Swing
Queer issues in Singapore
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A Film By Hong Sang-soo

An experimental ficlet by Daryl Qilin Yam.

 
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Daryl Qilin Yam’s story about two lovers in Seoul plays out twice, with each instance carrying its own emotions, interactions, and thoughts. Inspired by his time in the Seoul suburbs, Daryl lovingly pens the details into Caleb and Hongsik’s romance.


Caleb and Hongsik walked out of a private screening of Right Now, Wrong Then, a film by Hong Sang-soo. It was Caleb’s first time, watching a film of the director’s. But Hongsik had never heard of the name before that evening.

The screening took place at a house in Seongbuk-dong, a neighbourhood in the northern part of Seoul. It was the top-most unit of the entire hill, owned by a friend of a friend of a friend. It had, no doubt, an incredible view of the entire neighbourhood. Eleven other houses, near-identical to one another, made up the rest of the terraced enclave.

“He’s like, the Korean Woody Allen,” Caleb had said to Hongsik, while on the bus to Seongbuk-dong. “The Asian Lars Von Trier.”

Hongsik shrugged; he shook his head. “I don’t know who they are,” he said. “I’m not very good with films.”

“But he’s famous,” said Caleb. “Isn’t he? You should know him,” he insisted: “Hong Sang-soo.”

Hongsik shrugged again. “I’m sure I’ll know him, after tonight.”

Caleb now looked at Hongsik, re-tying his boot laces by the side of the road. “So what do you think?” he asked.

“Of the film?”

“Of course,” said Caleb, “the film.”

Hongsik paused. Caleb waited.

“Ah, was what I thought… Ahh okay. Like, I see,” he said. “So that’s the way it is.”

Caleb felt amused. “What is?” he asked. Hongsik pursed his lips.

“I’m not sure,” he eventually said. “Let me finish this first.”

Caleb nodded. He looked around. Everything had gleamed white and stark, under the bright wash of the afternoon; now the houses appeared paler somehow, and softer too, under the expanse of the encroaching dusk.

“Let’s go home?” his lover said, when he was finally done with his boots.

Caleb nodded again. “Let’s go home,” he said. Already he was enamoured, by the small lights in particular, installed in neat rows along the sides of the houses. They helped to lead their way down the hill.

The moon was already above them, against a muted, blue sky; day and night still mingled, in a strange and quiet harmony. It was hard, in a way, to tell anything apart.

Hongsik told Caleb to come over, to look at what he just found: a quiz on Buzzfeed, according to his browser. Order An Expensive Meal, it said, And We’ll Tell You The Age of Your Soul.

Caleb laughed — it was too absurd. “Let’s do this,” he said anyway.

Hongsik wrapped his arms around Caleb’s waist. “Oh,” he said. “What is ‘cognac’?”

“Never had it,” said Caleb, considering his options. “Martini? Ginger beer? Wine?”

Hongsik pressed his face into Caleb’s back. “You choose.”

Caleb smiled. “Okay.”

His final selections were: elderberry lemonade; potato soup with fresh black truffles; matsutake mushroom rice; pistachio mousse cake; sorbet. “I’m going to get a stomachache,” he said, and Hongsik laughed — he laughed into his back, and Caleb couldn’t help himself. He laughed too.

Your soul is 21, said Buzzfeed. You’re still figuring out what you like and what you don’t. You’re learning to say “yes” to the things that help you grow, and “no” to the things that won’t.

How old are you again?” Caleb asked Hongsik. Korean age 30, came his answer.

Dinner that night was salad and spaghetti, and a glass of diet coke.

They made love that evening, before they went to bed. They turned the shower on and did it there, under the pounding streams of water. After Caleb came he looked at Hongsik, asking him how he’d like to finish. Hongsik just kept on smiling, shaking his head, and said it was okay. It was fine.

Caleb lay in bed beside his lover, staring at his sleeping frame. He wondered how they had ended up like this: so satisfied, in a way, with how things turned out. He reached out a hand, and squeezed Hongsik’s shoulder.

Caleb loved the sound the bed made, when Hongsik turned his body over: it might have been a large wave, crashing against a rocky cliff. It might have been the sound of a door opening, or closing.

Hongsik didn’t open his eyes, but he did smile. He was always smiling.

“Hey,” said Caleb.

“Hmm?”

“You haven’t told me what you thought of the movie.”

"Oh. Hmm.”

Caleb waited in silence. He waited for Hongsik to say something. Instead Hongsik made a final turn, so that they now faced each other directly. He pressed their foreheads together, rubbing the tips of their noses.

Okay, said Caleb to himself. Alright. He pressed his mouth against his lover’s and went to sleep, contented sleep. He smelt moisturiser, and toothpaste, and that maltiness he always found in the corner of Hongsik’s lips.


 

Caleb and Hongsik walked out of a private screening of Right Now, Wrong Then, a film by Hong Sang-soo. It was Caleb’s first time, watching a film of the director’s. But Hongsik had never heard of the name before that evening.

“So what do you think?” Caleb asked, after they were done saying bye.

