The true-life story of deaf-and-blind Singaporean Theresa Chan crosses paths with three fictional vignettes in “Be With Me,” a curate’s egg of a movie that starts intriguingly but becomes increasingly frustrating. Fourth feature by Eric Khoo — and his first solo outing since the 1997 “12 Storeys” which played in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard — shows the Singaporean writer-director still more of a small-scale mood painter than a real dramatist. Pic could have a career in festival situations, but, beyond special-issue screenings centered on Chan’s handicaps, it looks like tough sledding on the arthouse circuit.
Film opens on an unseen person, only much later revealed to be Chan herself, typing a manuscript on an old manual typewriter. She types: “Is true love truly there, my love? Yes, if your warm heart is” — setting up the three fictional stories about characters looking for love in a rather emotionally bleak world.
First up is the story of an old shopkeeper (Chiew Sung-ching) who patiently cooks food to take to his sick wife in the hospital. Toned-down color and fixed camera set-ups establish a slowish, but not enervating, style which is considerably more accessible than in Khoo’s previous features (including his first, “Mee Pok Man”).
Adrian Tan’s clean compositions draw considerable strength from Chiew’s sad-sack face and his portrayal of quiet, loving dedication.
Gradually intercut is the much livelier yarn of Sam (Samantha Tan), an average middle-class Singaporean teen addicted to text-messaging and her computer, who finds a soul mate in a chat room. In an nice twist, when they finally meet, Sam’s soul mate turns out to be female — fellow teen Jackie (Ezann Lee) — and the pair starts a clandestine lesbian relationship, depicted in a girly and (to non-Asian eyes) distinctly Hallmark style.
Third strand centers on a security guard, Fatty Koh (Seet Keng-yew), who’s equally addicted to high-cholesterol food and a beautiful young yuppie, Ann (Lynn Poh), who works in his building. Fatty stalks Ann by foot and with security cameras, finally getting up the nerve to pen her a love letter, which he spends most of the movie laboriously writing in Chinese with the help of a dictionary.
Meanwhile, Sam finds herself shut out of Jackie’s affections when the latter starts dating Brian (Jason Tan). Though the somewhat kittenish Jackie tries to patch things up, Sam gradually retreats into a lovesick depression.
First half of the movie has a simple, largely unaffected charm that’s often engaging — a lighter version of Khoo’s previous two solo features but without their sardonic critique of Singapore’s sterile society.
Main problems start at the halfway mark, when the elderly Chan’s own story takes center stage and her real-life history (going deaf at 12, then blind at 14, from meningitis) is told through extensive subtitles and docu-like scenes of daily chores.
Cantonese Chan, who taught herself English only after becoming handicapped, speaks with a mechanical-sounding voice that’s virtually impossible to understand without subtitles. That, and the sudden shoehorning of what is effectively a mini handicapped docu into a fictional structure, throws the movie for a dramatic loop just when the viewer is primed for some development of the earlier stories.
Script finally knits the various vignettes together, largely through a series of convenient coincidences. But only one linkage — that between the old shopkeeper and Chan herself — has any real emotional payoff. Fatty and Sam’s stories suffer the most.
Performances are fine within their dramatic limitations — there’s scarcely five minutes’ dialogue in the whole movie — and warm scoring by Kevin Mathews and Christine Sham is a major assist in rolling things along. But at the end of the day, pic’s awkward combo of true life and fiction doesn’t really work in a dramatically cohesive way, despite incidental pleasures and character vignettes.
Transfer from HD to 35mm is virtually unnoticeable.