“The rules are dead but we are not” jovial granny Lili (Nina Paw Hee-ching) insists as she shows some young whippersnappers how pool should be played. An Bon’s Sen Sen (生生, Shēng Shēng) offers more than a few life lessons along its merry way as it wanders through the grieving process from both ends – an elderly woman deciding to live her best life in her last days, and a young boy trying to come to terms with the death of his older brother, but for all of its melancholia affirms that life should be lived without regrets or rancour and with as much understanding as it’s possible to have while remaining firmly rooted in the present.
An begins with an ending – Lili’s middle-aged daughter sadly dealing with her late mother’s effects, before winding back a few months to young Sen Sen (Wu Zhi-xuan) who has inherited his older brother’s smartphone. A lonely child, Sen Sen spends his evenings in fast food restaurants to avoid to going home to an empty house while his mother works nights in a convenience store. Not quite understanding how smartphones work, he is struck by the enormity of his friend’s explanation that if he wants to go on using it he will need to delete some of his brother’s files to make more space. While scrolling he gets a notification that “Live 100 Days” is currently streaming and discovers that his brother had been an avid fan of Lili’s popular web channel via which she livestreams her everyday life as she deals with her terminal cancer diagnosis.
Sen Sen and Lili are of course dealing with a similar problem but from very different positions. Lili has fully accepted her terminal prognosis and decided against chemotherapy, preferring to live out her final days as fully as possible rather than spend them in hospital suffering with the effects of the treatment. Her daughter, Yi-an, however, does not approve of her mother’s choice and keeps nagging her to keep up with her doctor’s appointments which has only placed further strain on their positive yet perhaps distant relationship. Like Sen Sen, Lili is often alone at home, her husband having passed away some years ago and Yi-an now living in the capital, which is perhaps why she gets so much out of sharing her everyday life with strangers online.
Sen Sen, meanwhile, struggles to accept his brother’s death and his mother’s way of coping with her grief. He fears that he will eventually forget him and that his mother seems indifferent to his memory. Perhaps in an effort to ease the feeling of absence, the pair will be moving to a new, smaller apartment and Sen Sen has dutifully sorted out his brother’s things but his mother has all but ignored them. Like Sen Sen, his mother doesn’t like being in the apartment surrounded by a sense of incompleteness and so she throws herself into work to avoid thinking about her loss, leaving Sen Sen feeling neglected and unloved as if she’d forgotten about him too while consumed by her own grief.
Making friends with Lili, Sen Sen begins to understand a little about his mother’s grieving process just as Lili channels some of the things she’d like to say to Yi-an into the videos she gets Sen Sen to film for her. As Lili later puts it, everybody needs to learn to let go – of past resentments, of life, and of loss that can’t be avoided. Sen Sen becomes a surrogate grandson for Lili who admits that no one really knows what happens in life and she doesn’t quite know what advice to leave behind for her daughter, while she becomes a substitute maternal figure him as she gently tries to explain that his mother isn’t rejecting him or his brother but only attempting to deal with loss in her own way.
A gentle tale of learning to enjoy life while it lasts while recognising what it is that’s really important, Sen Sen is a strangely uplifting look at life in the shadow of death seen both by those approaching the end and by the ones who are left behind. Filled with warmth and humour, An’s whimsical screenplay is as cheerful as it’s possible to be just like its openhearted heroine keen to pass on the joy of being alive even as she prepares to say goodbye.
Sen Sen screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 27th March, 7pm at AMC River East 21 where director An Bon and Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.
Original trailer (English subtitles)