Eating Air by Kelvin Tong

In promotional posters and on the DVD cover, Eating Air–written by Kelvin Tong and co-directed by Kelvin Tong and Jasmine Ng–is summarized as a “kungfu-motorcycle-love story”. An online review of the movie describes it thus:

“Following the chronicles of Ah Bengs, Ah Boy, our anti-hero protagonist played by Benjamin Heng, introduces to us his gang of arcade playing, motorcycle riding, and rooftop gathering friends. While street corner gangs are not as sophisticated as organized hoodlums, they too practice their own brand of honor. Petty fights are common, and so are motorcycle challenges. But when his best friend Ah Gu chances upon drugs and borrows from loan sharks, what will happen to their friendship, as the challenges that they face become more and more dangerous [sic]. Romance is in contrast to the reality and ugliness of street gangs, With Ah Bengs, there surely is their Ah Lians hugging their torsos on bike rides [sic]. Alvina Toh plays Ah Girl, Ah Boy’s main squeeze. Their moments together are bittersweet; boy-meets-girl, falls in love, boy-loses-girl – all punctuated with an excellent soundtrack done by local acts like the Boredphucks. It’s back to the old days where mobile phones are not as prevalent, and calls are made to each other using early technology like pagers and voice messages, which was nostalgic [sic].” (“Internet Movie Database”)

Also interspersed within the film are segments of the lives of other minor characters such as Lao Beng and Girl’s mother, all of whom struggle with their dreams and aspirations.

Significance of Title

In Hokkien, “eating air” is translated into “jiak hong”, which means to go for a joyride. The protagonist, Boy, and his friends frequently go on late night joyrides on their motorcycles throughout the film; the title signifies this youthful exuberance which Boy and his friends demonstrate and represent. This youthful exuberance is important in the film, as much of the tragedy is generated by the decay of this initial youthful energy into disillusionment and resignation. In Malay, “eating air” is translated into “makan angin”, meaning to go for a short trip or holiday. This alludes to Boy and Girl’s naive and romantic plan of riding up north to escape their problems. In plain English, the title also seems to lend itself to more layers of meaning which encapsulate the ideas of futility and the unattainable in the film. To eat is to fill oneself up in order to be full, and to be contented; “air” implies an insubstantial emptiness and nothingness. Therefore, “Eating Air” suggests a futile, “gobbling up” of life, which is either empty and meaningless in itself (hence nothing can be gotten out of it), or that the characters are going about it all wrong; perhaps all their energies, aspirations and struggles are poorly and recklessly directed and thus culminate in no reward or fulfilment. This is demonstrated by all the characters in the film, as they fight and struggle but end up with nothing.

Human Aspiration and Its Constant Failure

Our sense of the unattainable is reinforced by the recurring failure of human aspiration in all aspects as demonstrated by the various characters. However, as the odds grow against the individual, there is an increasing sense of weariness and disillusionment. The characters put up a fierce fight, but all effort ultimately culminates in nothing; this is especially exemplified in characters such as Ah Gu, Lao Beng and Girl’s Mother.

Ah Gu starts out with a garang, never-say-die attitude, determined to prove his worth to everyone; in one scene, he passionately lambasts Boy and those who do not have faith in him to “make it” in life: “So you think I can’t cut it. Just watch me!”

Earlier on in the film, Ah Gu loses his motorbike because he defaulted on the payment. However, as soon as he acquires some wealth from a loanshark (which he is confident he will be able to repay soon through a drug deal), he splurges it on 2 motorbikes, one for himself and the other for Boy – this unselfish act of giving is heartening, as Ah Gu’s craving for money can hence be seen to not simply arise out of greed and selfish gain. Nonetheless, Ah Gu’s overconfidence, extravagance and imprudent mistakes ultimately culminate in a tragic end for both himself and Boy. Ah Gu experiences a reversal of fortune when the sole source of his hope and potential wealth is exterminated – not only is he robbed of the drugs without being handed the money, the drugs also turn out to be mere soap powder, landing him in further trouble with the drug dealers who think that Ah Gu was trying to swindle them. After barely escaping from the drug dealers, Ah Gu then accepts an opportunity to wipe off his debt with the loanshark in the form of a motorbike race. However, he pulls out of the race at the last moment and is consequently beaten up by the loanshark and his men. Weary, disllusioned and resigned, the once fierce and feisty Ah Gu allows himself to get beaten up without putting up a fight.

Ultimately, it is not Ah Gu’s ruin or “death” (it is not entirely conclusive as to whether or not he does die) that generates our sense of his tragedy, but rather his complete resignation and renouncement of all hope, especially because Ah Gu was arguably the character with the brightest spark, the most garang, fearless attitude and greatest determination.

Human aspiration and failure also pervade the lives of the minor characters; Girl’s Mother is a desperate 50 year old woman who aspires towards finding romance, and continually deceives herself into believing she has found love with men who mistreat her and toy with her feelings. In the process, she constantly neglects her daughter in favour of attention from men, no matter how poorly they treat her. Eventually, she ends up completely alone as she not only fails to find romance but drives Girl away as well.

