before they were to be married. Despite it all, Chan engaged in such creative pursuits such as teaching arts and crafts at a school for the blind, and typewritten excerpts of her poetry appear intermittently throughout the film.

This “wall” of silence that Theresa describes – and the marginalization that results – is an image that is quite appropriate for the fictional stories to which Chan’s life serves as a counterpoint. There is very little spoken dialogue in the film. Characters communicate through such methods as SMS text messages, email, handwritten and typewritten letters, as well as emotionally fraught stares and furtive glances. Chan, ironically, is the most voluble person in the film, speaking English in a loud, animated voice that she herself cannot hear.

The three stories that dovetail with Chan’s are given separate titles in the credits. In “Meant to Be,” an aging shopkeeper (Chiew Sung Ching) lives a solitary, quotidian existence, barely interacting with others. He turns out to have a terminally ill wife who he tends to after each workday. In “Finding Love,” a rotund security guard (Seet Keng Yew), who seemingly spends the majority of each day eating elaborately prepared meals both in restaurants and at home, becomes deeply attracted to a professional woman who works in his building. He watches her constantly, both on the security cameras at work, and outside her apartment window. “So In Love” follows a teenage girl (Ezann Lee) who meets her lover in an Internet chat room, and later communicates with this person through SMS text messaging and email; we never see them speak to each other.

“Be With Me” is Khoo’s third film and his first in seven years. Khoo has created a beautiful work that sets his stories of longing against the sleek, antiseptic backdrop of Singapore city life. He highlights characters who are marginalized from society in different ways and whose search for love is fraught with myriad complications and difficulties. As the film progresses, the stories become more closely connected, and they begin to influence each other in surprising, profound and poetic ways. Each moment in the film becomes a moment of discovery, and Khoo renders these moments with exquisitely beautiful camerawork, the high-definition images transferring flawlessly to 35 millimeter. The film is a unique hybrid of fiction and documentary that, while initially challenging, slowly builds to a final scene that is both heartrending and uplifting. “Be With Me” is the major discovery of this year’s festival.