Nyi Ma Lay, which means “my younger sister,” is the name of the short film directed by Chiang Wei Liang and presented at the 28th Singapore International Film Festival. The 20-minute clip is filmed entirely with one long shot, and starts with a domestic helper looking into the distance on a tall building. We soon realise that she is perched precariously on a ledge on the other side of a railing. As the film progresses, various people, including security guards and passers-by try to get her to climb back to safety, but to no avail.
As the camera pans out slowly, our sight never leaves the girl, in the same way that we are sometimes inexplicably visually fixated to situations where something terrible is about to happen. The girl does not speak but we hear the voices of and sometimes see the people who are trying to persuade her to come back to safety. They try to make conversation, and offer her water and food, things which, despite their best efforts, seem completely impertinent in that situation.
Eventually, a second girl, another domestic helper, is brought to the scene with a screaming child in tow. She speaks to the girl on the opposite side of the railing, and seeing no reply or reaction after a while, she climbs over the railing to join her, to the shock of everyone watching.
Throughout the film, we only see the backs of the girls and we never grasp the full extent of the situation as we do not know what has happened to the first girl, or where the second girl came from. Even though a hint of their stories might have been given when the second girl starts speaking in Burmese, no subtitles are provided in the film.
As the audience, we may find it strange and expect subtitles to be provided, but this is not very different from our everyday lives, where the same gap in understanding exists between us and the migrant workers we live and work with. Our indifference to their lives and the conversations they have among themselves becomes a stark contrast to our interest in knowing the stories of the two girls in this film.
In the same vein, the railing is a visual reminder of the emotional and linguistic barrier between “us” and “them.” While passers-by are concerned about the girl, they remain blocked off by the railing and only the second girl, a fellow migrant worker, manages to cross that (linguistic and perhaps emotional) barrier to get closer to the first girl.
As a Singaporean working in Taiwan, Chiang has also faced difficulties as a migrant worker. This film is a continuation of his exploration of the plight of migrant workers living in their host countries. He also recounts coming into contact with the screenshot of a video of a domestic worker who jumped to her death in Singapore. The image deeply affected him and this film became a reconstruction of that image and story, with the backdrop of the film strongly resembling the actual condominium where the suicide took place.
Eventually, the film ends with a cryptic Burmese funeral procession, materialising as if from a dream sequence. The procession moves across the screen, obscuring our view of what is happening to the girls. A young child who is part of the procession stops suddenly and looks into the camera, jolting us from the voyeuristic consumption of the drama unfolding before us.
When the procession passes, both girls are gone and the film does not give any hint of what happened to them. In the same way that we are curious to find out what happened to the girls, perhaps we are asked to take the same interest in the migrant workers we come into contact with on a daily basis, who may be facing problems that are completely unbeknownst to us.
Image and information from interview with Chiang taken from https://incinemas.sg/interview-details.aspx?id=64