Lao Beng (Mark Lee), too, finds his aspirations in an unattainable woman (Kit Chan), of whom he dreams and fantasizes throughout the film. At the end, when he is finally presented with a chance to confront her, he is unable to because he finds himself in an emasculated position, after having just backed out and walked away from another man who had just punched several times in the face.

These moments of emasculation and bathetic hopelessness pervade Lao Beng’s life. He craves respect from his friends, and admiration from a woman, but only receives ridicule. He always seems to be set up for a letdown, mostly by his own doing. In the above clip, he is largely responsible for provoking his attacker into punching him; in general, he constantly fabricates fantastical stories of his “adventures”, dramatically playing up his comically false sense of heroism. This, when contrasted with his moments of bathos and failure, only highlight more starkly for the audience what he is not, and the pathetic smallness of his true existence.

These characters constantly fall short of their dreams and their own vision of and aspiration for the self, fighting against a relentless current towards the unattainable, and eventually ending up with nothing at all. This disjunct between the “dream self” and the “real self” is most vividly presented and juxtaposed through the director’s use of graphics and special effects to enter the characters’ imaginations.

Imaginary Lives Vs. Reality

The realm of unattainable is exemplified in the fantasy worlds that the characters conjure in their imaginations as an alternative reality to the ones in which they live day by day. This need to put on a fictional, distortive lens through which they experience their everyday realities reflects a fundamental discontent and boredom with the world that they are presented with, and made to live and act within. Imagination functions as an escape from the disillusionment and banality of life, converting this bland reality and small existence into a heroic, romantic, action-packed drama. This is exemplified by:

Boy’s projection of his Kungfu action scene onto the mundane event of sitting at home watching his parents at work in the kitchen,

as well as Lao Beng’s highly imaginitive, hyperbolic action sequences in which he fabricates his own heroism and machismo.

As for Boy and Girl, they seem to possess the most self-awareness of their own and their friends’ issues, aspirations and limitations; we get less of a sense that they are deluding themselves as we do with the others (Ah Gu, Lao Beng and Mother). Their aspiration is a small, tangible one: they just want to leave Singapore and ride across the border with each other for company. This plan, so full of uncertainty but also of possibility and hope (in that it embraces the ideal of romance, aspiration towards a better life), again culminates in nothingness. Just as they are about to meet to elope, Boy gets caught up in Ah Gu’s issues again when he finds Ah Gu’s limp and badly beaten up body in the alleyway to which he instinctively reacts by rushing Ah Gu to the hospital.

Redemptive Elements:

However, despite this bleak sense of failure and a lack of meaning or reward, there are hopeful elements and moments within the film that make it meaningful.

Firstly, the brotherhood, love and friendship that the characters demonstrate are extremely meaningful in themselves. Most pertinently, the valour and strength that Boy demonstrates throughout the story as he stands up for and sticks by Ah Gu through all his struggles and follies is extremely heartening and inspiring; at the end, Boy does not hesitate to put his life on the line both in trying to save and avenge Ah Gu.

Even in the case of Lao Beng, in spite of all his comic frivolities, he too demonstrates genuine love, brotherhood and bravery. This can be seen in Lao Beng’s one truly heroic moment, where he misleads the loanshark’s runners so as to save his friends, using himself as bait and risking his own safety. However, as he recounts this very tale he again exaggerates the event and is consequently ridiculed and goes unappreciated. In this way, he ends up tragically undermining his own heroic contribution by providing an inflated account, as such ruining his own chance of actually earning the respect he covets.

Secondly, the intense human aspiration that the characters demonstrate can also be seen as meaningful and inspiring. The characters suffer and struggle, but the purpose and perceived reward that they struggle towards can be said to give meaning and direction to their suffering.

Lastly, the somewhat inconclusive ending of the film presents a glimmer – albeit faint – of hope; Girl arrives at the fight scene and stares blankly at a body on the ground before turning and walking away in an ostensibly aimless fashion. Our instinctive guess would be that it is Boy’s dead body she discovers, leading us to assume the worst. However, the camera frame only allows the audience the view of body’s legs, creating ambiguity as to its identity. This slim chance that Boy and perhaps even Ah Gu are potentially rescued after the film’s end is hinted at, but never materialised or addressed.

However, we believe that these redemptive elements, while heartening, are not enough to attenuate the film’s tragedy by any significant degree. In the first case, the brotherhood and likability of the characters conversely seem to compound the tragedy, as the characters’ acts of valour and love, however remarkable, earn them no respite or reward at the end of the story. As for human aspiration, while admirable, it similarly leaves a bitter taste in our mouths as all dreams remain unattained and unattainable, reinforcing the tragic disillusionment experienced by the characters and in turn transmitting this cynicism to the audience. Lastly, in terms of the film’s openendedness, this deferral of hope leaves us at a complete loss, putting potential answers, hope and meaning out of our reach – hence cruelly including us in this insatiable longing for the unattainable.

by Chew Wei Shan and Nurudin Sadali


Eating Air. Co-Dir. Kelvin Tong, Jasmine Ng. Perf. Benjamin Heng, Alvina Toh, Joseph Cheong. BOKU Films/Multi Story Complex, 1999. DVD.
“Eating Air (1999).” Internet Movie Database., 10 Aug 2005. Web. 6 Apr 2011.

3 Responses to “Eating Air by Kelvin Tong”
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