After Before – My Ba’s Radio

Adi Iskandar peels back the layers in Victor Chen Yee Fei’s ode to his father.

The film starts with a close up shot of a radio, nestled in a person’s grip. It is not just any radio, but an old school transistor, an immediate signifier that we are not quite in the contemporary context now. The film’s title, ‘My Ba’s Radio’, appears on screen, styled in Chinese calligraphy, making the setting all that more specific (at least in terms of race/culture). Yet it is what we hear that is particularly instructive, the opening strains of a song, the piano keys rhythmically recalling (for me) the songs of P. Ramlee. It is not that (rather, it is ‘Bu Liao Qing’ by Gu Mei), but the fact remains that you are in that mood, even if it doesn’t jive with your cultural capital.

At least momentarily. For, just as you are about to settle in and enjoy a little bit of nostalgia, the director, Victor Chen Yee Fei, chose a hard match cut, unceremoniously stripping us away from that very setting and mood, though the same radio, now beaten, older and slightly more unloved, is seen, coldly placed on the table. It is, however, not as cold as the relationship between a man (Fai Chen) and an older man (Tam Yee Swee), seated at the same table and eating their food without so much as a word between them. The man, office attired, checks his phone, while the older man (presumably his father) eats without looking at him, consuming the food while ignoring the company. Much is said, even when little is spoken.

The rest of the film would play out in that fashion, exploring the state of their relationship. There is a brief discussion of old and new, of history and the present, as the conflict and tension which exists between the two characters are also those which live between those dichotomies. In a later scene, the son admonishes the father for not letting go of the past; in the opening scene described above, we sense the father’s disapproval of his son’s professional priorities.

I could delve deeper into the above, but I feel that that is not what the film is truly about, making this review not that easy to write. The irony is that ‘My Ba’s Radio’ walks along a relatively simple path, a meaningful story compressed into little more than four scenes and no big conversations. Designed primarily to play in fields more emotional than logical, the film is successful at tugging our heart strings within an eleven-minute radius.

Yet the main reason behind the challenge of writing this write-up is the film’s own origin story. Based on a true story, what Victor is trying to do here is to put on screen an aspect of the relationship he had with his late father. I may well be projecting here, but based on the limited experience I had of making films driven by personal desire, it can be tricky to explain why things should be beyond the fact that that was how it was.

By this, I mean that the behaviour and logic that would have previously and ideally been workshopped in brainstorming sessions… well, we can throw them out the window, because what the director may want is a reenactment of real life as remembered. Why this song? Because that was that same song that he liked. Why that dress? Because that was the same one she wore that day. “What should I, the actor, be thinking if I am in this situation?” “I don’t know,” the director may say, “because I don’t know what he would have thought at that time.”

Again, I may be postulating a position that could prove fictitious (i.e. talking out of my ass). Yet I firmly believe that when the motivation of making such a film is something so personal, then fidelity to reality would rank high on the director’s wish list. Sometimes, just sometimes, you can pull off a great shot, it looks wonderful, and yet… it doesn’t feel right. It is not the same. It is not as remembered. It is not life. I don’t know whether this is what Victor felt, but for my part, I can almost sense the affection in ‘My Ba’s Radio’. From one scene and shot to the other, it suggests how, more so than most and above all else, this is the one film that Victor would want to get right.

As a short film, it stands the test of time. It first came to my attention as a nominee at the 2017 Malaysian Digital Film Awards; more recently, it was awarded as the best short film at the Mantova Lovers Short Film Festival in Italy earlier this year. Credit is due to the production design team, led by Irman Bahrudden and Benedict Jeremy Lazaroo, in representing Victor’s wished-for verisimilitude. Ong Hui Lee’s editing, as discussed in earlier paragraphs, was also clever, ensuring that the neat and consistent cinematography of Yuki Eyok Wun Sim (also on the editing team) would not be lost. Yet all roads lead to Victor, rendering ‘My Ba’s Radio’ a labour of love and life, a film that would have burned within him before it was made, a story that came into being simply because it needed to.

In a recent interview between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert, both men opened up on the experiences of losing their father, describing their life split by the incidents into a ‘before’ and ‘after’. It was a wonderful session, in which both men opened up on the idea of grief. There were moments when I actually cried; in doing so, I don’t know why, but I also thought of Victor. I don’t know whether he is successful in soothing the pain of before, but he should be proud of the film that came into being after.

I know I would be.

You can watch the film on Viddsee.

Featured image credit: Caleidescope

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