Who is The Propeller Group?
The collective creates multimedia work that combines the languages of filmmaking, advertising, politics, and history.
As soon as the film starts the angle in which the camera is shooting moves through the narrow and small road over and over again. This somehow gives me the feeling that you are the spirit that is wandering none stop almost like a lost soul. Later on that I soon discover that there is actually an ambiguous character inside which was whom who passed away. The film gives the paradox of being and out of the funeral procession taking place making it somewhat confused but exciting. The acrobatic acts starts and so I question why would they go to such lengths for the dead. The way they also seem carry them out it almost seems second nature to them. The take away from this for me was that it was a funeral procession but was carried out in a way as if they were ‘celebrating’.
This film was made in a way where grief and joy meet on the threshold of life and death. It is a poetic rumination on life and death and the stages in between. (the paradox zone whereby it makes you feel you are part of the dead whilst zooming out and your are part of the living witnessing the procession?) It also amplifies a sense of cultural interconnection, and appealing to universal foundations of myth, storytelling, and mourning. (The acrobatic and death defying acts all convey a certain mythology they believe they require to adhere and do during the funeral.) The entire film is shot in ultra-high definition video, and produced with the technical sophistication of a Hollywood film, it immerses viewers in a lush and captivating dreamlike atmosphere. (The play between darkness and light as it being shot creates a space that is very spiritual and magical.) As part of its practice, The Propeller Group has cultivated the image of an advertising agency or public relations firm, pushing their work into the broader public sphere while deliberately confusing its brand messages. (We got confused when watching, as a funeral is something to be mournful about however they flipped it over and accompanied the film happy music and almost make it seem like a celebration.)
“The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” is a short film about various funeral traditions and rites in Vietnam. While it depicts 2 distinctly different and separate funerals, the common motif shared by both rites is that death is a journey rather than an absolute end; as the narrator of the film states, “the journey continues forever”.
The creators of the film, The Propeller Group, have described the film as a “visual and musical journey through the fantastical funeral traditions and rituals of south Vietnam”.
The musical aspect is particularly prominent in the first half of the film, which features a song with lyrics where the singer mourns the loss of their loved one. The music is the only point where the personas explicitly exhibit their lamentation and loss.
Visually, there are no signs of sorrow or mourning for the death. All such scenes are merely theatrical; at one point, a man is seen standing in front of a the coffin and rubbing his eyes dramatically in a manner that resembles crying, but he is wearing a mask so it is clear that the “crying” is performative.
In contrast, the second half of the film is heavily visual, featuring professional performers doing risky feats such as eating flames, walking across broken glass, and attaching heavy objects to their eyelids with chains. The mood of the film becomes celebratory, which is unusual considering that a death has just occurred. This cements how the Vietnamese do not view death as a cause for sorrow because to them, death is part and parcel of a journey rather than an end to one, hence it should be celebrated and not lamented.
At the end of the film, rather than burning the body as is tradition in most funerals, the coffins are “sent off” in a body of water accompanied by a performing instrumental band. This is reminiscent of the way ships are sent off on voyages, with fanfare and music. Rather than incinerating their loved ones and turning them into dust, they are wishing them the best as they continue on a new voyage.
The film begins with a solemn poetry and then progresses to realistic and imaginary funerary practices. The film beckoned with relatively simple camera shots and the calm voice at the start. The scenes seemed ‘raw’ and realistic, and relevance to the cultural practices made me feel my presence in the film itself, with substantial first person’s POV camera shots, especially after the dolly shot into the transgender dancer’s body which was a transition to show ‘harsh’ death-defying stunt performances at rituals and funerals. With the change in music, there was change in my emotions and tension in watching the film as well, and I thought the film was impactful.
With regards to the plot of the film, I noticed that the people depicted in the video largely did not seem sad at the wake, procession and burial. The scenes that bring the audience going in circles through the maze-like alley lanes. They suggest to me the cycle of life, like it is continuous from life to death and that there isn’t exactly an end to one’s life. Yet, the procession and stunt performances at the funerals confuses me. Are they for the living or for the dead?
The video is a poetic rumination on life, death, and the stages in between. On further research, the film moves from solemn poetry to bombastic celebration and then on to queer, uneasy silence, capturing the superstitious spirit in part of the different cultures. The paradox regarding life and death has been highlighted in the video by The Propeller Group. There was also a scene where money is being burnt and then thrown in the air. I think there could be irony subtly mentioned about our general greed for materialistic wants (represented by money) in our living years, but these upon death only seem petty and meaningless in contrast.
The video somehow left an impact on me. The choices of the iconic visuals like the band playing through the muddy seabed, queer funeral practices to send of the dead, and the main character evolving (or transitioning?) from one person to another. As we discussed our interpretation of the film, some of us feel that it was trying to show about a man who changed into a woman. Whereas others had a perception that the video is trying to convey a story about reincarnation, which is a philosophical or religious concept about a living being starting a new life in another body or form after our physical death on earth. Yet despite the different viewpoints, I feel that the underlying similarities of both of our interpretations is that the video is talking about change, and that change is not a bad thing after all. This can be seen when the audio soundtrack morphed from a melancholic tune to a happier and upbeat one.
Taken from the brochure that was given out in the gallery, it stated that the Spirit of place, or, “genius loci”, refers to a special place often cherished by artists and folklores. It refers to the essence of a place that gives it complexity and uniqueness of identity. Landscape is a critical way we experience place, and this very film explores the space in relation to its societies and histories. This also suggests our point of view. Reflecting upon what the brochure has presented, I realized that the filmmakers showed a change every time a different location was presented. For example, how the main place of the “change” occurring for the protagonist occurred in the dark room set up where the funeral musicians were playing for him. This was where the room felt like a representation of “hell” to me as close ups of the funeral musicians and fire was present. The setting of the film, which is most probably in Vietnam, showed the diversity of the country. Having snippets of Christian and Buddhist influences and their way of celebrating the passing of a loved one. Overall, this film showed me new perspectives of death and change, while also revealing assortment of cultures in the melting pot of Vietnam.