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15 Oct

Nostalgia for the Past in Eric Khoo’s My Magic and Lem’s Solaris: Dr Chung Chin-Yi

Nostalgia for the Past in Eric Khoo’s My Magic and Lem’s Solaris

Dr Chung Chin-Yi

National University of Singapore

Abstract

Eric Khoo’s My Magic is about a drunkard father’s nostalgia for the past in the form of his dead wife whom he makes phone calls to throughout the film, because she was tricked into trafficking drugs by evil people at a young age she was hanged and leaves him alone with their son. He plunges into grief and abandon, drowning his days in sorrow and drink and turning into a drunkard. The film is a loving tribute to the memory of his wife and the days they shared before he turned into a drunkard because she was hanged after being tricked into trafficking drugs. The exploitation of the Indian father by the pub owner and manager to perform magic tricks to the point of death shows class oppression and brutality in Singapore and how the capitalists exploit the working class for their entertainment while giving them very little economic returns.

Lem’s Solaris reads like the perfect precursor to Baudrillard’s theories on simulation in which the copy or image of the original has effaced the original and there is no longer any possibility of distinguishing between the copy and the original. Hence the hyperreal Rheya is what television is to Baudrillard- an image which has replaced and monopolized the real. The copy or hyperreal Rheya as an image has displaced the original Rheya and dominated Kevin’s consciousness so he can no longer distinguish between the original and the copy and indeed Kevin falls more deeply for the copy than the original. This also reflects the earlier thesis that we conquer civilisations to find mirrors of ourselves only to become more obsessed with the simulations of ourselves than original man.Hence the image or copy is more compelling and grips and exercises more control over us than the original and we are in the realm of Baudrillard’s hyperreal where we can no longer distinguish between image and object or original and simulation. Hence this is what happens when youth are addicted to the internet and videogames- the simulation has replaced reality and we are firmly in the grip of the hyperreal.       

Keywords: Past, Present, Alcoholism, Simulacra, Depression

Eric Khoo’s My Magic is about a drunkard father’s nostalgia for the past in the form of his dead wife whom he makes phone calls to throughout the film, because she was tricked into trafficking drugs by evil people at a young age she was hanged and leaves him alone with their son. He plunges into grief and abandon, drowning his days in sorrow and drink and turning into a drunkard. The film is a loving tribute to the memory of his wife and the days they shared before he turned into a drunkard because she was hanged after being tricked into trafficking drugs.

The sacrifice that the Indian father makes for his son is deeply moving. While drowning himself in drink and sorrow and being accused by his son of being useless and a burden to him in the initial stages of the film, the Indian father eventually sacrifices his life for him by performing magic shows that exert a physical strain on his body to the point of death. Swallowing fire, piercing himself, walking on glass, dragging heavy objects, swallowing glass, the Indian father does this all to earn money to give his son a future after being heavily dependent on him by drowning himself in drink and sorrow and genuinely being very useless to his son for many years so his son has to do homework for his classmates and earn money to support himself.

The film is a comment on the lower working class and how people who are not educated like the Indian father cannot escape their trap of poverty and have to turn to working in lowly paid jobs at the bar in order to make a living while being trapped in the cycle of alcoholism because he cannot get over his wife’s hanging which was for a crime she was tricked into.

While the Indian father is initially very useless to the son in  being very dependent on him and being a vile presence in the house by vomiting all over the place when he returns from his nightly boozing sessions, it is his resolve to escape the trap of low income by returning to performing magic at the pub at which he works, which he will pay for with his life as the sadistic boss of the pub will eventually torture him to death for a sum of money and which the pub manager attempts to steal from him, resulting in him blowing fire on his face to disfigure him after which he has to flee his house on the run from authorities.

The film is thus about the Indian father’s inability to escape the past by escaping into a downward spiral of alcoholism and low income which he cannot escape because he is not educated. The film is about the trap of being from a low income family in Singapore without education, and the downward spiral of poverty this leads to. The Indian father is unable to escape his poverty without an education, which the son resolves to undertake as he does not want to end up like his alcoholic and useless father.

The exploitation of the Indian father by the pub owner and manager to perform magic tricks to the point of death shows class oppression and brutality in Singapore how the capitalists exploit the working class for their entertainment while giving them very little economic returns. Poverty can only thus be escaped by education, however the film ends with a glimmer of hope that the son will be able to recover an education for himself with the money his father has sacrificed his life for. The film is thus a moving commentary on class oppression and the trap of poverty that those who are lowly educated face in Singapore.

Singapore prides itself on being a meritocratic society. Yet the underside of its economic success is class oppression and exploitation for those who are not well educated like the Indian father and cannot escape the savage trap of poverty and alcoholism. The film thus comments that privilege begets privilege in this so called meritocracy and poverty is a vicious cycle and trap for low income families. The Indian father cannot escape his alcoholism and poverty because of his lack of education.

The novel Solaris reads like the perfect precursor to Baudrillard’s theories on simulation in which the copy or image of the original has effaced the original and there is no longer any possibility of distinguishing between the copy and the original. In the case of Solaris, Kevin is visited by his beautiful ex-wife Rheya only it is an alien reproduction of her from the cosmic ocean Solaris sent as an instrument of interrogation to probe Kevin’s conscience. Kevin though fearing this alien simulacra of Rheya initially begins to fall for the copy Rheya and there is no longer any ability on his part to distinguish between the original Rheya and the copies that the ocean Solaris sends him in order to probe his conscience and consciousness.

