Death of an old classmate

A few days ago, I noticed a Facebook status of an ex-secondary school classmate.

He wrote (in Chinese):
'Missing a good friend, Yan Chee Seong'

I suddenly realized that it's exactly been ten years since a classmate of mine died in a horrendous car accident when I was in Form 5. That was my last year in secondary school. It was just a month before SPM (to non-Malaysian readers: that's the final government exams we had to take to finish secondary school).

For some people, ten years can feel like yesterday, but for me, more and more, time is turning into something more languid, even ten months ago felt like years, thus ten years felt like an entire lifetime ago. Yet I remembered some details.



It was evening when I received a phone call from my good buddy Wai Kong, telling me about the accident. I was incredulous, disbelieving, when you were 17, you thought you were invincible, with an infinity amount of decades stretched out before you.

"How could this be possible?" I yelled in anger. I never understood why I was angry then, but thinking of it again, perhaps I was angry at the sudden reminder of mortality, or human frailty.

"He was speeding, and then he crashed onto the divider."

It was a simple explanation. Wai Kong then added that a female classmate of ours was crying hysterically, his death had hit her hard.

Since when did she ever care that much about him? I thought bitterly, spitefully. But I said nothing.

For the next few days, I was left in a daze. My parents had gone off to Singapore. Instead of sadness, I was more consumed by anger. I was angry that I had to deal with this alone. Angry that this happened.

Wai Kong came over and drove us around. We went to shopping mall, we went to see a movie called BULLETS OF LOVE, starring Leon Lai and the Japanese actress Asako Seto, we passed by the accident site, we went to have meals.

"I felt as if a person had just disappeared." Wai Kong said. "I cannot even imagine what the last few seconds of his life were like."

His body was placed in a hall for two days before his funeral. Those who went told me that his skull was misshapen after the crash, but it was repaired by the time of the funeral. Religious complications prevented me from attending the funeral. I cannot remember what the reason was, perhaps it had something to do with me being in a Buddhist praying ceremony a few days earlier before his death. Or visiting a hospital before. I cannot remember what it was, but I was outraged. Typing the words 'religious complications' made me shake my head. But sometimes, things like that can be true.

A few years later, when a very dear family friend of ours passed away after a long fight with brain cancer, Wai Kong, who adored her, was unable to attend the funeral because he had just visited his grandmother in the hospital. Too much yin. One could transfer to another.

Maybe I'm writing all these now, to try to lessen the guilt I had back then, for not attending his funeral.

I cannot say that I was very close to the deceased. But we were in the same class together for 4 years. We chat sometimes, about the latest TVB serials we had just seen.

If you see a person almost on a daily basis, it's almost hard not to get affected by his death.

I remember him. Bespectacled, really plump, a year older than most of us (he attended something called the Remove Class for a year before he started Form 1). He will always be 18, while time passes us by.

Perhaps that opened a floodgate. I finished secondary school and swiftly moved to college. I fell into depression. There were constant thoughts of mortality, of death, of the afterlife, of the meaning of life, of reincarnation, of memories.

There was a girl I used to have a crush on, I called her to tell me of my sorrow, of the melancholic thoughts that had been plaguing me.

"You're too young to be thinking of such things!" She exclaimed.

Yes, I wondered why either.

8 years after his death, I would write the screenplay of EXHALATION which more or less chronicled how I felt during the whole situation. The loneliness of grieving, the desperation for contact, and the overwhelming desire to find meaning in what had happened. Of course, EXHALATION was more dramatized, with elements of unrequited love thrown in, with myself being replaced by Kiki Sugino. With Wai Kong being replaced by Tomoe Shinohara. Half of the dialogue in the film were things we said to each other in the car, ten years ago. Although the plot of the film veered off to somewhere less... autobiographical.

Shooting EXHALATION then was a slightly surreal experience, to hear Tomoe utter Wai Kong's words, albeit in Japanese. To see Kiki embody the bitter anger I felt then, albeit in Japanese too.

Last December when I was interviewed at the Dubai International Film Festival for the world premiere of EXHALATION. A reporter asked whether making the film had a therapeutic effect on me.

"I guess." I answered, even though I wasn't that sure of my answer. In the ten years since my classmate's passing, I was forced to deal with a number of losses: dear family friends whom I've known since my childhood, since my teens, relatives like my aunt's husband, like my uncle, the mother of a dear friend, acquaintances and the like. My grandmother's been fading away from me in these few years due to the ravages of Alzheimer's, she doesn't really recognize me any more. I felt that I've lost her too, or maybe I grieved the fact that she had already lost her memories of me.

I hate it when people tell me that life sucks. (especially when it came from the mouths of beautiful women lamenting over boy problems)

Life is just what it is. So is death.

Maybe the therapeutic effect I felt was possibly having this comforting knowledge that for some crazy reason, I'm capable of making films that preserve these little pieces of my own life (albeit fictionalized), and knowing that sometimes, these little endeavours that I indulge upon, with the help of many others in the film team, could occasionally connect with some people.

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