“Of the film?”

“Of course,” said Caleb, “the film.”

Hongsik had to pause.

“Ahh, was what I thought… Ahh, okay. Like, I see,” he said. “So that’s the way it is.”

Caleb bit his lip; he frowned. “What is?” he eventually asked. And Hongsik, preoccupied by the task of tying his boot laces, paused and looked up at him instead.

“What’s going on with you?” he asked in return. Caleb blinked back, unsure of what to say.

“I thought it was so sad,” he said, all of a sudden. It prompted a smile on Hongsik’s face. Caleb watched as Hongsik reached over, clasping a hand over his exposed left ankle.

Hongsik asked him why he had to think that way. Caleb elaborated.

“The director’s saying, I think, that our only salvation can lie in stories… Stories are powerful because we get to tell and retell them, in any way we wish. But that’s not real life, isn’t it,” he said to his lover. “Real life is not a movie at all.”

Hongsik kept quiet, nearly done with his boots. He shook his head, before letting out a chuckle. “I knew you would say that,” he said.

“Did you?”

Hongsik chuckled again. He got to his feet. “‘Salvation’ is a big word,” he said. “But some stories are powerful, sure.”

Caleb rolled his eyes. “They are,” he said, refusing to back down. “They really are, aren’t they.”

Hongsik didn’t laugh, this time, though he did maintain his smile. He then quickly looked over his shoulder. “No one’s around,” he said to Caleb. “Wanna hold hands?”

Caleb looked behind him: the house they just came from was a fair distance away, though he could barely tell it apart anymore, not from the rest of the other houses. The one main road was like a single black stripe, leading up to nowhere. Nobody else indeed was around.

Caleb turned back to Hongsik. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s hold hands.”

They reached a fork in the road. Hongsik, who had earlier meant to turn left, turned right instead, leading them down a wider, steeper path. Various mansions were stacked together along one side, while an enclosure of trees arose from the other, starting from some distance below.

Soon they came to a stop before a wooden gate, through which Caleb could see there was a temple.

“Gilsangsa,” said Hongsik, reading from a brochure he’d taken. “Huh.”

“You know it?” asked Caleb. Hongsik shrugged.

“My mother mentioned it once,” he said. “She’d been here before.”

They stepped further in. The main temple had its shutters fully drawn, the paper panels glowing amber under the creeping night. It seemed to be their main source of light, there in the vast grounds of the temple; it radiated a warmth that felt rarer in these parts.

“It’s so quiet,” said Caleb.

“We’re the only ones here,” said Hongsik.

Together, they wandered. Hongsik led Caleb down another path, round the side of the main temple. Soon they found themselves in the midst of the enclosure they had earlier seen, coming down the side of the hill: from a wooden bridge they noticed that it was filled with rocks, and tall, thin pines. A passing breeze rustled their leaves, and Caleb quickly closed his eyes, filled with the sense of being whispered to.

“Gilsangsa used to be a restaurant,” said Hongsik.

“Oh really?”

He nodded. “This place was used very differently.”

Caleb looked around. He asked Hongsik what had changed. Hongsik merely shrugged again.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Everything? Nothing? Something.”

The two of them remained on the bridge, choosing to remain silent. They really were the only ones here. A second wind picked up around them.

“I don’t want to leave,” said Hongsik. He then held up the brochure. “Temple stay? Tonight?”

Caleb rolled his eyes, for the second time that evening. “You do it yourself,” he said. And then Hongsik laughed, he really did — he laughed in a way everyone, really, anyone could hear. It rang all around them both.

For dinner they decided on an Italian restaurant. It was opposite the only convenience store, down at the main intersection of Seongbuk-dong.

They got a seat beside the windows, which misted up a little. Through the windows they could see the roads and the occasional car, driving up the hills from which they just came. Caleb’s eyes were following the taillights of one such vehicle when Hongsik let out an exclamation.

“What?” said Caleb. “What happened?” Hongsik was on his phone.

“Have you seen this?” he said, showing it to him. It was a Buzzfeed quiz, posted on his feed: Order An Expensive Meal And We’ll Tell You The Age Of Your Soul. It was absurd.

“You’re gonna do it?”

“Yeah,” said Hongsik.

Caleb looked away. He continued staring out of the window, though the car was no longer anywhere to be seen.

At some point a song had played, from the speakers installed at the corners of the restaurant. He heard it because of the French horn, producing a melody both soft and clear; it pierced through the haze of conversation, of silverware against the chinaware, of waiters shuffling between diners… Then was then, went the song — and now is now…

Hongsik made another sound; he seemed disappointed, almost, by the result he got from the quiz. It wasn’t anything Caleb had to know.


Daryl Qilin Yam is a writer of prose and poetry, born and based in Singapore. Yam is also an arts organiser and administrator at the literary charity Sing Lit Station. His first novel, Kappa Quartet (Singapore: Epigram Books, 2016), was longlisted for the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize, and has been released in Singapore and in the U.K. He is presently working on his second novel with support from the National Arts Council.