Be With Me (2005)

Directed by Eric Khoo.
Starring Theresa Chan, Ng Sway Ah, Seet King Yew, Exann Lee
93 minutes. Unrated.

In English, Cantonese, Hakkim, and Mandarin, with English subtitles.

“Be With Me” weaves three fictional romances around the true story of Theresa Chan, a deaf and blind woman living in Singapore.

Sometime during the first half of this film, I decided that director Eric Khoo must be a talented novice, in need of guidance but possessed of real film-making skill. I reined in some of my negative critical reactions because of this. However, I have since learned that Khoo was credited with reviving the Singapore movie industry ten years ago with “Mee Pok Man” (1995), and that after a silence of 7 years, he has recently directed three new films, one of them “Be With Me.” Which means that everything I saw onscreen, Khoo put there on purpose. What market and/or financial pressures and/or cultural perspectives caused him to make the peculiar choices he made, I can’t say, so I’ll simply report my viewing experience without feathers.

In the film, an old man loses his wife and learns to live without her; a social misfit stalks a beautiful woman and writes her a love letter; a teenager falls in love with a girl she meets on the internet, and then is jilted by her. Khoo cuts between these stories quickly, taking time out periodically to insert documentary-style film and exposition about Theresa Chan, who lost her hearing and then her sight when she was fourteen, to diseases that remain nameless in the film (meningitis, in fact).

The stalking and teen-love stories, although beautifully shot, are dramatically appropriate for no more than after-school TV; they don’t belong anywhere near Theresa Chan. There is a place for schoolgirls in bed together, don’t get me wrong, with urgent soapy music welling up in the background, and a place as well for failed suicide, and for death via getting hit on the noggin by a falling body, but these matters do not comport well with footage of an energetic sixty-year-old deaf and blind woman teaching eight-year-olds to knit. At least, not where I come from.

The third fictional segment of the movie is another matter. In long, composed, static shots with an an ambient soundtrack and subdued colors, an old man (Ng Sway Ah) is followed by the camera and studied as he closes his small shop in the city, shops for food, cooks at home, and lies in bed alone. The years of his long life are etched into his face and we’re given plenty of time to contemplate the rhythms of his day and the ravages of time on his body, and to compare him and his daily life with ourselves, with all the attendant intimations of mortality that this kind of mediation triggers in us. Rare opportunity, and a blessing.

In the film, the old man’s wife appears in many scenes with him, sitting or standing wordlessly by. I thought that she had some plot-driven, Alzheimer-like malady that caused her to behave this way. Turns out that she was a ghost. Don’t know why I didn’t get that, but in the end, as she faded away, it didn’t make any difference one way or the other. Similarly, I had trouble keeping track of which teenage girl was which, and whether either was related to the stalker, so forth. Again, in the end it didn’t matter.

And speaking of ambient sound, by muting the movie I could differentiate the cricket chirps in my backyard from those on the sound track. Counting chirps per minute, dividing by 4, and adding 40, I deduced that I was watching the movie at 75F, while in Singapore it was 88F while the night scenes were being shot.

Which brings us to Theresa Chan. Director/writer Khoo would have done well to toss out all of the film I’ve described so far, regardless of any poetry contained in it, and replace the lot with more footage of Chan. After a period of complete isolation within herself, sight and hearing gone, by a series of lucky chances Chan found herself enrolled in the Perkins School in Boston. She lived in the U.S. for ten years, learning to knit, ride horses, understand and speak English, and otherwise engage life and the world directly. We watch her type, cook, teach, and talk while we read her written words, expository and philosophical, in subtitles.

But how did she learn, starting alone, with only her sense of touch? Not to lower the tenor of this review, but I’m reminded of a recent podcast by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier. These two knuckleheads spent thirty minutes debating the proposition that the Helen Keller story was an elaborate hoax, since in Smith’s estimation it would have been impossible for her to learn 90% of what she claimed to know, given her condition. (“SMODCAST” is available on Itunes. IT IS NOT FOR EVERYONE.) Smith and Mosier had seen both versions of “The Miracle Worker,” but perhaps because they make movies themselves, they didn’t believe anything in either movie, Anne Bancroft or no Anne Bancroft. Anyway, the point is, Khoo would have been well advised to skip the three fictional tales and invest his production money in a ticket to Boston, for a visit and some interviews at Perkins.

Again, how was Theresa Chan able to maintain the lively spirit she exhibits? We want to learn more. It isn’t all good news. She lost her one true love and we read parts of her letters to him. She isn’t interviewed because the conceit of the movie is that hers is the fourth story, and that the old man’s eventual connection to her helps him to overcome his own loss and move on.

In the event, “Be With Me” is the film that got made. It’s message – and it definitely has one – is… well, Theresa Chan’s written words in the subtitles are about the importance of love. The three fictional stories are all about the rough edges of love. So perhaps the message is that love is important. (Theresa’s one true love died of cancer on Christmas Day, just before their wedding.) Love…is…important…

On the other hand, there is virtually no dialog in the film – ironic since four languages, plus braille, plus a sort of sign language on the hand, plus cell phone texting and internet email, are all employed – so maybe there is a message here about communication. As in, a deaf and blind woman can communicate better than all these other folks, and maybe better than YOU, so… communication…is…important…

Khoo’s artistic enterprise, then, is to cause me to cogitate on love and the importance thereof, or find inspiration in love, or just learn to communicate better with those I do love, or, wait, perhaps just to keep hope alive. There was something in there about how there is always hope. Never give up. So forth.

So, put aside for now my questions about how a person can learn when deaf and blind. Put aside my resonance with the everyday rhythms of an old man’s life.

Come to think of it, I did learn one thing from this movie: Teresa Chan is not a cynic, and neither is Eric Khoo. There is no cynicism or irony in this quiet, graceful movie. After watching it, I was, in fact, briefly, not cynical myself.

This film won five international film festival awards and was nominated for three others.

The DVD was provided by Film Movement (www.filmmovement.com) – “Early access to award-winning independent and foreign film.”

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