Be With Me Review
I think there comes a point when you wonder that perhaps after 100 years of entertaining there is little else for the cinematic medium to offer, and yet on occasion something surprises us, something that’s different from the norm and resonates as an emotional piece of work on an entirely different plane. Eric Khoo’s Be With Me is a brave and remarkable achievement in experimental story telling; it deals with sensory deprivation and is in fact the first feature film designed with audio description in mind, leaving just a couple of minutes worth of dialogue and relying on good old fashion cinematic techniques, harking back to the good old days when the marriage of music and visuals were all audiences had to relay their emotions off.
Inspired by Theresa Chan’s unpublished autobiography, Be With Me links together three tales via a self-spoken narrative from Chan herself, each one illustrating themes of love and hope amongst a society filled with harsh cynicism. “Meant to Be” looks at Theresa Chan: a sixty-one year-old woman who has lived without sight and hearing since she was fourteen years of age. Her daily life presents many challenges, to which she single-handedly responds with upbeat enthusiasm, proving to be the driving inspiration behind the other stories depicted within. A lonesome shopkeeper (Chiew Sung Ching) struggling to come to terms with the passing of his beloved wife seeks solace in Chan’s comforting words; meanwhile in “Finding Love” security guard Fatty Koh (Seet Keng Yew) finds himself hopelessly enamoured by an attractive office lady named Ann (Lynn Poh) who lives in the same apartment building, but his love for food hides a pain deep down. Then there’s “So in Love”, in which young women Sam (Samantha Tan) and Jackie (Ezann Lee) meet after a series of exchanges via the internet, and who soon find themselves romantically drawn to one another. But their relationship is threatened when Ann begins to fall for a local boy.
“How much suffering can one person take?” asks Theresa Chan as she quotes from her own writing. That’s also the question Eric Khoo asks of us all as he looks at the daily challenges certain people face in a world that’s often cruel and unfair. By taking Chan’s musings he develops a winning theme in very simple terms; he doesn’t so much attempt to provide answers behind an individual’s reasoning, but rather he presents the problems at hand and endeavours to reach a spiritual solution. Be With Me is ultimately a journey into the soul, whereby the human will triumphs in the face of all adversity, and central to this belief is Chan and her astonishing outlook on life. Eric Khoo’s film could indeed be looked at as a pseudo-documentary, with Chan’s life story being told through her own English and her daily goings on becoming a primary focus, while the other tales enveloped by it tackle real issues set to fictional backdrops. These primarily set sight on the different aspects of human emotion: love, fear, rejection, bullying, hope and dreams, and by doing so the film opens up on an entirely empathetic level. While clearly very few of us know what it’s like to be in Theresa Chan’s shoes we can all relate to the many questions and situations that arise within the feature, and in that respect that’s what makes Be With Me all the more of a resonating experience.
I have to confess that I’m not familiar with any of Eric Khoo’s previous work, though I don’t suppose that anyone needs to be. It’s certainly ambitious enough for me to know that this is a director who will take on a great challenge no matter the cost and fill it with clear sensibilities. Although fairly minimalist in approach Be With Me is often startling with its beautiful compositions, captivating and well placed piano score from Kevin Matthews and Christine Shan and Low Hwee-Ling’s effective editing, which slowly but surely brings together three seemingly separate stories. Khoo shows a terrific eye for capturing minute details in people’s facial expressions and their place in any given situation. Impressively he seamlessly communicates each character’s feelings through their personal desires by cutting away to dream sequences: notably security guard Koh and Jackie, who place themselves in their ideal situations, changing reality before them for a brief moment before realising that some things are never meant to be. It’s a journey both sad and happy in equal measure; unpredictable it’s not afraid to assault the viewer with a dramatic turn of events, just when we stick to the ideal that hope springs eternal. While I won’t spoil a particular character’s outcome there is a sense of immense disappointment that can be disputed, but sure enough serves its purpose in reminding us how shit happens from time to time. Moreover, the director handles his themes of love and hope with such delicate precision and without prejudice or deliberate moves to exploit taboo areas: homosexuality sadly still appears to be a touchy area - particularly in Singapore, where one of the film’s posters depicting lesbian intimacy was banned - but that’s neither here nor there when the essence of love is the same no matter who you are or what your leaning is. Young, innocent infatuation and the exploration of one’s own sexuality are again profound, often leaning toward the pain of rejection and the sense of isolation caused as a result. And yet for the most part Be With Me is an uplifting piece of work, showing that elsewhere a person’s life can be changed for the better by the actions of another, for example the strained relationship between father and son in “Meant to Be”.
It’s apparent that Eric Khoo intends to place Theresa Chan centre stage; after all hers is the only story in which the central character is played true to life by the very person who influenced the production. With primary focus on Chan we become wrapped up in her fascinating story as she talks about losing her hearing and sight; meeting her mentor Elizabeth Choy and her kind teacher Reuben Jacob; falling in love with her one and only and getting through life day by day under the guidance of a God who stripped her of her rights to enjoy life to its fullest extent. And Chan is quite a marvel to watch, not so much acting but simply living. In relation to her story and philosophies on life Khoo’s additional tales serve as moments with which to capture and link several thematic ideas; Chan herself proves to be a massive symbol of hope, greatly affecting the lives of those who come into direct contact with her. It’s quite a heavy undertaking, what with several interwoven stories, thus making it a piece of work that may require a second or third viewing to truly appreciate its many nuances and subtleties. But make no mistake, Be With Me carries such an emotional impact, with some pleasantly subdued performances from its fresh cast, proving in the end that the simplest form of communication through a lens can often be the strongest.
