Reviews / November 2012 (Issue 19)

Out of Tune Blues: Phan Ming Yen's That Night by the Beach and Other Stories for a Film Score

by Carolyn Lau


Phan Ming Yen, That Night by the Beach and Other Stories for a Film Score, Ethos Books, 2012. 156 pgs.

The first line of the preface to That Night by the Beach and Other Stories for a Film Score asks, "Do they have to go anywhere, have a beginning or an ending?" and in so doing sums up the reading experience of Phan Ming Yen's debut short story collection. At times rhapsodic and free flowing with unforeseeable twists and turns resonant of an Erik Satie score, these stories are at best enigmatic and intriguing, and at worst, a labyrinth of hazy images that entrap readers in confusion. Readers of high intelligence and exceptional perceptiveness may fare well-enough in this voyage down meandering streams of consciousness, in which phantom characters silently and discreetly shift in and out of spatial and temporal boundaries. Others may fare less well.

Perhaps to assuage the puzzlement average readers are likely to feel when faced with the episodic stories and voyeuristic snapshots of this collection, the publisher's note explains the book's structure: "Each story is framed by a musical piece through which the writer expresses moods or even vignettes, like the music-intense and about the everyday-of the 19th century Romantic composers."

One of the many innovations in the collection's linguistic representation of a film score is the introduction of an accompanying piece of music before each passage, a piece of music which readers are encouraged to listen to while they read. Those who obediently seek out the designated songs will be rewarded a rare and transformative reading experience, in which words come to life and morph into the shots in a silent film.

The effect closely resembles an everyday situation in contemporary life. Public transport commuters who spend an hour or two a day sandwiched between complete strangers will often put in earphones and listen to their music of choice in order to distance themselves from the tiresome hassle around them. Often the music will blend strangely with the surrounding sights—such as a weary worker on the opposite bench staring despondently at the dark tunnel walls whirring past—transforming a mundane trip home into a poignant portrait of urban life. The effect can be of a magnetic current running through one's spine.

I felt the same magnetic current while listening to Leos Janacek's "On an Overgrown Path" playing in the background while reading Phan's story bearing the same name. The author notes that the same piece of music is featured in the death scene of the fated couple Tomas and Tereza in the film version of Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The song's whimsical notes accentuate the sense of an unsettling stasis permeating an affair laced with dark undercurrents of death and mortality.

The most fleshed out story in the collection is titled "Symphony No. 5," after Gustav Mahler's musical declaration of love for his wife. The music's juxtaposition of measured slowness with violent outbursts reflects the emotional turmoil of prolonged yearning and insatiable appetite for affection, which are ever-present in many romantic relationships, including the one portrayed in Phan's story.

"Symphony" opens with a funeral scene in which Mr. Chng, the piano teacher of a deceased young prodigy, Li Li, recalls a cringingly clichéd conversation. In it, the young woman's insistence that the older man's preferential treatment is love clumsily veiled provides one of the many instances of a lack of nuance in the collection. The author's meticulously crafted tranquillity is instantly ruined when predictable lines, which seem lifted directly from a sentimental novel or afternoon soap, spill from the characters' mouths. It is most unfortunate that Phan's original intention of creating scenes of restraint and subtlety, reminiscent of the permeating silences of a Yasujiro Ozu's still life, end up as pretentious mock-montage: "When he looks out to the corridor, he sees only the closed doors of the other studios and the hands of the clock on the wall across the hallway."

The secretive lovemaking scene between teacher and student, much dreaded by this reader who had been hoping that such a blatant display of illicit sex would not appear, is awkwardly played out. The author's attempt to recreate the juxtaposition commonly used in art films to connect two disparate images results in abrupt transitions between a lover's caress ("he reaches down to touch the light brown of her back") and oblivious pleasantries ("How is Li Li today, Miss Joyce?"). Clarity and logical progression are forsaken in the name of fleeting poetics and transience.

Perhaps the only piece immune from such flaws is the delightfully titled "Shopping for Chopin (A Fairy Tale)." Originally written for the stage, and later made into a theatre production in 2010, the story is made up of a collage of letters and omnisciently told narratives about a relationship between Jun, an aspiring pianist who has left his hometown to study music and is working part-time in a records shop, and San a determined mute girl in search of therapeutic Chopin music.

Listening to Chopin's "Ballade and Polonaise" and the light and sweeping notes of "Nocturnes" while familiar detachment and unexpressed mutual affection unfurl across the page is the closest one can get to the reading experience originally intended by the author. Here, the mixture of words and music effectively works together to remind us that romance that fails to bloom despite mutual affection is one of few universal sentiments. The brief moments when the eyes of lonely individuals meet in a lift or when glances over café cup rims intersect, lead to the overactive imagination running wild. But irrational thoughts of a rendezvous with the stranger are almost always immediately vanquished when the realities of duty and loyalty set in.

The author's perceptive observations of the moral ambivalence we feel and the conflicts of conscience we all undergo in such situations is a distinct quality of this collection, although such feelings are often cloaked in the mists of memory and remorse. The ending of "Chopin" remains unresolved as San stops showing up at the store. The last letter from Jun to San is a heartfelt confession of guilt, as he realises that his complete devotion to the perfection of his artistic talents has made him forget his family—the urgency of artistic achievement has diverted his attention from his roots and resulted in the unavoidable breeding of an egoistic artistic creator.

Graham Greene's The End of the Affair begins with this sentence: "A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead." Phan's stories provide a sometimes wayward breaking of the narrative mould, offering a dizzying hotchpotch of concealed thoughts, overheard conversations, flashbacks and clandestine liaisons. Strong-willed readers who manage to stay on their feet after undergoing this journey of excessive time travel will find themselves emerging from the strangely appealing ambiance of the stories, as if stepping out of an Edward Hopper painting of a city permeated by loneliness and simmering desires and occupied by placid faces with no names.

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