There are films that you watch.
And there are films that you feel.
Both forms have been part of my life for quite some time now. Some films go deeper than others, but that doesn’t mean that they are better. In early 2018, just when I struggled to come to terms with the death of my father-in-law, John Clang sent me his first feature film. He is a visual artist, not so much a filmmaker, but tried the medium as a new challenge. Those of you, who read my thoughts on Their Remaining Journey when I published them on this blog, will remember that it was a particularly striking film, an exploration of grief and of loss that resonated deeply with me at the time. After I had seen Their Remaining Journey, it didn’t come as a big surprise to see that Clang made another film, different in its aesthetics this time, but with a similar theme.
Regardless of what you lose in life, and in what way you lose it, you grief. You mourn the loss of it. The period of mourning depends on the degree of attachment which you had to what you have lost. We all know how difficult it is to lose a loved one. We all know how long it can take to get over this loss, and, truth is, we never really get over it. We merely get used to this empty place next to us. What few people realise, however, is that we show the same stages of grief when we lose a partner, when a relationship or a marriage ends, when we mourn the lack of a loving relationship to our parents. When all of a sudden, this centre of life which we think we should have, is not there and, perhaps, will never be there.
These are the lives of a mother and a daughter, unbeknown to each other’s existence, over the course of four days…
There is a young woman, perhaps in her early 30s. An artist. An artist who is trying to channel her pain and her grief through art. We see her at a fair, speaking to people, surrounded by life, by movements, by joy. But this event is out of her reach, she struggles to embrace it. She is removed from life after her husband cheated on her. Perhaps, this might sound cheesy and like a tearful part of the film’s narrative. Yet, it’s everything but. As he did before in Their Remaining Journey, Clang doesn’t put emphasis on the why but on the how. The young woman’s struggle is, at times, excruciating. There are several things she says in the course of the film that feel like a knife in my heart. There is not only pain in her voice, in her thoughts. There are also fundamental questions about us.
What is the point of surviving if you’re not living?
Twice, I had the same feeling. Twice, I wondered what the point was of walking around like an empty shell. Life always also means survival. But survival never always means life. Clang’s character shows this extraordinarily, speaking to a therapist about her numbness, about her inability to feel any form of joy. To feel anything at all. On her way to the therapist, in the subway, the camera focuses on the background. The woman’s face, centred in the frame, is blurred, empty, without substance, just like the way she feels. The world around her passes by without her being able to take part. Her art, her new video work, becomes a medium through which she channels her pain. It seems to be the only way she can interact with the world around her, through the prism of her work, across a barrier, which she herself has built up.
Art as therapy. Film as therapy.
I don’t know who you really are. I don’t know who my grandmother and my grandfather really were. I don’t know. No one told me. I was too scared to ask questions. Dad, do you know me?
There is another kind of pain. A pain which has roots, because it is connected to one’s family. A pain, which appears early in childhood and which, like a spider, creates a suffocating web of pain throughout one’s life. Clang’s second character, a woman who is perhaps in her late forties, struggles with the image of her father, a father who didn’t teach her where she came from. A man with whom she could never have a normal father-girl relationship. Not knowing where one comes from means inevitably that one doesn’t know who one is. Being without roots means building a life on phantom foundations, foundations that seem stable but which can never give you enough stability to live rather than survive.
How can we make sense of what we do not have? Of something we never had but desire? We make sense of it through pain, through phantoms, and this is, I think, where Clang connects A Love Unknown with Their Remaining Journey. It is the theme of phantoms, the remains that continue to pain us. Both women in the film suffer because their lost loved ones are still present. They have become phantom limbs, shifting between presence and absence, upsetting the women’s emotional life. But there is something else that I found was particularly clear in Clang’s film.
It was in a novel (whose title I cannot remember on the top of my head) where I found a wonderful metaphor. For as long as we are alone, for as long as we stand on our own two feet, we become an easy subject of violence. Violence in whatever form. I don’t speak of physical violence. It is, in this context, more about violent emotional pain. When we are with someone, in a relationship, for instance, we walk on four legs. We become more stable. Walking on all fours is always going to be more stable than walking on two legs, and it takes less effort. The idea is that those “four legs” stand for sharing; sharing pain, sharing turmoil. Shared pain is half the pain.
A Love Unknown is about a life on two legs, about the difficulty to walk after a heavy emotional blow. It is about excruciating pain that each and everyone of us faces. But it is also a testament to our resilience to those blows, a testament to our attempts at trying to find a way out, a testament to our fight against drowning.