When ghosts walked among men1

On Russell Morton’s Saudade by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee 

Saudade is a torn up love letter, its heart spilt at the seams. It revels in dualities, through the known and unknown, the feared and the adored. It is, anyway, the untranslatable yet ubiquitous Portuguese term for a deep yearning for something that is absent—and will probably never be in reach again.

But at the hand of Russell Morton, the film finds release in surrender, a tenderness in heartbreak. With the exultant costumes and arresting cinematography, the film transforms into a sonic shield, sheathing the endangered Kristang language, Malayan chimeras and the jinkli nona (a song sung by the Portugese Eurasians). Saudade is the act of narration revisited, accompanied by a scintillating orang minyak and a droning soundtrack. Thawing frozen myths and the vanishing Kristang tongue, storytelling is activated as an affordable luxury, indiscriminately disseminated to the hoi polloi. As if casting a spell, the piece weaves in oral histories of the Portugese Eurasians, entangled with the onscreen exchange between a Malaccan shrimper and his wife.

1 Russell Morton, line from the script of Saudade, 2020.

Using magic as a form of self-defense, Saudade casts a protection shield in defence of the Anglophone, constructing a world where blithe legends and fables take precedence over opaque facts and hard history. In Manna For The Ghost, a performance lecture given in accompaniment of the film, Morton resurrected rituals of the Singaporean Eurasians. One of those was the communal eating of bluder, a decadent cake that requires up to 80 egg yolks, 2 days of bake time and a bed for a fermentation site. Historically, it was made with toddy, a liquor drawn from the sap of the coconut flower back in the heyday of Malaya’s rubber plantations. Toddy has since been banned, along with bluder banished as a ghost of its own past—a rare and near-extinct cake.

Malaya’s gradual westernisation led to the waning of this dependence on rituals and oracles, along with the dwindling of manna for both spirits and Portugese Eurasians alike. Sounding to their aid, Saudade chimes in ode to non-western speak and inherited superstitions. Disarmingly transgressive, these gestures of revival defy western modernity, delighting in newborn oral histories cradled by a mother tongue. Though the term saudade refers to something no longer present, the faintest echo of Kristang or an unearthed bluder recipe might be just the right fire starter. Perhaps, it is in this rekindlement that a flicker of reconnection may surface once more.

Russell Morton
HD Video

Commissioned by Asian Film Archive for State of Motion 2020: Rushes Of Time

Curated by Cheong Kah Kit, Selene Yap and Tan Guo-Liang