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How Much Do We Really Know About Being Parents? What Happens When Our Children Disappoint Us?

How Much Do We Really Know About Being Parents? What Happens When Our Children Disappoint Us?

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All Images from ‘Katong Fugue’ and ‘Black and White Silence’.

For years, our mothers hold god-like power over our lives. They dictate where we go and when, what time we rise and go to bed, what we can and cannot have. At the same time, we want them to be pillars; unshakable sources of knowledge and empathy. 

We expect much of parenthood too, living vicariously through children and expecting them to complete our lives in some way. 

But expectations rarely translate into reality. Instead, we find ourselves forced to navigate the rifts that inevitably open as we come into our own as distinct people, to wrestle with the incongruencies of our old relationships and the new ones we enter into. In ways often imperceptible to ourselves, we change. And those around us do not always follow. 

In Boo Junfeng’s Katong Fugue, a short film based on a play by Alfian Sa’at, it is precisely this process of maturation that drives mother and son apart. Here, silence is an indication of love and not a lack of it, as a young closeted gay man attempts to lock his mother out of his personal life to protect her from a truth he believes can only hurt her. Over artefacts of the past and lonely images of his mother, a tense conversation takes place between the pair as she attempts to reach her son. 

In this film the son’s objects speak for him. A locked door enforces distance while serving as the mirage of a welcome shoreline; a piano’s keys produce notes in which his mother detects pain; the frames in which his image is captured serve as another barrier through which he shields both his mother and us from his reality. Despite her desperation to reach him, and an insistence on love, we eventually receive an admission: she knows, instinctively, the secret that stands between them. But she cannot acknowledge it. They are at a painful impasse. 

In its juxtapositions, the film produces distances that are both physical and emotional. And as the cord that joins mother and son is pulled to breaking point, we wonder if the only conclusion capable of providing relief—if not joy—is that of severance, an acceptance that they are different people whose versions of happiness cannot, in these circumstances, be reconciled. 

Painfully, our protagonist finds that growth has made old spaces and relationships claustrophobic and suffocating. He asks his mother to let him live, a possibility that he believes can manifest only if she lets him go.

In Black and White and Silence by Fran Borgia, it is the deficiencies of her own body that separate Anjana—who suffers a miscarriage—from the possibility of motherhood. Working in a kindergarten, she faces constant reminders of the relationship she cannot have, further frustrated by the fact that the mother of K, a student, is expecting a child. The world that Anjana inhabits outside of the kindergarten is devoid of colour, and we become aware of her solitude as we watch her drag herself across the large bed she sleeps in alone. Repeatedly, she peers at herself in mirrors, as if attempting to discern the reason for her infertility, repeatedly confronting us with her gaze, full of disappointment and longing. 

K’s gaze finds us too, wide and unwavering, impaired by an eyepatch over his right eye. He is quiet and depicts himself as an unhappy child. And though his mother appears in his drawings, she is conspicuously absent in his home. The scenes we see K in are void of physical intimacy. 

With his father, they sit silently across each other at breakfast; with his sister, they sit silently beside each other in their car. Only when Anjana, rising from a fainting spell brought on by a reminder of her failed motherhood, throws her arms around him in a tight hug does he finally makes contact with another person. It is a clinging embrace between a mismatched mother and son, one that provides comfort but that can exist only within that moment. 

As we encounter these unfulfilled and unfulfilling relationships the perfect motherhood haunts us from afar, remaining cruelly illusory and encountered only in dreams. 

These films, which will be screened on 12th July as part of Producing What Matters With Cinema Akanga, in conjunction with SGIFF’s New Waves, are not about mothers and their sons as a bonded unit, but mothers and sons and the spaces that exist between them. They are about the ways in which their stories do not necessarily fit together. 

In Katong Fugue, proximity fails to breed understanding, and expressions of love drive apart rather than bring together. In Black and White and Silence, K and Anjana face absence where they long for familial connection. 

Mother-son relationships, as they are presented in these films, are a reaching for connection that refuses to present itself, an expectation that children cannot fulfil. Motherhood here is an endeavour that is ultimately and ironically solitary. And though, in these stories and sometimes our own, it is a refusal to accept distance that brings us so much misery, it is perhaps inevitable that love drives us to hold on. 

Part of the Singapore International Film Festival, New Waves shines a spotlight on filmmakers who are making an impact through their storytelling, with a focus on building a film community within Southeast Asia. 

This year, it takes places over 12th and 13th July. Register here