Friday, August 01, 2008

A Month of Hungry Ghosts / 鬼节

Today marks the exact date to the start of the month long Lunar 7th Month, where the Chinese believe the gates of Hell are supposedly opened, and the “good brothers” (aka spirits both of the malevolent and the benevolent kind) roam the Earth as their vacation destination not by choice. They get to feast on the food offerings, and get pocket money from the Hell currency that humans provide, with entertainment either in the form of the more traditional Opera and puppet shows, or the glitz and glamour from Getai (“song-stage”) shows where singers belt out evergreens and the latest contemporary songs.

In local cinematic terms, the 7th Month period has provided enough fuel to have spawned an outright horror film, The Maid, by Kelvin Tong, and Royston captured a colourful slice of the lives of songstresses in 881. While this particular month is definitely no stranger to locals, it did intrigue Tony Kern enough to develop a full length feature documentary on the subject, and we look at the festival through fresh eyes as he brings us on a journey which unlocked some really fascinating nuggets of information that I suppose most will still not be aware, and reinforced some long held beliefs.

It’s difficult though to try and lock down the origins of customs and tradition given that there are always variations that put a new spin on things along the way. Narrative wise, it's fairly straightforward, in chronological sense starting from the eve of the festival, and ending on the last day, covering an entire spectrum of the festival proceedings. It is told in inter-titled chapters which can range from mere seconds, to a few minutes, some of which might be just scraping the surface of issues, while others allowed for some depth behind the myth.

While some may gripe with its television like production values, one cannot doubt the tremendous effort to assemble footage like these, especially when the squeamish would think twice about venturing with priests and llamas into uncharted forested areas with the sole purpose of calling out the spirits. And witnessing these proceedings through the safety of footage caught on camera, we learn a lot more about the rituals, in particular those which are often unseen because of the background role they play. And thus this documentary’s superb educational value when it digs deep in certain segments, and personally, I learnt a lot more on certain aspects of the festival, such as the symbolism of food on the altars of offering.

Other interesting segments which were more contemporary included the Singapore Paranormal Investigators segment, where significant time was spent in one of their site surveys, and where a clash of Eastern and Western techniques come head to head during a ceremony, which to skeptics, might call it a series of coincidences, but to believers, it reinforces the common notion that believe it or not, it doesn’t pay for one to be disrespectful. And for completeness sake, there’s also a more personal segment with a getai singer which I believe most local audiences would already be familiar with given plenty of available information through the media, and through film such as 881, and even Jack Neo’s latest Money No Enough 2.

The film industry also got represented through Kelvin Tong and Daniel Yun through interviews on The Maid, which seemed like coming out of a making-of / behind the scenes DVD extra. With standard interviews with practitioners and the man on the street, Tony also managed to weave in a more personal story with that of a mother and the loss of her young child, during which the Festival provides some comfort and opportunity for mother and child to communicate, however bizarre that might sound. I thought it was most touching, and speaks volumes of a mother’s love that transcends realms, whose belief in the Festival would nonetheless never be shattered. I hate to make this association, but it also brought out attention to Child Spirits, which are usually mischievous, and probably explains the obsession of Asian spirit movies that involves children, given that they haven’t seen a lot of the/our world, and would continue to do so after death.

But there are a couple of things I thought could be improved, such as the reduction of special effects to spruce up the visuals, which kind of ruined the rituals I would be interested to see verbatim, such as Running with Lights. That of course meant I had to venture out to witness it myself, and if so was the purpose, then credit to the filmmakers for introducing enough elements throughout the film, and for the curious to get up and do a little more legwork. And another aspect which fell short, was the association of disasters, wars and terrorism throughout contemporary history to the Hungry Ghost Month, which I thought was a little propaganda like, though one couldn’t fail to notice the negative-ness that the Festival brings about to mankind in general, where incidents such as road accidents, are at all time highs during the month.

For all our modernism in today’s society, I guess a fair bit of us still believe in certain rites, rituals, tradition and culture, though with general disinterest permeating through society, we will probably see such richness being watered down in time to come. Thus, A Month of Hungry Ghosts would serve as an important snapshot of what was during this time, with a cautionary reminder that we can never tame a wild tiger no matter how much we feed it, being better to err on the side of caution, whether you believe it or not.


After the screening, both the producer Genevieve Woo and director Tony Kern were present to entertain questions posed by the audience. I guess it wasn’t a coincidence too that the front row of the sell-out theatre was left empty.

As expected, the first question was for the filmmakers to recount their experience with the paranormal, which was basically what was already asked during a print interview, which I quote here:

One supernatural moment happened when they went deep into the jungle with a Tibetan Buddhist congregation to film a ritual known as the “Invitation of the Spirits” on the eve of the first day the Hungry Ghost Festival.
“As we went deeper into the woods, I stayed behind to capture a shot of the whole group walking off. I suddenly became transfixed and mesmerised by the wall of trees behind me,” recalled Kern.
"I felt so good and so peaceful that I actually forgot my camera entirely. I was told only just last week by the Lama who was leading the group that it was only when he looked back for me that he saw that I was completely surrounded by spirits and was just about to be possessed.
“By breaking away from the group, I had left the protective shield that is around to keep everyone safe.”

They also shared that they had shot the film during the 30 days straight during the festival, with every night having something extraordinary happening, , so much so that they had a total of 60 hours of footage and it was laborious to edit it down to 90 minutes. They also had requests to do documentaries on other festivals as well, such as Qing Ming, the Dumpling Festival, and so on, but alas they’re working on their next feature which will be horror, but a full length narrative instead, hopefully to be ready in 2009 or 2010.

Genevieve, in response to a question whether their attitudes for the supernatural had changed before and after making the film, revealed that she now has a lot more respect for it. Coming from a Catholic background growing up, her mom will tell her the same stuff as well, such as not going home too late at night, although this doesn’t cause any conflict personally with her religion because it’s part of her “Chinese-ness”. She learnt to appreciate it a lot more, and yes it had changed. Tony too was interested in animism, and he to believes in the other side having some sort of influence in our realm.

Another interesting nugget of information shared was the audio clip (which can be found on the website), where a voice was heard saying “Take a seat”, which was a little boy’s voice captured on audio / film during the scene where Tony was handling the camera at the backstage of an opera performance, and panning it downwards beneath the stage. Naturally, there were no little boys at the area Tony was. Spooky, eh?

A Month of Hungry Ghosts makes its debut at the cinemas at GV and Sinema Old School from 7th August 2008. Click here to access the official movie website.

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