They meet by a large hand sculpture that points towards the sky, otherwise known as the Inscription of the Island. Xiu (Doreen Toh) arrives first with a searchful stare, only to be accompanied by the sensitive Heng (Peter Yu). For them it’s a reunion. After how many years? We do not know, but her reaction to “Long time no see” says it all. Then another man appears, her playful Husband (Kelvin Ho). Without hesitation, he riffs on the other’s physical changes; the grey hairs, the extra pudding, the blemishes unravelled by time. We never know of the Husband’s name, which beckons his rude, unwanted presence throughout.
Whilst a discussion on global warming looms over a poker game, the film takes an ethereal turn. Narration lingers over Xiu’s coastal gaze, revealing her limerence for Heng like a dream, just before cutting to her toilet reading of A Mermaid’s Tale. These kaleidoscopic cutaways with Xiu reveal that Heng is a Merman who has been driven out the sea by cause of modern human pollution, which he pairs with a plea to join him in a new life. The revelation here is destined to surprise you, but the film’s stretched premise and frustrating surrealism will likely deter you away from its wavelength.
A spiritual journey begins from here, made literal with credits finally rolling in around the 25-minute mark of Xiu and her Husband entering the jungle, immediately calling to mind Weerasethakul’s Blissfully Yours (2002). But it’s also where the film’s palette runs thin. Camerawork becomes rigid, and at odds with the couple’s inspired purpose. Whilst surreal cues of the ailing Merman slash the flow and sever any sense of metaphorical enlightenment. This becomes much too apparent once the fish talks and laments on the bloodshed of Neptune with the Husband, showcasing all but the flair of a Sega fishing title.
It’s once we’re past the lumbering Husband and out the forest’s path where the film picks back up. For when Xiu is left to just a cove and her incense later on, does this saving grace begin to light the way. Her surroundings illuminate like a hidden treasury, teaching us an untold mythical history without any words to speak. Only amplified with a soundscape of leaking water drops and the bellowing groan of a close omen. It’s a sequence that places us right in the visceral, finally leaving our imagination to piece together a deeper meaning.
Even with the final image we’re left with, there’s promising use of a long, purposeful shot here than what we’ve just endured before. But by that point, it’s too little too late to notice all the trimming that’d have benefitted any lasting closure for our trio. Director Nelson Yeo clearly holds a unique interest in exploring time and shifting memory, with hints of the Husband’s reincarnation and trailing omens promising a more desirable tale. But perhaps Yeo’s mediation on the afterlife would be better suited in a more contained, short film form. As even at a 79-minute runtime, the journey taken feels more sightseeing than soul-searching.
Dreaming & Dying is Nelson Yeo’s debut film feature, having premiered in the Filmmakers of the Present Competition and won a First Feature award at the 76th Locarno Film Festival.