Peccadillo Pictures has proven to be a very respectful distributor, offering nice AV and extras where available for their unique releases. Be With Me is presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 and sees the company true to form. Granted, it’s not perfect; there are spots of aliasing, but overall this is a pleasant transfer showing a good amount of detail and coping well with much of the film’s drab colour scheme.
The DD2.0 track isn’t a showstopper, but then it was never designed to be. Short of featuring any dialogue - though what there is poses no problems - it utilises its dulcet score and quaint ambience to carry the themes of the film, and for this the DVD does a grand job in eliciting the right responses. Always clear and audible Peccadillo’s Be With Me sounds as good as looks. In addition to this track we also have an audio description for the visually impaired, as spoken by a lovely sounding lady, with Theresa Chan‘s narration spoken by a different lovely sounding lady in-between descriptions - a gesture which is more than welcoming these days, but also serves as a major part of the film’s intent.
Optional English subtitles are also provided. These don’t just translate the small amount of dialogue contained in the film, but also provide silent overlays for Theresa Chan’s thoughts throughout. These are free from grammatical error and are nicely timed.
The following bonus materials are entirely carried out in English, though disappointingly, still, they do not include optional subtitles, which is irony in itself. The only times subtitles appear is whenever Theresa Chan speaks.
First up is an audio commentary with Eric Khoo and co-writer Wong Kim Hoh. The pair talk enthusiastically about making the film and spend quite a bit of time examining its characters in depth and going over the main aspects of the story, particularly focusing a lot on Theresa Chan, as well as going into production details and technicalities: editing, the score, Be With Me fund and so forth. At various intervals throughout the commentary several other contributors briefly chime in on what appear to be separately recorded tracks. Composers Kevin Matthews and Christine Shan turn up; editor Low Hwee-Ling, executive producer FreddieYeo, producer Brian Hong and sound designer Kazz - each of whom add an extra amount of weight with their genuine sincerity and considerable insight in what’s overall very informative feature. There are a few lengthy pauses and moments of sound distortion with the film soundtrack playing in the background, which is notably out of sync, as we see during moments in which Theresa Chan speaks. No need to worry about how the film actually sounds sans commentary, however. This appears to be simply down to poor mixing of the two separate tracks.
Next we have an interview with director Eric Khoo (21.49), who naturally discusses the genesis of the project in a considerable amount of detail. He talks about the desire to tell a story about love and hope, spread across various generations who each represent various stages of life; the thought process involved and ultimately meeting Theresa Chan, who remained a constant source of inspiration throughout the months leading up to the shoot. He speaks highly of Chan, who became a close friend and praises her for her professionalism and determination. He goes on to mention a little about the pre-production process and the ultimate 2 week shoot, which was carried out on high definition cameras - something which offered far more flexibility than he’d ever had before. Additionally he speaks highly of his D.O.P. Adrian Tan and the crew in general, and relates a few anecdotes about working with his non-professional cast, before mentioning the film’s first cut, his editing process and how it ended up being banded around several festivals, including Cannes.
The making of Be With Me (19.56) is a nice little insight into the overall production of the feature, although it does have moments which immediately feel repetitive off the back of the previous interview, as Khoo ends up mentioning the same anecdotes for example, but he offers other titbits of interest, such as placing food at the forefront of his story as he seeks to bring people from all walks of life together. However, we have plenty of alternative views here as well. Co-writer Wong Kim Hoh steps in, as does producer James Toh, in addition to all of the main cast members, who each offer their thoughts on their characters and reminisce fondly about working with the director.
The rehearsal footage (8.24), sadly enough, is all too brief, because we have some very nice moments which make for some fun outtakes. For a good laugh, the opening footage is about the best, with Ezann Lee and Seet Keng Yew laughing hopelessly as they try to work out the best way to approach a pivotal moment in the film. Ezann Lee appears again shortly afterward, this time with co-star Samantha Tan, which sees the pair approach the more intimate aspects of their characters’ relationship. There are a couple of other scenes toward the end, which involve Chiew Sung Ching, and again Seet Keng Yew, and overall these do show the pleasant atmosphere as mentioned in previous interviews.
Be With Me is a beautiful film, effortlessly presenting a poignant tale without pretention or manipulative bouts of melodrama, along with sympathetic and dignified people who we can relate to in our own way. We all must get by somehow with the hand that fate deals us and if anything, or indeed anyone, is to provide encouragement then it’s Eric Khoo’s wonderful little offering from Singapore, which reminds us that we often take so much in life for granted, yet deep down we’re all the same and just need that little something to look toward.
On a somewhat bitter note, Be With Me was disqualified from Academy Award consideration a couple of years back, primarily due to the fact that although Asian in origin it offered just 2 minutes worth of English dialogue - perhaps the biggest crime in recent years when it comes to the hacks who put these shiny ceremonies together.
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10