Singapore’s Nelson Yeo Debuts at Locarno With an Uncanny Love Triangle Inspired by Classic Chinese Cinema

Singapore’s Nelson Yeo Debuts at Locarno With an Uncanny Love Triangle Inspired by Classic Chinese Cinema

August 7, 2023

As the title may suggest, Nelson Yeo’s Locarno title “Dreaming & Dying” is driven by multiple transgressions and surprises. Identities, between humans, fish, and frogs, fluctuate and morph. Dreams and nightmares come together – to blend harmoniously or combust. 

Singapore’s landscape proves a fertile ground for plumbing the depths of fantasies and repressed desires, which is just what Yeo offers in his 77-minute debut. 

Screening in Locarno’s Cineasti del Presente, the film loosely revolves around the story of three friends in their fifties, played by Peter Yu, Kelvin Ho, and Doreen Toh, who reunite after years apart. Sparks ignite and the three find themselves in a conflicting love triangle. As they wrestle with their feelings and come to terms with the choices they’ve made, supernatural occurrences start to take place around them. The boundaries between dream-states and wakefulness blur as the characters’ surroundings shift to reflect their psychic states. The waves of the sea roll fitfully like surges of repressed desire. Sequences show fish swarming aggressively, bleeding out their bodies, to evoke the ways the mind plays tricks and distorts memory. The three characters constantly return to the moment of losing innocence – the lighting of a cigarette in a back alley. 

Sold by Italy’s Lights On, co-produced by Kawankawan Media and Widewall Pictures, “Dreaming & Dying” is lead produced by Momo Film Co, one of Singapore’s most prominent production-distribution outfits. Indeed, Yeo’s film feels uniquely Singaporean in its reflection of the complex psychic state of the country, which can teeter between a coastal dreamland and a cloistered urban nightmare. 

Before trying his hand at filmmaking, Yeo studied animation. “My first project centered on a character of One-Armed Swordsman known from many Hong Kong martial arts films,” he recalls.  We can see the influence of the director’s animation background in the film’s plasticity and fluidity, especially in sequences shot in cult Singapore old school luna park – Haw Par Villa – featuring supernatural creatures from Chinese and Western mythologies.

“I approached making this film as I would my short films,” Yeo told Variety at Locarno. Before making his debut feature, Yeo made multiple short films such as “Mary, Mary, So Contrary” (2019) which repurposes and manipulates excerpts from Fei Mu’s 1948 classic “Springtime in a Small Town” to weave a phantasmagoric narrative of a Chinese woman named Ma Li who dreams she is a Caucasian woman named Mary. 

Since childhood Yeo was in love with classic Chinese cinema and with its story of a middle-aged love triangle “Dreaming & Dying” easily turns into an uncanny contemporary Singapore rendition of “Springtime in a Small Town.” 

“Dreaming & Dying” stars Yu who returns to Locarno screens after his lead role as a detective in 2018 Golden Leopard winner “A Land Imagined.” The actor proves just how versatile he is, playing a unique new role in which he morphs into a merman. Yu is partnered with Toh and Ko who come from a theater background. “Dreaming & Dying” is buttressed less by the plot as the charisma of the actors. 

In this story, the focus is on the exploration of mature sexuality and coming to terms with lifelong unmet desires at an older age. 

“I wanted to express repressed emotions,” Yeo said. “How my parents’ generation don’t express their emotions and feelings very directly. There are many layers to it. It is not so straight-forward.” 

This film will catch viewers unawares, taking surprising turns and focuses. In the end, Yeo moves beyond love-triangle melodrama as the film shape shifts into different tales of death and apocalypse: the environmental disaster and end of the world or the mourning of loved ones. 

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