Letters to Blue Bird:
A review of Suicide Note
by Jin Haritaworn
A. K. Prince’s Suicide Note is a moving, beautifully told poetic trilogy dealing with depression, confinement and the power of creative resistance. It follows a survivor, artist and dreamer through the three cities after which the pieces of her diasporic puzzle are named – Hong Kong Express, Peterborough Past and Present and Toronto Intermission. The fragments bring together many places: A hospital room, a busy street, a rooftop; a bedroom, a sunrise, a waterway; a theatre, a university, a stairway. These landscapes, magical and real, urban and rural, spectacular and everyday, are silent and yet full of sound.
While no words are spoken throughout the film, many are written: a series of poems intersperse the visual narrative. They are romantic letters addressed to Blue Bird, a fantasy figure fulfilling many roles. A symbol of freedom, solace, longing and belonging, Blue Bird is also watchful guardian, loyal witness and companion, and guide between the realms. The poems surround and overlay the flow of sounds and images as powerful vehicles conveying meaning and emotion. The narrative materializes by moving us across various sceneries, genres and techniques, through a wondrous array of colours, sounds and speeds. Each fragment is themed in a different colour – blue, green, red – reflecting a different suicide method. The depicted environments dizzy and upheave – a nature that soothes and sucks us in, an urban landscape that enlivens in its ruggedness and dispirits in its constructedness. These are scenes of suffering and unruly survival, where resistance is found in the miraculous spaces beyond and between. There is comfort here as well as pain: outside, a concrete jungle; inside, a quiet bedroom thick with insomnia, a corridor door swinging open and shut, a psychiatric ward where life is on hold. Yet the space of lock-down gives rise to the most climactic moment of creative struggle. At the end of Toronto Intermission, the protagonist is magically launched onto a drag stage, where she performs her story to an ecstatic crowd and the exhilarating beats of a South Asian tune – while withholding the conclusion we may have been waiting for.
Suicide Note disappoints any longing for a conventionally happy ending. It disrupts a dominant progress narrative of suicide and depression that moves its subject from mental illness to mental health, and refuses a timeline of diagnosis, therapy, recovery and integration. Far removed from professional and institutional methods of narrating and treating trauma, the film rebels against realism. Indeed, the letters to Blue Bird reveal life to be ‘one big mask’, and consensual reality to be ‘false’. Throughout the film, social life and its institutions – from the hospital to the university to the city – emerge as death-making in themselves. The psychiatric institution in particular comes into view as a murderous place where the human body and spirit are subjugated. This contrasts with a filmmaking that defies chronology and narrative coherence. There is no attempt to either compartmentalize or unify memory, dreams and reality into an even storyline. Time is not linear. It leaps in rapid flashes back and forth, then trickles in longer flows. Resisting the expectation of recovery, it is in fantasy and the creative imagination that healing is found. The protagonist tells her story in multiple layers of performance staged both in solitude and in communities that bear witness for her. This isn’t easy: hero, survivor, creator, being from another world, her body is fragile, fierce and in pain, and often hard to watch. Yet in the place of a life administered in the stifling confines and a death that is at once pervasive and prohibited, she presents us with something more, by questioning the very distinction between life and death itself.