Writing Yourself Back Into the Past

Watching Aftersun unlocked a new way of understanding my parents.

Photo: A24
Photo: A24
Photo: A24

“Mostly, I became obsessed with the possibility of a sentence that could wend its way backward. I picked up a pen and tried to write myself back into the past.”

When I read these words in Hua Hsu’s memoirStay True, as a thesis statement for the book, it struck me that a similar “obsession” is present in some other recent works that have buried themselves deep under my skin, a burgeoning microgenre of films in which their authors try to write themselves into the past. There is Céline Sciamma’s astonishing film Petite Maman, about a little girl who meets her mother at the same age; Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas’s series remake of his own film remake; and Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans, an attempt at understanding the lingering trauma from his parents’ divorce.

But the most powerful recent example of nostalgic time travel is Aftersun, the semi-autobiographical movie by writer-director Charlotte Wells, who brings us along on a vacation with her father in sun-drenched Turkey. These filmmakers immediately acknowledge the impossibility of re-creating the past, but they try to do so anyway. To remember is to time-travel — and what is time travel if not a haunting or a desire to haunt and be haunted, a perpetual visiting of the past in search of a visitation?

Aftersun opens with shaky camerawork by 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio). We come to understand that we are watching these videos with an adult Sophie (Celia Rowlson-Hall) 20 years later. Much of the vacation — and film — is subsequently captured in this home-movie style, the camera a lingering eye that presents mundanity as mystery because everything is new and exciting when you are a child.

Her father, Calum (Paul Mescal), is often partially obscured, his back to us, or intermittently shown. The camera’s jerky movements remind us that we are seeing everything through the eyes and hands of a child, but this also obliquely comments on the unreliability of memory — and technology — to capture someone. Aftersun is largely a film about limitations, illustrating the impossibility of seeing beyond a picture’s frame. These incomplete glimpses mirror our inability to truly know another person or to remember things clearly. Seeing is not the same as knowing or understanding.

The film captures father and daughter at the same existential threshold in life, albeit looking in different directions. Sophie is at the tail end of childhood, on the cusp of adolescence, while Calum, newly 30, seems to be retreating; he certainly doesn’t have enough hope to look forward. Her life is starting just as his might be ending.

Calum may be at a point of crisis in his life, but he represses everything in order to give his daughter the best vacation possible. This resonated with me because my childhood was pockmarked with the same snowy screens and blurry pixels of Aftersun, full of secrets hidden and suppressed by my parents: the truth of our money troubles, the upsetting details of their past, never-discussed mental-health issues. Like Calum, my parents presented themselves as strong tree trunks searching for light, but a complex web of emotions and tangled roots lay beneath what I was capable of seeing.

Before I saw Aftersun, I thought of withholding as a uniquely Asian way of parenting. Asian parents famously have difficulty verbalizing their love, and it is widely known that they apologize with bowls of cut fruit. This was a source of deep frustration growing up. I wanted to talk about everything with my parents the way my friends did with theirs. I wanted “I love you” to be as ubiquitous as “hello” or “good-bye.”

Watching Sophie and Calum’s interactions reminded me of the dissatisfying answers I got from my parents when I asked them about “adult” things as a child. What was the Cultural Revolution like? Why did it happen? A memory that is especially painful: me asking my dad repeatedly how he felt about losing his mother, puzzled by his lack of grief. I didn’t yet know that there was more than one way to grieve, and I didn’t find out until later that he was hiding his sadness from me. I can’t imagine how my goading questions must have twisted the knife.

There are so many unbridgeable distances that come with being born and raised in a different country from one’s parents. On the few visits I took with my parents to China, people picked me out as a westerner by sight. Although I spoke Chinese, strangers could tell from my accent that I was American. It was challenging to learn that I don’t possess my mother’s tongue. I marveled at the role reversal on those visits; suddenly I was an outsider and my parents fit perfectly.

They came to America with nothing to give my brother and me a better life, and I suppose there has always been a slight self-hatred for being the source of such a difficult decision. And while it was inevitable, and to an extent what they wanted for me, it’s strange to relate so little to their childhoods in China. They had to bring iron to school to melt? My dad had to catch porcupines at his labor camp to use their oil for fat? To me, their lives have always retained the quality of a myth.

Watching Aftersun unlocked a new way of understanding my parents. As a professional violinist, I’ve often been told that the silences between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves, if not more. It’s something we hear so often I can’t even type out the sentiment without rolling my eyes. But it’s what Calum doesn’t say, and what my parents leave out, that amplifies their love.

The vacation is intermittently cut with scenes of older Sophie and Calum in a club, where she tries to find him. Strobing lights mimic the flashes of a disposable camera taking continuous pictures. We catch them only in every other frame, wishing the moments of darkness in between could somehow be illuminated. These club sequences gradually accumulate throughout the film until they are placed in rapid, alternating succession at the devastating climax with scenes of young Sophie and Calum dancing in Turkey. Cut like this, the two timelines almost seem to touch, as if they occurred simultaneously.

We all embroider past moments with present emotions each time we remember them, and Wells’s cinematic illustration is a powerful way of rendering that tendency. In a particularly heart-wrenching moment, young Sophie holds Calum tightly, an expression of desperation on her face. It’s not hard to imagine that it’s exactly what older Sophie would do if she could.

Looking back now, it’s easy to think the blanks in my memory are a result of my solipsism. But watching Aftersun made me realize how intentional the distance between what I can remember and what actually happened has been and how my parents have always shown me love by creating distance for their own survival as well as mine.

Writing Yourself Back Into the Past