 What begins as a feared encounter between Kevin and an alien Other becomes a means of revisiting an old love whose suicide he had caused through neglect and whom he eventually falls more for. It could be said that the copies of Rheya that the ocean Solaris sends him hold more power over him than the original Rheya whom he had neglected and caused to take her life in his younger days.

We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything, for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontier of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous: we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy contact. This is another lie. We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us, but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that what is revealed to us- that part of reality which we would rather pass into silence- then we don’t like it anymore. (Lem, 1961: 72)

In seeking out alien Others thus, what we wish to see is a reflection of Man which we can appropriate for ourselves, anthropomorphizing other galaxies in terms relative to Earth, but what we are sometimes confronted with is something that not merely mirrors but disturbs us about ourselves in revealing the ugly areas of our own nature, as Solaris projects Rheya as a memory from his past that he would rather conceal, a wife whose suicide he caused through neglect. Yet while confronted with the darkness of his past Kevin also manages to overcome this darkness and transcend it into love for this alien Other that is a projection from his memory, indeed he eventually loves the alien Rheya more than the original Rheya and is forced by his conscience to deal with the ugliness within himself that had driven the original Rheya to suicide. Baudrillard’s thesis that the image or the copy has effaced the real applies here, indeed the copy comes across as more real and intoxicating than the original.

In the Ecstasy of Communication, Baudrillard once again reminds us that with the advent of television, as in hyperreality, the subject-object distinction collapses and we are immersed in its reality – “television becomes a control screen” (13). He uses the metaphor of driving to relate our relation to television- no longer controllers of a device, we are now subjected to its control, we become a “computer at the wheel”, not a “drunken demiurge of power” (13). He argues that television creates a space of hyperreality that overtakes reality and hence displaces metaphysics. Our subjectivities are dissolved- we are no longer ‘subjects of interiority” (13) in control of television but subjected to the controls of multiple network satellites. Television becomes an intrusive actor in our domestic space- that overtakes our lives from work, consumption, play, social relations and leisure.

Baudrillard further explains that the hyperreal displaces the real and renders it useless. Social relationships within the home are destroyed. Reality is ‘minituarized’- television replaces our desire for human relationships or ideals and renders organic and real bodies and events superfluous (Ecstasy 14). The obscene fascinates us, and replaces the organic with the machinic. In this regard, advertising also becomes an omnipresent reality – materializes its ‘obscenity’- monopolizes public life with its exhibition. This is also precisely what television shows are: Simulations and the triumph of the hyperreal and mediated reality. Reality television demonstrates Baudrillard’s thesis that the obscene lies in the fact that there is ‘nothing to see’ and that the spectator, rather than desiring difference from others, desires sameness with the subjects that we witness on television. As Baudrillard notes in Ecstasy of Communication, all that matters now is to resemble oneself, to find oneself everywhere, multiplied but loyal to one’s formula. It is the universe of the fractal subject, dreaming of a formula to reproduce himself to infinity (Ecstasy of Communication 41). Consequently, television incarnates our desire for sameness and our fascination with the obscenity or pornography of objective reality. It is the obscenity of the hidden that is suddenly overexposed and visible. In this dissolution of the exterior and the interior, Baudrillard likens the contemporary subject to the schizophrenic – who annot distinguish between inner and outer and is subject to all the vagaries of the external world (Ecstasy of Communication 14).

The subject’s sense of individuality and distinction from external objects is dissolved. He/she becomes obscene, as is the world. The subject is total prey of hyperreality, a pure screen, a switching center for all networks of influence. For Baudrillard, both the body and the ‘self’ (both conform to images) can be divided and commodified, as governed by the capitalist/advertising code (Ecstasy 42). To see the ‘self’ as a technology possessed by the mediascape, as Baudrillard does, is to become schizophrenic. Baudrillard’s subject is therefore, completely de-centred and dominated by the image. Kevin is dominated by the image of Rheya so in Tarkovsky’s film version of Lem’s novel Kevin loses sleep and weight and becomes obsessed by Rheya to the point of deteriorating physical and mental health. It no longer matters to him that she is not the original Rheya because he craves the immortal and replaceable simulacra and copies of Rheya that Solaris sends him because they cannot die as a consequence of his actions like the original Rheya did.

Hence the hyperreal Rheya is what television is to Baudrillard- an image which has replaced and monopolized the real. The copy or hyperreal Rheya as an image has displaced the original Rheya and dominated Kevin’s consciousness so he can no longer distinguish between the original and the copy and indeed Kevin falls more deeply for the copy than the original. This also reflects the earlier thesis that we conquer civilisations to find mirrors of ourselves only to become more obsessed with the simulations of ourselves than original man.Hence the image or copy is more compelling and grips and exercises more control over us than the original and we are in the realm of Baudrillard’s hyperreal where we can no longer distinguish between image and object or original and simulation. Hence this is what happens when youth are addicted to the internet and videogames- the simulation has replaced reality and we are firmly in the grip of the hyperreal.

Lem’s novel while being a speculative love story thus functions as a foreboding of Baudrillard’s theories of hyperreality and simulation in which the copy or image becomes more compelling and real than the original. In today’s virtual society where facebook and twitter are rapidly replacing solid and tangible relationships, this has become very much a reality of modern society- the hyperreal has replaced the real. Kevin’s romance with Rheya is thus not merely a speculative romance with an alien Other but a precursor of the current immersion in the world of the hyperreal which has replaced and indeed effaced objective reality.

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. The Ecstasy of Communication. Semiotext, New York, 1988.

Khoo, Eric. My Magic. Zhao Wei Films, 2008.

Lem, Stanislaw. Solaris. Faber and Faber. New York, 1961.

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