“The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music”
A film by The Propellor Group, a collective based in Ho Chi Minh City and founded in 2006 by Phunam, Matt Lucero, and Tuan Nguyen.
Wong King Lam
The beginning of the film leads us, the viewer, through a series of corridors while the song “Mot Coi Di Ve” (A Place for Leaving and Returning) is played in the background. This corridor scene ends with an androgynous character spurting out what appears to be blood.
It then transitions to the switching between the scenes of a wake and a funeral procession. This displays the fusion of cultures in Thailand. During the wake, performances are held which range from fire breathing to balancing motorcycles and snake eating. The procession has performers dancing around the coffin followed by a band that played music as the coffin was brought to the burial site.
The last few scenes of the film focused on the burial in the forest and the rebirth of the androgynous character.
The film focuses on death and reincarnation, which is evident through the focus on the funeral process and many other small touches. The film begins with the death of an androgynous character and documents his/her funeral. The themes of death and reincarnation are further reinforced with the song choice “Mot Coi Di Ve” which in English is called A Place for Leaving and Returning. It indicates that one will leave their life behind and then return to life in the future.
The scenes of different performances for the dead during the wake and procession alludes to the title “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music” in which those who are alive need the light and happy performances while the dead cannot see these performances. The music for the dead likely means the performances to honor the dead. This could also state that these performances and songs are more for the living to mourn the dead, rather than for the dead themselves.
The transition from urban to rural locations in the film could mean a movement from something dead to something alive. Ending the film in a forest could also suggest reincarnation, since forests have a cycle in which plants that die become fertiliser for new plants. The usage of an androgynous character could simply mean that the film is trying to generalise that everyone will die and it does not matter who you are. Overall, the themes of death and reincarnation are overlaid with the documentation of traditional funeral ceremonies
The footages of this film highly promote and showcase the rich culture that Vietnam possesses in their very state. Most of them depict rituals being carried out during funerary practices and wakes in the most genuine or perhaps, raw perception with close-up shots of the Viets performing extremely dangerous fire stunts and stunts that involve the civilians to pierce sharp objects into flesh. Such scenes are not common on national television and hence, the honest display of scenes that contain such risks is really appreciated.
Another aspect of the film that is refreshing as well would be the main Vietnamese background song which draws the audience, subtly hinting them that there is a tale to tell in the rest few minutes of the film.
This film is about both the dead and the living. Shown in the gallery, it follows several funeral processions led by brass musicians and a cast of surreal characters including spiritual mediums, professional criers and street performers that turn the mourning ceremonies into euphoric rites of passage. This would probably mean that even after dying, music is still needed to accompany individuals to their route to death, to another world. After all, the dead is unable to appreciate visual performances whilst the living can. The living is still able to enjoy and appreciate lights and live performances right in front of their eyes. Thus, this explains the title of the film, “The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music”.
The film is centred around this ambiguous main character who went through providing live fire stunts to the Vietnamese audience, to having her picture on an obituary photo of a funeral and lastly to when she was lying calmly on a boat in a place which seems to be a forest or a mangrove swamp. This signifies the circle of life, transitioning from living in this world, to death and reincarnation to another living life. (since the forest is a symbol of life with ever growing species of wildlife). The background song, “Mot Coi Di Ve” echoes the general idea as well as seen from its lyrics, “For many years I have wandered, going around in circles, growing weary on my shoulders the sun and the moon. Lighting a lifetime, a place to leave from and return to”.
The film begins as if you’re a spirit floating through the corridors of Vietnam, looking for someone of something. Your existence does not bother the locals. The scene is then accompanied by a strange Vietnamese song then plays as if its telling a sad tale.
The music and scene transits to a group of performers, a man does a dramatic cry while the others battle each other till they bleed. The offerings, incense and wooden coffin suggest a funeral. The rest of the film moves from a band of musicians, dangerous fire stunts and body piercing to a young boy playing around in the forest with a man in a skull mask.
The change in scene looks as if we are switching from the human world to the land of the dead. The story then ends, revealing the death of the main protagonist.
The film presents the many different funeral rituals in Vietnam. They play around with the beliefs Vietnamese have when it comes to death. The grand performances, sad dramatic narration and the name of the film “The living need light, the dead need music” shows that Vietnamese believes strongly in the afterlife.
In many cultures, light is associated to the living while the dead, darkness. Hence the serious yet comical fire dancers, death threatening acts, the elaborate acting and setup felt like it was more for living to mourn the dead. The ritual then ends with sad singing or the marching band serenading into the sea where they send the dead away. Music is the only medium for the living to guide their love ones into the afterlife.
