Credit: Momo Film Co.
by Jesse Catherine Webber Featured Film

Dreaming & Dying — Nelson Yeo [Locarno ’23 Review]

August 16, 2023

Korean director Hong Sang-soo’s lo-fi, low-key films seem to be increasing in ubiquity as reference points for young filmmakers. Nelson Yeo’s Dreaming & Dying initially appears to have a particularly strong affinity with the former; his sparse premise — a reunion of three friends who were involved in a love triangle as youths, two of whom are now married — gives way to an even sparser narrative as the three actors playing those characters are the only ones who appear in the film. If that doesn’t recall Hong, Yeo’s elaborate zooms will. What most distinguishes Dreaming & Dying in the early going is the texture of the image, far gauzier than Hong’s (until recently) sharp compositions. Fissions in reality are another consistent Hongian feature, but they are generally academically conceptual, whereas when Yeo’s film digresses, it’s into explicit fantasy.

Fantasy can be synonymous with dream, but though perhaps the title would suggest that’s the case here, Dreaming & Dying is most successful when it is fantastical strictly in the sense of genre. Hong’s multiple realities are fascinating because they have no hierarchy; they inform one another in their conceptions, equally contributing to our impressions of the films even when they don’t equal each other in runtime, rather than functioning as a series of alternate realities illuminating one “real” narrative. This is tougher to accomplish here, when a mermaid is introduced in order to explore the dormant leg of an erstwhile love triangle, though as the film goes on, its fantastical elements are more elegantly integrated, allowing their narrative content to coexist with the initially presented storyline rather than intrude as a counterfactual. Most impressively, the last few scenes follow from each other largely outside narrative incident and yet still result in a sense of closure.

The rest of Yeo’s filmmaking comes across much like his approach to narrative — never really deficient, but maximally effective only intermittently. Some enticingly juvenile banter or a late burst of piscine violence may spark interest, but in general the premise is both too clichéd and too thin to sustain that interest. It’s a bit curious that a first feature would be so rooted in middle age, and (though after identifying a cliché it would be awfully rich to demand a writer “write what they know”) despite a set of affable performances, the film’s three characters rarely feel like more than sketches. Sometimes sketches can be enough to inhabit a narrative experiment, but when the dialogue also strays from realism, including a particular sequence strikingly repeated thrice, it’s easy for investment to wane. That’s not to say Dreaming & Dying isn’t a compelling debut, or a compelling film in and of itself, but it’s one in which a few of the seams are a bit awkwardly sewn, threatening to come apart.

Published as part of Locarno Film Festival 2023 — Dispatch 2.