The month of the dead reveals much about the hearts of the living.
The most compelling individual in A Month of Hungry Ghosts, now screening at Sinema Old School's theatrette (with plush sofas ideal for full-length making out) on Mount Sophia, is a Cantonese lady with a lifetime’s skill at flipping a handful of incense paper into a perfect fan. We are not told what she does for a living, but at a middle age, she has lost more than a handful of close family members, including her in-laws and a young son.
The boy, remembered in a black and white photo of a bright-eyed toddler, crops up every now and then as she explains to the filmmakers (Genevieve Woo and Tony Kern, right) why and how she venerates those who have left her behind in the mortal world. She tenderly touches his portrait at a columbarium in Bedok and recalls how the boy would turn up as an apparition in an old refrigerator from which he received favourite treats.
She offers few reasons but much earnest devotion as the crew follows her annual rites of passage to a dwindling shophouse in Chinatown, where she selects attire and accessories for kin according to their taste and time of death (“This one cannot – too modern!”). Her son gets a smart paper suit while her late mother expects a full complement of cosmetics and enough cash (preferably Hellish versions of the greenback) to pay her way through Hades.
The crude figures of Haw Par Villa offer a backdrop to the narratives of priests and paranormal investigators who offer their personal theories and thoughts on the metaphysics of this month of magic and mayhem. Motion sensors go awry at a festival auction. New wires fail to prevent outages at a makeshift shrine. And a midnight pilgrimage through a forest to conquer private fears conjures an invisible aura of spiritual defences.
From the gates guarded by Messrs Horsehead and Bullface, the souls of the unreborn are unleashed for a moon to their old haunts. They are greeted by topsy-turvy thrones and a Demon King who is a gentle Bodhisattva in disguise. In this city of paradoxes, the unseen are both good friends and feared foes who must be appeased by sumptuous offerings and respectful front-row seats. Old fashioned spirits are happy with heavy-robed operas but newer generations of ghosts frequent the stages of lighter clad ladies who race from show to show. And through the eyes of anointed heads, these brothers in alms signal their pleasure or offence, which devotees ignore to their peril. For malicious sprites might be tempted into mischief or worse, machinations with ends as harmless as flickering lights or as horrendous as world wars and acts of mass destruction.
But for all their fright, men of flesh still seek out those of fire in hope of favours and blessings. Bare-backed mediums become receptacles for disembodied beings who in exchanged for a solid abode offer otherworldly wisdom and a chance at better odds. Taukays engage the services of bearded priests (is this tax-deductible?) to soothe the powers that might risk their profits. The promise of brighter fates awaits participants in the fiery rites of Ullambara as they line up in bare feet to offer intangible fragrances that feed the hunger of the mouthless. Up to $200,000 worth of scented paper go up in smoke and ashes in a single night of reverence.
Not a few times, the priestly men warn that perpetuators of spiritual intercourse must have their hearts (and hands) in the right place. For the season, so it is said, is wrecked by more than its fair share of mishaps that plague those who wrong their wraiths with heinous deeds such as forgetting to cough before urinating in the open. And mothers must know that placing their babies on offering tables is tantamount to a sacrifice of the darkest magnitude.
The Cantonese dame who embarks on her tour of ancestral duty with little fuss and much diligence offers few pointers. “Stop playing the guzheng after eight,” she says, noting that a little night music is wont to result in melodies from free-floating fingers. She stands far from the neon altars of gaudy shrines or self-serving piety of mechanistic rituals (the most documentary's most disturbing moment showed the mass [and it is said monthly] releasing of a truckload of munias by a forest), preferring to serve the souls of those who lived around and in her home of many decades with modest packages and unaffected pleas. True believers such as her would also probably have no truck with the pedantry of those who deem it inappropriate to christen with colour a festival that is finding new friends and fans amongst the young who remember not the past for they know too little to forget.