Pining for the Past – Unforgettable

Fikri Jermadi checks in with Eleanor Teh’s walk down memory lane.

‘Unforgettable’ begins with the silhouette of a woman standing at the window. Smoking a cigarette, we do not see her face, only her shadowy figure dominating the screen against the window’s backlight. She then turns, asking another person in the room, “Walk around with me?” However, the scene was crafted as if the audience is invited on this walkabout.

In accepting, we will see it is not the only time that Eleanor Teh, the film’s director, plays around with the subjective and the objective. The film tells the story of Lei (Shen Yilei), a young woman from China who has resided in London for many years. On the eve of her departure, she spends time with her fiancé Robin (Robin Khor Yong Kuan), as they walk down her memory lanes in the city.

Some of the eagle-eyed among you may recognise our protagonist as one of the lead characters in another film Eleanor has co-written and produced. ‘Forget Me Not’ was directed by Anwar Johari Ho, and here he returns the favour, adding photography and editing strings to Eleanor’s filmmaking bow.

On that note,‘Unforgettable’ pulls at the narrative thread we see in ‘Forget Me Not’. From identifying primarily with Lei’s partner Ah Liong, we now pivot to her perspective as she picks up the pieces of that separation. Though some time has since passed, she remains emotionally tethered to him, marked by the various flashbacks to memories of their relationship.

This is in spite of Robin seeming like a pleasant enough person, willing to match her steps on this journey. However, she is still clearly traumatised from that breakup, which would have clear consequences in this film, and Robin is positioned primarily as the narrative foil against which Lei’s innermost thoughts could be externalised, whether they are done so directly or otherwise.

For instance, in one scene he asks whether she is done with her packing. Her response (that she is ready with her one suitcase) made him quizzical; after all, it does seem a little light coming after more than half a decade in one of the world’s global cities. She herself says that much of the physical stuff have been thrown away, but what is not verbalised is the emotional baggage weighing on her heart.

This can be seen through Yilei’s pensive looks in taxi rides, phone boxes and more. On that note, it’s worth praising Yilei the actress for Yilei the character. I believe a certain amount of skill is needed to quietly visualise the emotional turmoil within, and, given the similarity of their names, I also wonder how much of this is something that the person herself may well have connected with.

Coming back to the red phone box, it is a crucial space in her journey. As a technology, it allows many to transcend spatial boundaries, connecting people all over the world. For our purposes, we come back to ‘Forget Me Not’ and ‘Happy New Year’, a trifecta we have, in the past, whimsically referred to as the Yilei Cinematic Universe.

In both those films, the phone box was where she received news of Ah Liong breaking up with her. Such a space of international connection is thus associated with the gravity of a personal separation for Lei; in ‘Unforgettable’, it has also become a place of familial disconnection as well, as she eventually reveals to her mother that she is not ready to return home.

This elevates ‘Unforgettable’ to a wider exploration of the migrant experience. For ‘Forget Me Not’, I wondered whether her “entry into the international club rendered her own efforts at domestic happiness largely futile”. This film provides a response to that, with the phone box being the location where all these dislocations (emotional or otherwise) come to a head.

It is also a context in which we blur the subjective and the objective. After leaving the phone box, Robin asks whether she is ready to go. In looking back at him, the camera is once again positioned as though she is looking directly at us, her eyes once again betraying the thoughts and feelings within: that she remains anchored to this place and the memories it inspires.

Beyond the fancy camera footwork, the film’s editing is also commendable. When Robin describes his home, we see a sudden and extra-diegetic time-lapse of a sunrise in a more natural environment. In addition to being a stark contrast to London’s urbanity, it is also an elliptical step outside of the present scenario, reflecting the film’s non-chronological negotiation of nostalgia.

Of course, all this comes down to the quality of Eleanor’s direction; a mark of her success is that it allows for Lei’s personal journey to intersect with some of my own. Returning to England after being away for two decades, I undertook the same journey she did, visiting the old haunts where I used to live and play. It is to my silent distress that some of these places are no more.

This, I suspect, is the key discussion at the film’s core. Matters of home and the heart are complicated not just by the peaks and troughs of relationships, but also by the places through which they are lived. In the living of this life, they have become spaces in which we leave behind pieces of ourselves, begetting an aura which outlasts the passage of time.

Whether they are couched in romantic terms or social contexts, Eleanor’s ‘Unforgettable’ is a key film in exploring the experience many go through in finding that full stop after years of commas and colons. The finality of the process may hit us hard, but as can be seen with Lei remembering a song she had forgotten, it may also be the closure we need to move forward.

Along with Haziqah Azemi, Eleanor has been selected as the Malaysian representative for the 2023 International Film Business Academy, organised by the Busan Asian Film School. We previously reviewed ‘Forget Me Not’, and interviewed Anwar Johari Ho in episode 64 of the podcast.

Featured image credit: Negative Space


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