We first see a snow-covered Japanese village huddled before looming mountains. A deep stillness pervades the environment, and the only soul in sight is a young girl clad in a brown coat and red scarf. The small sounds she makes gently blend in with the distant cries of birds: her soft footsteps in the snow, the pleasant pong! of her Mamiya camera as she takes pictures. A pocket watch, left behind on the ground, can just barely be heard ticking away. The girl picks it up and holds the intricate treasure in the palm of her hand before continuing on her way. This peaceful scene opens Last Fragments of Winter, the latest short film from Edmund Yeo, who has taken long strides towards mastering the use of silence and setting for cinematic expression throughout his career. The mountain village – the World Heritage site Shirakawa-go – is just one of many perfectly chosen places in which Yeo situates and studies his characters. Those who have seen some of his previous works, including Kingyo (2009), The White Flower (2010), Inhalation (2010) and Exhalation (2010), will recognize his familiar themes of regret, longing and vulnerability. As with those films, Last Fragments bears a genuine stylistic confidence that is ably illustrated through its complex structure, smooth camera movements and bold editing techniques.
Inspired by The Moon, a short story by Japanese writer Kanai Mieko, Last Fragments fits an impressive amount of story content in its small running time – a little less than twenty-five minutes. The girl we see at the beginning (Arisa Koike) is shown at a later point in her life as a terminally ill mother (Tan Ley Teng) living with her husband (Berg Lee) and young son (Foo Kang Chen) in an apartment in Malaysia. The film shifts its focus between the three members of this family, in one passage following the boy to a convenience store where he picks up a soybean milk drink for his mother. The father attends the funeral ceremony of an old love (Lum Kay Li), encountering an acquaintance (Aron Koh) as well as the lingering spirit of the deceased. As the mother quietly copes with her illness, she reflects on her time spent in the snowy village. The sequences set in Shirakawa-go frequently emerge amidst the contemporary Malaysia passages, effectively serving as the last fragments of the film’s title – fragments of winter, and also of memories. It is entirely appropriate that, throughout this idyllic, sealed-off realm of snow and tranquility, she snaps pictures, striving to preserve this sacred, intensely private moment in her life. With its many jumps between past and present, Last Fragments presents time as a fluid, intangible force while exploring the nature of memory through both the numerous, crystal-clear recollections of the Japanese mountain village and the father and son’s more strenuous efforts to remember. Yeo explicitly paid tribute to Chris Marker with Fleeting Images (2008), which strongly evokes the beloved essay film Sans Soleil (1983), and The White Flower, which he assembled mostly out of still images in the style of Marker’s La Jetée (1963); here, he matches the elusive French filmmaker’s fascination with how we interact with and try to hold on to the past.
Fittingly, for a Malaysian filmmaker born in Singapore, trained in Australia and currently living in Tokyo, Yeo’s work frequently portrays a multi-national sensibility built upon the ever-growing trends of globalization, and Last Fragments is no exception. As with previous films of his, it utilizes both Japan and Malaysia as story settings and embraces the sights and sounds of modernized urban locations: passing trains, blinking lights, the colorful interior of the convenience store. Yeo even goes so far as to root the Malaysian part of the story in recent events (while also adding more links to Japan) by including direct references to the March 11th earthquake. Yet there are also sequences that evoke a more traditional and elemental world like the mother’s trips to a calm riverbank and an empty green field, and of course Shirakawa-go’s preserved huts and natural surroundings. This diverse selection of locations adds to the scope of Last Fragments’ story, giving much depth to the characters’ gathered experiences while also emphasizing their unique places within the vast world.
The film is essentially composed of small, personal moments and gestures, once more proving that the fabric of life – and, later on, memories of life – is made up of simple details. In capturing little things like the gentle motion of yellow curtains, the whir of airborne toys outside the family’s apartment and a group of playing children, Yeo places the lives and emotions of his characters in a totally recognizable world, all the while making sure to highlight its oft-overlooked beauty. In both of these objectives, he is greatly aided by his talented collaborators, not least of all his directors of photography Kong Pahurak and Tan Teck Zee.
Yeo’s perceptive attention to everyday wonders paired with the impressive eloquence and control of his craft is precisely what makes him such a fascinating filmmaker. Even though his directorial work thus far consists of only short films, each one gives viewers a whole world of sensations to savor and reflect on. That is certainly the case with Last Fragments of Winter, which can easily be regarded as one of his most nuanced and moving accomplishments to date.
Last Fragments of Winter will be making its world premiere at the 8th Dubai International Film Festival on Sunday, December 11th, 2011.
Marc Saint-Cyr is an occasional contributor to the VCinema Blog and has most recently appeared on the VCinema Podcast to participate in its three-part series on the New Taiwan Cinema. He is a staff writer for the J-Film Pow-Wow and has contributed to the first and second volumes of the Directory of World Cinema: Japan and World Film Locations: Tokyo from Intellect Ltd. as well as such publications as Midnight Eye, Row Three, Senses of Cinema and Toronto Film Scene.