When I was little, I loved visiting my grandfather in Malaysia. My grandparents lived in a large, crumbly house with fruit trees in the front yard and, occasionally, an ostrich in the back – all curiosities to us Singaporean city kids. Our grandfather adored us. Whenever we visited it was as if a small toy factory had exploded in his living room. He once bought us a woolly toy dog that could bark – and do back flips. My six-year-old self had never seen anything like it. We clambered onto his lap and made him laugh.
It was not till many years later that I realized my grandfather had been a cantankerous, sour old man. He despised being wrong. He always got his way. He yelled at everyone: his wife, his children, his nurses. And he eventually died, relatively young, from lung failure after blithely chain smoking for most of his life.
These are the fragments of my childhood that I remembered when I watched Sai Kong Kham’s short film Sweetie Pie for the first time two years ago. The old man, sitting still in his favourite chair, with his high, hacking cough; his toddler grandson, the titular Sweetie Pie, crashing through the house, cutting up a banana with a CD and then trying to ride a bicycle indoors. The old man says, “this is my favourite grandchild,” and then realises he’s forgotten his grandson’s name. His terms of endearment, addressed to the silent but hyperactive child, are deliciously foul.
Sai told me that he came across this family by chance. The old tailor, who was 86 at the time, had been an acquaintance of his mentor at theYangon Film School. The initial idea had been to film a lengthy sit-down interview with the tailor, but the footage turned out to be very dull. The three-year-old boy had always been in the family home, but because of the nature of the “serious” interview, he’d been shooed outside the house. Yet the old man kept calling to his young grandson throughout the interview, and Sai lit on the idea of filming them together. He got rid of the static, formal interview and started from scratch.
In Sweetie Pie, Sai opts for clear binaries and clean juxtapositions and the symbolism can be slightly heavy-handed: the old man sits cloistered away in a dark house, but his young grandson is always framed against the light. But all the elements that have become trademarks of his film-making: the keen observational work, the matter-of-fact visual storytelling, the unobtrusive camera capturing an interviewee’s most relaxed moments – they are all there. His camera work is sharp and poetic at turns, lingering just long enough on a surprising moment or a gorgeous panorama. You see glimpses of this in Sweetie Pie: our perspective shifts to see the house from above, through the spokes of a ceiling fan; and then Sai gives us a tender close-up of the old man, barely breathing, as his grandson tries to wake him from an afternoon nap.
Sai has turned out to have extraordinary chemistry with children. In his award-winning short documentary This Land Is Our Land, about land grabs across Myanmar, the film concludes with a group of excited children telling the camera what they want to be when they grow up – “a cattle herder!” one yells, “firewood collector!”, interrupts another. It is a portrait of rural Myanmar both amusing and deeply affecting, and that same childhood innocence is present in Sai’s earliest film work.
In Sweetie Pie, one realises that it is only the very young and very old – the extremes of mortality – who can get away with anything. The old man threatens his uncomprehending grandson: “I’ll give you a good beating!” but of course, he doesn’t. The old man died a year after the film was made. The seven-minute film compresses an enormous amount of emotion into its short run time. How will this little boy remember his grandfather when he is older? Sweet-tempered, but with a salty vocabulary? Will he even remember these interactions at all?
My family acquired a video camera when I was about seven years old, and my grandfather died three years later, when I was ten. The grainy footage of my grandfather, my sister in his lap, feeding the both of us the best cookies, have helped shade in the gaps in my memory. In the same way, Sweetie Pie crosses from the realm of clinical observer into the living, pulsing world of memory. I’m glad Sai has stuck to that brand of documentary, one that carefully marries fact and emotion. It hits that rare sweet spot.
Corrie Tan is an arts correspondent and theatre critic for The Straits Times, Singapore’s largest English-language newspaper, where she writes about the performing arts and cultural policy. She also co-organises and sits on the judging panel of the annual M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, which honours excellence in Singapore theatre. She is interested in issues relating to cultural memory, arts and media censorship, as well as socio-political and interventionist theatre. She graduated from Brown University with a B.A. (Hons) in Literary Arts.