The symbiotic relationship between art and reality continues to prove itself as an essential component of our society and culture. The concept of post-apocalyptic storytelling has been delivered in various forms with creativity ebbing and flowing. With the turbulent events brought to the world in 2020, from the horrific COVID-19 pandemic to volatile unrest in political communities, it can be easy to look around and feel as if we are living in one of these ominous, dystopian narratives. From director Chloé Hung, Signal, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Selection, reflects upon the significance of preserving our humanity and compassion, even as the world dissolves into desolation.
With a toxic material in the atmosphere preventing humans from breathing the air for longer than a few minutes at a time, a man and woman are confined to a singular household. Fresh air is a commodity, as are food and water. The intense feelings of isolation and loneliness are a heavy burden. The sound design serves to illustrate the emptiness and solitude, with echoes bouncing around the barren landscapes. The imagery and visual storytelling continue to provide contextual hints of the catastrophic event, but many questions remain unanswered. This is not a film that gives you what you want to see or hear, or that explicitly tells you what you are supposed to think.
With only two cast members, the complexity of the human relationship at the center of the story is what makes or breaks the film. Although the acting is not quite up to the highest of standards, the character development worked into the script is very intriguing. Difficult questions are asked of the characters and of the audience. A distress call is received, and the two individuals have conflicting philosophies on how they should approach this matter. The man feels that they should not risk compromising their health and safety, which they have worked so hard to establish. On a previous occasion, they had responded to a similar call and almost died in the process. At this juncture, the woman still wants to make the trek to the signal’s origin with the hopes of helping someone in need and potentially saving a life. Her position can be summed up with her quote, “Surviving isn’t waiting to die, it’s finding a way to live.”
Examining this ordeal from the outside, one can understand and appreciate both perspectives brought to the table. In this situation, with the world as a shell of its former self, it would be hard to blame someone for focusing on preserving their own livelihood first and foremost. On the other hand, the beautiful display of selflessness, with the woman’s willingness to venture out into the unknown and put her own life on the line, is a lovely concept, albeit somewhat idealistic. In the midst of this dilemma, the film does not necessarily take the side of either partner. It simply presents the circumstances as they are unfolding and allows the viewers to make up their own minds. I applaud the efforts of writer and director Chloé Hung in her delivery of the script, which could have easily been an off-balance, one-sided story. Narratives like Signal that find a way to properly harmonize the diverse viewpoints and outlooks from its characters are the stories that usually have the most to say.
In considering the current state of the world, the impact of Signal is all the more impressive. Since COVID-19 changed everyday life as we know it in March 2020, people all around the world have taken more opportunities to reflect upon what is truly important to them in their lives, whether that be personal or professional. The parallels between Hung’s film and the calendar year of 2020 are striking and serve as an eerie reminder of the blurred lines of reality that grow more unclear by the day.
Currently screening during the 2020 L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Signal festival page.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.