Abstract short film wrings the tears even when there are no actors and no words.
In their debut production, The Aesthetic Project stretches the limits of what could be considered theatre, with their show A man waiting for the leaves to fall. Presented as a short film with no actors, the production was conceptualised and directed by Judee Tan, and highlights the skills of their multitalented design team, including set designer Wong Chee Wai, sound designer Jing Ng, lighting designer Liu Yong Huay, costume designer Theresa Chan, and multimedia designer Koo Chia Meng.
Filmed at the Gateway Theatre Black Box, A man waiting for the leaves to fall is is somewhat abstract and open to interpretation, but primarily takes inspiration from Judee’s relationship with her father, who passed last year. The film begins as we hear wooden wind chimes, as if welcoming us to the show. We see harsh spotlights on various objects that belong to a child, from a doll to a floatie to even a milk bottle. A yellow ball bounces and hits a chair, all wrapped in white yarn, while Teochew opera begins to play from a radio.
The songs on the radio however, begin to distort, switching between the initial opera to the voice of a young girl singing the childhood favourite ‘客人来’, to a woman dispensing life advice. The objects around the chair, each one linked to it by a yarn path, are slowly tugged offstage, while the radio continues to swap between channels and broadcasts. We get the sense that the chair itself is our central character, imagining it as an old man running through his memories, but finding it increasingly difficult to focus and hold on to them.
This idea seems to hold some degree of truth, as the yarn around the chair literally begins to unravel, revealing the bare wooden skeleton beneath, while the lights flicker rapidly, and the radio fades to static. Even when there are no actors present, the design features alone are capable of evoking feelings of loss and fear in us, as the screen behind the chair showcases QR codes twisting and contorting into fuzzy images, and the yarn attached to the legs fraying into far thinner threads and slowly pulled away.
Close-ups on the chair showcase minute cracks and injuries it’s sustained, while even more seemingly random images and lighting play on the screen behind, the music ephemeral and otherworldly. We feel uneasy as we hear people singing happy birthday, candles onscreen being blown out. Yet the chair is still and silent, not reacting at all, almost as if it is staring blankly and not realising what’s happening around it.
The last candle is blown out and the applause fades away, and now, we hear the sounds of a bus engine, hissing as it brakes. Through the magic of film, the chair fades from screen, as if it has gotten onto the bus and is now travelling to an unknown future. All we see is the yellow ball, left alone now in its solitude. Bubbles float past it before bursting, leaving soap puddles on the ground, as if tears left behind from crying, and reminding us of how fragile and temporal they are. A piano and cello duet (composed by August Lum, and played by Lum on piano and Tang I Shyan on cello) begins.
We cut to a view of empty grey streets, seen from the perspective of a moving bus. The camera is somewhat blurry, perhaps from tears shed or cataracts obscuring our vision, as if the character seeing this realises that something terrible is about to happen. Over the soundtrack, the piano and cello seem to be in conversation with each other, taking us on a journey as they speak to each other, joyous, nostalgic, and finally, ending off on a refrain from ‘客人来’, as if bringing us back to our childhood days once more.
But then we hear a final gasp for air, before fading to a blackout, and we know that a life has been snuffed out. We’re now looking upwards at the ceiling, listening to the wooden wind chimes that welcomed us in. A flurry of leaves begins to fall from above, and provides a reflective moment as the colour drains out into a monochrome and the credits begin to roll.
It is not surprising that we found ourselves moved by the storytelling and unique form this short film has chosen, seemingly going against everything we have been taught about theatre, yet succinctly capturing and telling a powerful story of love and loss through design alone. We’ve previously seen one way this could be done earlier in the year, but with A man waiting for the leaves to fall, there is something deeply personal and intimate about this project that hits the right emotional notes. With this work, The Aesthetic Project has allowed the space for us to muse on our own familial relationships, and transformed one person’s grief and loss into a moving tribute in the form of art.