Filial piety is unconditional and is a fundamental component of Confucianism, and this is so ingrained in Asia that it’s even made law to support an aged parent in four countries — Bangladesh, China, India and in Singapore.
There’s a lot about this Juree Singapore film ‘Let Me Kill My Mother First’ that is cathartic, shocking, ugly, dangerous and at the same time, very real, painful and beautiful. Nothing about the mother-child relationship in this film is apologetic, from the violent film title to the opening scene of a daughter with her fingers gripped around her mother’s neck.
A still from Let Me Kill My Mother First with Jaime Chew (as Ying) and Andre Chong (brother, Song)
We speak to the director and her collaborators, a group of three Singaporeans who share a love for Singapore Literature (SingLit). They are Low Ser En, a BAFTA-winning producer now living in Singapore, Teo Mei Ann, who directed this short film, is an artistic director and theatre director living in New York, Teh Su Ching, a writer for screen and stage living in Bangkok.
A still from the short film Let Me Kill My Mother First, with Shyan Tan as director of photography
Can we survive filial piety?
This short film took five years to make and is based on the autobiographical writings of Christine Chia, a poet and writer who first made public the domestic abuse in her life in her second book, ‘The Law Of Second Marriages.’
Mei Ann first discovered Christine’s tumultuous domestic life when they were both teenagers: “I can still remember that hot day, walking to the bus stop when we were seventeen. She tells me that she has to study for the literature exam because her mother’s running a gambling den that night in her living room. It was my first insight into the underbelly of Singapore, until then a sanitised city of meritocracy and church.
Director Teo Mei Ann, photo by Michael Kushner
Ser En’s discovery was through the poetry collection and was moved by the visceral images in the writing. She was introduced to Mei Ann, who was equally keen to translate Christine’ story on screen, and in fact, has been on her mind all her life, since that hot day when she was 17; and Su Ching, who was compelled by the relationship Christine had with her mother.
The challenge, however, was more than logistics; it was finding the story to tell from Christine’s multifaceted and complex childhood.
Is there no human trait more noble than filial piety?
In an interview with Mei Ann, Christine said this: “Fuck Confucius. Fuck filial piety. You want me to have filial piety? Let me kill my mother first.”
Actress Jaime Chew as Ying in the short film Let Me Kill My Mother First
This sparked them in a different direction – what if Christine’s younger self was able to imagine ways to kill her mother, as a form of resistance? They built upon this as a concept and the images and events of the poems as a structure to find understanding in these real people.
This became the title and the center of the film – a young girl who survives the abuse by imagining killing her mother.
Standing up for the wounded child
What was it about Christine’s story that compelled them to stand up for the wounded child and help her escape, through fantasy?
In the making of this film, Mei Ann had many conversations with Christine about her life, and the way she has survived.
“The trust that Christine gave in allowing us to do what we wanted, and the care and guidance she gave along the way – I’m very grateful for her permission that allowed us to imagine.”
“It’s been the tools of resilience for myself, a passing on of technique of courage and reminder of community. The first time she saw it – she remarked that it was “a miracle dejavu” – I was so relieved that it was recognisable to her, and that she could identify with the world we created, inspired by her.”
Award-winning actress Yeo Yann Yann stars in this short film Let Me Kill My Mother First
Imagination as resistance and redemption
Mei Ann: “I’m interested in the DNA of survival and unflinching brutal reality. The child does not succeed in killing her mother. After all, she only tries to in her mind. The child does not escape. (We last see her) when she’s lying in the hospital bed, after being slapped by her mother for failing even at suicide. Even death as escape alludes her.
On the set of Let Me Kill My Mother First, art direction by Apple Ong
“But what is important here is the role that imagination plays in helping us make and/or find other realities – even if it keeps us alive for just one more day. This idea came from how Christine read voraciously – she told me about how reading about Pip in ‘Great Expectations’ helped her feel less alone, how Emily Dickinson became a friend. We took her imagination that was rich and filled with literature, and sought ways that it could have manifested as a child.”
Ser En: “We decided to alter the source of the fantasy sequences while keeping the original theme of the film of the redemptive power of imagination. We relied on CGI for some of these action sequences and assembled a production and post-production team, some of them Singaporeans based overseas.”
On the set of Let Me Kill My Mother First, directed by Mei Ann Teo
What if blood isn’t always thicker than water?
Moi, played by the award-winning theatre and film actress Yeo Yan-Yan, is a monster in her daughter’s eyes. She is also human. She has a takeaway from a food court and bleeds from a paper cut. It would be easier to see the characters in here simply as victims and perpetrators, good and evil. Is it all black and white? What do we do to survive?
Ser En: “She’s indeed a complex character, we’ve heard many stories of her in those interviews with Christine. There was one story where she went to jail for her friend – it made me wonder, why is she so hard on her children but so loyal to her friends?
The perspectives changed to Moi after the slap, because we wanted to observe her – did she really mean what she said when she slapped Ying? Is she really a monster?”
A still from the short film Let Me Kill My Mother First, with Wong King Wai as visual effects supervisor
Is there justice in the world?
Mei Ann: “It was really important to us that we weren’t trying to explain or absolve the abuse. Many narratives seek to understand why and how one can do that to their own child, finding reasons in their past.
“Christine knew, from her mother’s friends, that her mother’s life wasn’t easy. Hurt people hurt people. The blood image came from Christine. She reflected in another interview, “Blood is not always thicker than water.”
“We created a visual dichotomy of her reaction to the blood from cutting her children’s nails so close till they bleed, to the end when she contemplates and shows most pain with her own finger’s paper cut.
“We wanted to create a rorschach of sorts – keeping her performance specific yet ambiguous – we wanted the audience to wonder if she felt guilty, or responsible for Ying’s attempted suicide.
Producer Ser En and director Mei Ann with actors and actresses Jaime, Andre and Yann Yann on set
“We wanted to push past these story tropes to examine the complexity of justice. Does she have the capacity for regret? Can she eat her takeaway meal, and move on?
“Is there justice in the world?”