Burmese Reviews Media Partners Reviews Taiwan International Documentary Festival

Documentary Review: Song of Souls (2023) by Sai Naw Kham

Song of Souls Review Asian Movie Pulse
The soul has left the body and all is turmoil

is close to passing. A highly venerated singer in her youth, her songs attracted large crowds and drove young men to obsession. But years of political turmoil has taken its toll not just on her but on the soul of the people of Shan State, Myanmar's largest province; once built on the shoulders of ancient folklore and mythologies Shan State has become lost in Samsara, fractured by turmoil and bloodshed. Impermanence flows through ‘' much like the trickling of a river, as painful as the new meanings found amongst Nan Mya Han's songs; and yet, the lives trapped within this realm are in stasis, clinging on to traditions, stories, and a sense of self doomed to fade into oblivion as its children either leave of their own accord or become drafted into the Shan State Army. 's film, a mournful lament to the rot motherhood faces in the state and the country at large, captures the disembodied essence of those doomed to suffer with the nonchalance of a fleeting conversation.

Song of Souls is screening at Taiwan International Documentary Film Festival

To sum up any sense of narrative in Kham's visual poem is to reduce it to the confines of the cinematic frame. In lieu of convention, he drifts in and out of focus – out of lucidity, between this world and whatever lies beyond – fleeting from one interaction to the next, absorbing lamentations of pain and suffering of which has become the norm. Existence is suffering, but these interactions of opioid addiction, of suicide, of one tattooist's encounter with a solider, present themselves as naturally as birth, death, and rebirth. As the film progresses, it becomes abundantly clear the toll of existing within such violence has been monumental; amidst scenes of a well-respected monk's funeral, where death is celebrated as much as life, Kham's focus dwells on the vacant numbness of which inhabits those with whom he spends time. There is no shock or awe amidst such horror, just the painful realisation that, for these people, death cannot come soon enough.

But it is not just the souls of Myanmar's inhabitants forced to face dreamless nights: as a man reads tales from parchments whose scripts have faded and disintegrated over time, with the promises of cultivation and guardianship fading with each passing day, the country itself lies in a ruinous state of neglect, its cultural and spiritual lifeblood draining in the wake of a violent and authoritarian military rule. They are merely a spoken presence in the film, an all-too real boogeyman haunting their memories and manifesting in the tales Kham bears witness to, yet their presence is felt throughout the film's short runtime. And yet, Kham presents a slither of hope: a monk stands at the confluence of two diverging paths; a cow is sent out in search of her calf; and footage of a baby being born is spliced into the film during the tail end of the monk's funeral. As steeped in symbolism as these images are, they are also indicative of a light in the dark for Myanmar.

At the film's core, however, is Nan Mya Han who grounds the film in its bleak yet no-less beautiful depiction of a country ripped from its connection to the natural and spiritual worlds. Lost and abandoned by a son she has not spoken to in years – a saddening reflection on Myanmar's diminishing place in the world's collective conscience – she shows off photographs of better times, deep in longing, reminiscing on the days when her music entertained. Now, singing throughout the film, her songs take on a whole new meaning, providing a haunting soundtrack in an already ethereal trip. These songs offer sobering reflections, and though Han has not performed with a troupe for over two decades, neither the music nor her singing prowess have left her. It is only when asked to sing one of her love songs but dedicating it to her son does her voice give way.

Kham's film is a visual spectacle, one that boasts breathtaking yet mystical scenes from his beloved homeland. Behind the camera, fills their lens with intrigue and a sense of longing. As awe-inspiring as these sequences are, it is the intimacy and empathy with which they capture the film's subjects where the film's mastery leaves its mark. Kham's editing feels like the piecing together of an out-of-body experience and a disconnect of the spiritual from the physical, as if wandering for all eternity lost from itself. And yet, the film never wants for cohesion – its flow is free of restrictions or limitations and makes every scene count as every breath.

‘Song of Souls', if anything else, is a monolith of spiritual decay, painting a hallucinogenic nightmare of a peoples' slow death at the hand of whatever the military desires. Yet its eloquence radiates with a still breath and its composure one of perseverance and utmost profundity. For all the horrors Kham's subjects unveil to him and the dislocating tone he marries his images with his evasion of a bleak finale is tantamount to the plight of his fellow people; no matter the suffering endured, or the distress absorbed over years of brutality, there is the promise of what lies beyond Samsara.

About the author

JC Cansdale-Cook

A series of (fortunate) events led this writer-of-sorts to Battle Royale and he's never looked back since. A lover of Japanese cinema in all its guises, JC has developed a fondness for emerging, underrepresented cinemas as well as a growing love affair with the cinema of Taiwan. He's also a sucker for cinematography.

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