Locarno 2023 review: Dreaming & Dying (Nelson Yeo)

“With its calm pace and hypnotic imagery the film is more an experience to go through than a narrative of which to grasp every detail.”

School reunions are always a bit awkward and uncomfortable, especially when your days of studying are well behind you. You see people you haven’t seen in years, possibly decades, and they have changed (and so have you, by the way), and the connection you once had just isn’t there anymore. None is as weird and unsettling, or as emotionally impactful, as the one that kicks off Nelson Yeo’s debut feature Dreaming & Dying. For starters, it is attended by only three people, two men and one woman. The woman (Doreen Toh) forms a couple with one of the men (Kelvin Ho), an oafish and overweight loudmouth. The other man (Peter Yu) is in every way the opposite, tall and lanky, and soft-spoken. There seems to be a history of some sort between him and the woman, dating back to their high school days, but the mystery doesn’t reveal itself. All three wrestle with pent-up emotions and unspoken desires that have lingered over the years. In vague outlines we can see a love triangle.

Things turn mystical when the couple take a trip into the forest to release into the wild a fish they carry around in a tank. This Buddhist tradition is supposed to make up for the bad karma they have accrued over their lifetimes. Present, past, memories, dreams, and even a novel about a mermaid the woman is reading all start to coalesce in a confounding narrative about lost innocence and how memories become truth. But with a merman and a talking fish.

On a cerebral level Dreaming & Dying feels very much in line with the works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the way it approaches dreams and memories. Like the latter’s work, the film is hard to fully decipher, certainly without full knowledge of the Eastern symbolism that Dreaming & Dying is filled with. But with its calm pace and hypnotic imagery, shot in Academy ratio by DP Lincoln Yeo, the film is more an experience to go through than a narrative of which to grasp every detail. Visually it reminds one of late Hong Sang-soo, with its (intentionally) sloppy framing and its unprovoked use of zoom, or perhaps some of the earlier works of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. It is an intriguing foray into art-house existentialist minimalism that in tone and feel is also reminiscent of Kyoshi Sugita’s recent Haruhara-san’s Recorder.

Films like Dreaming & Dying are always a bit elusive for Western audiences, with their Eastern sensibilities and Buddhist philosophies so different from a Western look at life. Yet there will always be a place for these films in art-house circles willing to invest time to ponder ‘what it all means’ and not afraid to admit that parts of it will fly over their proverbial heads. Dreaming & Dying is a confident and strong debut, as evidenced by it winning the Best First Feature award in Locarno. This promises a good future for Nelson Yeo, even if that future is likely to remain in more adventurous festivals like this one.