It’s easy to summon your inner demons when your life is going to pieces.
As many ghost stories as you’ve heard in your life, nothing supernatural ever quite comes as close to the existential terror of being retrenched in image-conscious Singapore. Coming on the heels of an all-time unemployment high thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic then, Goh Ming Siu and Scott C. Hillyard’s upcoming screening of Repossession could not have come as a better time, hitting a little too close to home as we follow the fallout after 50-year old Jim (Gerald Chew) loses his job, and the lengths he goes to hide it from his wife (Amy J Cheng) and daughter (Rachel Wan).
Like the old adage goes – the bigger they are, the harder they fall. The film leaves no doubt as to Jim’s upper middle social class, as he struggles to keep up the facade of owning a nifty penthouse in a centrally-located condominium, maintain a domestic helper, and driving around in his “$200,000” Audi. But honestly, it’s hard to blame him, considering how much pride he has and fear of the resulting shame should he come out with it, and knowing the sheer amount of pressure placed on Singaporean men to be constantly ‘successful’.
Repossession is primarily anchored by Gerald Chew’s riveting performance. As much as we cannot fathom how he manages to keep the truth under wraps for three months, we constantly feel for our tragic hero throughout his ups and downs (much like the adrenaline-pumping rise and fall of his assets in a particularly risky trading scheme). There is a grim sense of loss that’s apparent in Gerald’s expressions throughout the film, an ever-growing despondence and hopelessness as to how bleak his future is, whether he’s in an awkward situation picking up an unexpected guest from Clarke Quay, or as he tucks away evidence of his job search efforts into cardboard boxes during the dead of night.
This is supported by a brilliant eye for detail in the cinematography, immersive enough to draw us into Jim’s increasingly broken life. Already, in the initial retrenchment scene, there is an overbearing sense of gloom as Jim walks alone down the funereal, washed out office corridors, silent except for the sound of his footsteps. Atmosphere is everything, heavy with Jim’s grief and fears audibly playing out in his head as he drives around listlessly in the day, or the overhead shots of long roads at night in the middle of nowhere, convincing us that something terrible is about to jump out. Composer Teo Wei Yong (of A Land Imagined) also hits all the right notes with his eerie soundtrack, consistently providing the perfect amount of impending doom in each scene, never overbearing but just enough to give us the chills when necessary. All of this is best experienced in a cinema of course, where viewers can let the noir mood wash over them.
It’s a shame then that while it starts off strong, Repossession falters in its attempt to meld genres, turning from a character study of a man driven to his wit’s end, to a B-grade horror film. While the hints were always there, with mysterious flashbacks and sinister strangers, but these served better to heighten the tense and uncertain atmosphere, rather than the clunky reveal of a literal demon Jim has been haunted by all his life. When this happens in the final half hour, it feels as if the filmmakers were trying to do too much in too little time, conflating demonic possessions messily inserted between Jim sinking deeper into his financial crisis. Certainly, one could interpret the demon as a representation of Jim’s worsening mental state, but when combined with evidence that it is a literal monster, makes for a messy metaphor that brings an otherwise powerful film to a chaotic finish.
Perhaps it is only in Singapore where the threat of property repossession is a far more terrible fate than spiritual possession, one that Repossession makes abundantly clear with the sheer amount of dread that’s felt throughout the film. And as the film never fails to remind us, while Jim is surrounded by people constantly promising that he doesn’t have to go through this alone, the truth is, Jim is irrepressibly, impossibly alone, a man whose ghosts of the past continue to prevent him from dispelling the belief that his struggles are his and only his to go through. Rife with existential terror that far exceeds the supernatural scares, Repossession makes for a dark reminder that it is not the clawed demons stalking our nightmares, but the slow-acting poison of a life without meaning, that will eventually destroy us both inside and out.
Repossession plays as part of the Singapore Chinese FIlm Festival 2020 on 11th October 2020. For tickets, visit their website here