“What if you let go of my hand and I get lost?” an over anxious little boy asks his mother. “Then you should stay where you are,” she tells him, “Mum will definitely come back for you.” It’s an instruction the now adult Wai (Steven Ma Chun-Wai) has perhaps taken too literally, struggling under the weight of grief and filial guilt while standing still waiting for his mother to find him again in the hope of earning her forgiveness for a sin he does not quite want to remember. Semi-autobiographical, Steven Ma’s Till We Meet (生前约死后) again is at once a dark psychodrama of man undone by loss but also a deeply touching evocation of an unbreakable mother son bond.
Now a solitary salesman, 30-something Wai has only one wish – to reunite with his mother whom he hasn’t seen in over 10 years fearing that she bears some kind of grudge against him. We in fact see Mui (Josephine Koo Mei-Wah), his mother, angrily telling another woman, Lai (Bee Wong Chiu-Yam), that she refuses to see her son though the scene is not quite as it first seems. After abruptly quitting his job, Wai wanders out into the street and endures some kind of mental breakdown after which he visits his psychiatrist who reminds him that his mother is dead and has been for some time.
Wai avows that he doesn’t like taking his medication because it makes him feel “sluggish” but increasingly finds his mental universe fracturing, shifting between sepia-tinted memories of his early childhood during which his mother first became ill and his life as a young man during which she suffered a relapse and later passed away. We begin to doubt Wai’s perception, uncertain if people and events he encounters are “real” or a product of his psychosis. His mother, ghost or merely spectre of memory, hovers on the sidelines apparently unwilling to see him though perhaps for his own good in hoping he will finally be able to move on and learn to be happy in acceptance of his loss.
Tracey (Jennifer Yu Heung-Ying), his perhaps unrealistically invested psychiatrist, reminds Wai that he isn’t the only person who’s ever been bereaved or felt abandoned, left behind by those who have gone far away. She herself lost her mother young and was then abandoned by her father who left her in the care of an uncle who too abandoned her and ran off with all her father’s money. Another ghostly, perhaps imagined, conversation with Mui reveals that again Tracey may not have the full story and may never get it but unlike Wai may still have the chance to achieve a kind of closure with the traumatic past. He meanwhile carries the burden of his repressed guilt as it slowly works its way to the surface, cutting through his fragile psyche like a knife.
While Mui’s conversations with third parties presumably taking place entirely within Wai’s mind may hint at a deeper psychological crisis they are essentially attempts to work out his guilt and shame, one-sided dialogues that eventually guide him back towards an acceptance of the truth he was intent on forgetting beginning with the traumatic fact of his mother’s death. Perhaps to some Wai’s maternal attachment may seem extreme, as the psychiatrist echoes in reminding him he’s not the only son to suffer such catastrophic loss, but it’s underpinned by a sense of filial guilt that lies at the heart of their bond in his worry that his own distress pushed Mui into pursuing a path she may otherwise have rejected on the grounds it would only cause her more pain for an additional few weeks of life.
Trapped in his grief and guilt, Wai staggers through a nightmarish existence elegantly manifested in Ma’s abrupt tonal shifts as Wai finds himself staggering along a darkened corridor complete with faulty lighting and a single exit, while the sky itself seems to brighten to more romantic tones as he embraces a fantasy of a happier time drawing closer either to a kind of closure or the victory of his delusion whichever way you wish to read it. A painful journey through guilt and grieving, Ma’s unsparing drama provides few easy answers for living with loss but does perhaps allow its hero a degree of escape if only in unreality.
Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)