Film studies: Suicide cinema

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 February, 2009, 12:00am

Even the most seasoned cinema-goer would probably be taken aback by the on-screen message that precedes Seven Pounds. Rather than the usual clips denouncing piracy or instructing audiences to switch off their cellphones, the projection solemnly proclaims 'we do not condone any self-destructive behaviour', and human beings should learn to cherish the preciousness of life.

The proclamation - spelled out in white over a black screen - remains on the screen for nearly half a minute before the actual film begins; it gets more screen time than the logo for the film's financiers, Columbia Pictures, which only appears after the statement. The reason for the statement - produced by the Samaritan Befrienders Hong Kong, a group that runs a 24-hour suicide hotline - is made clear during the film's opening scene when the protagonist, Tim Thomas (played by Will Smith, below right), calls emergency services and reports his own impending suicide.

'We watched Seven Pounds. Will Smith is a good actor and the film is very nicely done, but the story itself is a bit problematic,' says Samaritan Befrienders' chairman Robert Wong Yao-wing. Wong and his colleagues are uneasy about the way Tim Thomas subjects himself to an extreme form of self-sacrifice to save others. 'We are worried that there will be a copycat effect because of that,' says Wong. 'It's a matter of representations, of how suicide sometimes could be seen as a good deed. It's especially true in this climate when the economy's not good, and [it might lead] people to think suicide is acceptable as long as you can help other people before you die.'

Rather than taking pot shots at the film from the outside, the Samaritan Befrienders chose to work within the system. Wong says he offered his group's services once he learned what Seven Pounds was about.

'We thought we must do something this time, as the film runs against our beliefs,' he says.

Some 10,000 pamphlets endorsed by Edko Films, the movie's local distributor, were delivered to local cinemas. The pamphlets contain a synopsis of the film and stills from it flanked by information on the Samaritan Befrienders' services, a seven-step approach for dealing with emotional turmoil and slogans proclaiming how people can only possess hope while they are alive.

As if this obvious subversion of the film's major theme was not astonishing enough, Edko Films also helped produce and circulate a specially-made trailer for Seven Pounds in which footage from the film is followed by disapproving remarks concerning the moral connotations of its denouement. A social worker from the Samaritan Befrienders' Suicide Crisis Intervention Centre appears on screen to say how she 'feels sorry' about what happens to Thomas at the end of the film. Former radio presenter Blanche Tang Oi-lam appears in the video, saying that the character could have made more lasting contributions to society by staying alive.

Wong says actively engaging popular culture is just as important as conventional reach-out programmes, if not more so. 'We discovered how the mass media, films in particular, can reach a very wide audience,' he says. 'It's a double-edged sword, yes - it could really shape ideologies out there. So we do take note of what films are out there. If the messages they are conveying are good, we'll help amplify them. If not, it's even more important that we do something.'

Seven Pounds opens today