Throughout the film, the scene changes from bright theatrical performances to a surreal scene of a young boy and a man with a skull mask. We were transitioning from the living world to the dead. The man in the mask representing death while the young boy represents our main protagonist. The main protagonist, who looked happier while dressing up as a woman executing dangerous fire acts. She is surrounded by death but she does not fear it, as she believes in reincarnation.
Although the film centres around the notion of death, I did not feel I was watching the usual ceremonial rites conducted at a funeral. This could be due to the upbeat music that plays throughout the film, as well as the fact that the atmosphere seemed to be one of celebration. An observation I made was that throughout the film, no one wept or looked solemn. From the elaborate dance routines to the painful acrobatic acts performed, this suggests that funeral traditions and rituals conducted in South Vietnam are not intended to mourn over the loss of a beloved. Rather, it is to celebrate the life lived by the deceased, a seeming rite of passage that ensures the safety of the dead when sent into the afterlife. I felt this was also further emphasized by the moving band, who accompanied the funeral procession till the very end, all the while playing upbeat music – as if they were serenading the deceased as they went through the funeral rites.
Another observation I made was that the various acrobatic acts performed by the troupes incorporated pain in their routines – swallowing fire, eating a sword, stepping on glass while carrying someone, balancing a motorcycle on their head et cetera. However, this was all performed with a straight face, as if they were accustomed to such routines to the extent where these rich, lively performances seem to hold no meaning for them. This was questionable to me, as it conflicted with the earlier notion I had of the funeral rites being celebratory. Moreover, death is omnipresent throughout the film, and is most pronounced towards the end when the cattle are killed, and when the image of the cow’s skull appears. This seems to be the only period in the film where a more sombre music is played, and the lighting is dark. The fact that the camera follows the cow skull in the dark lighting also produces a prominent – almost ghostlike – image of the cow skull due to the juxtaposition between the white of the skull and the dark background. These types of shots are also used in the beginning of the film, where the camera seemed to float through walkways and alleys – as if it were drawing me into the film and taking me with them through the entire ceremonial rite. The appearance of the androgynous character in the film also confused me, as he/she played several roles such as the narrator, the cow skull, the fire breather and dancer.
Nonetheless, the film ends with a line suggesting that death is not the end, and the dead will live on – “The sun shines on my shoulders, the river flows on” – reinforcing the notion that funerals were meant to celebrate instead of mourn the dead. The upbeat music played by the band is also re-introduced, and the film ends on a positive note.
It was only after discussion with my group members that I realised there were in fact two funeral processions occurring – one actual funeral, and one that was re-enacted. This was meant to establish the film in an abstract, metaphorical setting – “a rumination on death and the lives that pay homage to it”. Indeed, the cinematography used throughout the film seemed to bring the viewer in and out of the various scenes. For example, the unbalanced camera shots that wind through alleys in the beginning of the film gave off the sense that there was no end to the walkways, and induced a feeling of being guided through – almost as if the viewer were floating through the scene like a spirit. However, this is cut by various close up and medium shots of the funeral processions and performances, disrupting the illusion of the viewer being within the scene. This then establishes a sort of paradox between the real and imaginary world. In doing so, the artists hoped to show that “by focusing on transitional spaces in the landscape as well as ambiguous characters, it would suggests that realities and traditions can be just as fluid or fabricated as myth and superstition”. In my opinion, I feel they were successful in this aspect as I did not realise there were two funeral processions occurring. By interspersing the raw footages of the procession between the re-enacted performances, this allowed the viewer to move through the scenes seamlessly, no matter how different the scene was compared to the previous or following scene. On the work, the artists’ state that “disorder is created in their projects, whereby they hope disorder in particular instances can become another sense of order to an audience that may be afraid of change or unable to accept other possible ways of engaging with current social structures”. This is in line with their intention of creating a poetic rumination on the notion of death, and the ways the living honour the dead, where the lively performances and acrobatic acts act as the disorder the audience may view as the ‘order’ required to be performed for the funeral procession to occur. The androgynous character in the film also aids in this process by appearing as different characters – confusing the audience with not only his/her gender, but also his/her role in the rituals. He/She also breaks the fourth wall in the film by acting as the narrator, speaking to the audience directly before returning to fill the role of another character – adding to the sense of disorder.
There is also a certain irony in how the funeral ritual is carried out, where the sombre atmosphere that usually accompanies death is not profoundly evident in comparison to the lively, celebratory method of procession – of which the acrobats performing dangerous acts seem to be risking their lives for someone already dead.