As I write this, it's about a week into the month long Lunar 7th Month, where the Chinese believe the gates of Hell are supposedly opened, and the “good brothers” (aka spirits both of the malevolent and the benevolent kind) roam the Earth as their vacation destination not by choice. They get to feast on the food offerings, and get pocket money from the Hell currency that humans provide, with entertainment either in the form of the more traditional Opera and puppet shows, or the glitz and glamour from Getai (“song-stage”) shows where singers belt out evergreens and the latest contemporary songs.
In local cinematic terms, the 7th Month period has provided enough fuel to have spawned an outright horror film, The Maid, by Kelvin Tong, and Royston captured a colourful slice of the lives of songstresses in 881. While this particular month is definitely no stranger to locals, it did intrigue Tony Kern enough to develop a full length feature documentary on the subject, and we look at the festival through fresh eyes as he brings us on a journey which unlocked some really fascinating nuggets of information that I suppose most will still not be aware, and reinforced some long held beliefs.
It’s difficult though to try and lock down the origins of customs and tradition given that there are always variations that put a new spin on things along the way. Narrative wise, it's fairly straightforward, in chronological sense starting from the eve of the festival, and ending on the last day, covering an entire spectrum of the festival proceedings. It is told in inter-titled chapters which can range from mere seconds, to a few minutes, some of which might be just scraping the surface of issues, while others allowed for some depth behind the myth.
While some may gripe with its television like production values, one cannot doubt the tremendous effort to assemble footage like these, especially when the squeamish would think twice about venturing with priests and llamas into uncharted forested areas with the sole purpose of calling out the spirits. And witnessing these proceedings through the safety of footage caught on camera, we learn a lot more about the rituals, in particular those which are often unseen because of the background role they play. And thus this documentary’s superb educational value when it digs deep in certain segments, and personally, I learnt a lot more on certain aspects of the festival, such as the symbolism of food on the altars of offering.
Other interesting segments which were more contemporary included the Singapore Paranormal Investigators segment, where significant time was spent in one of their site surveys, and where a clash of Eastern and Western techniques come head to head during a ceremony, which to skeptics, might call it a series of coincidences, but to believers, it reinforces the common notion that believe it or not, it doesn’t pay for one to be disrespectful.
With standard interviews with practitioners and the man on the street, Tony also managed to weave in a more personal story with that of a mother and the loss of her young child, during which the Festival provides some comfort and opportunity for mother and child to communicate, however bizarre that might sound. I thought it was most touching, and speaks volumes of a mother’s love that transcends realms, whose belief in the Festival would nonetheless never be shattered. I hate to make this association, but it also brought out attention to Child Spirits, which are usually mischievous, and probably explains the obsession of Asian spirit movies that involves children, given that they haven’t seen a lot of the/our world, and would continue to do so after death.
But there are a couple of things I thought could be improved, such as the reduction of special effects to spruce up the visuals, which kind of ruined the rituals I would be interested to see verbatim, such as Running with Lights. That of course meant I had to venture out to witness it myself, and if so was the purpose, then credit to the filmmakers for introducing enough elements throughout the film, and for the curious to get up and do a little more legwork. And another aspect which fell short, was the association of disasters, wars and terrorism throughout contemporary history to the Hungry Ghost Month, which I thought was a little propaganda like, though one couldn’t fail to notice the negative-ness that the Festival brings about to mankind in general, where incidents such as road accidents, are at all time highs during the month.
For all our modernism in today’s society, I guess a fair bit of us still believe in certain rites, rituals, tradition and culture, though with general disinterest permeating through society, we will probably see such richness being watered down in time to come. Thus, A Month of Hungry Ghosts would serve as an important snapshot of what was during this time, with a cautionary reminder that we can never tame a wild tiger no matter how much we feed it, being better to err on the side of caution, whether you believe it or not.