The COVID-19 pandemic left us with collective memories and traumas due to its inevitable damage worldwide. In addition to the tragic wound it caused to the health sectors, it also left a profound impact on the global economy. The horrors of going outside and interacting with people, led to many industries closing down their business as customer numbers significantly declined. In factory-based industries, the often underappreciated backbone, that upholds industry stability during crises are the factory laborers.
Robin Narciso captures this harsh reality in The Wedding Ring (2022), one of the short films nominated for the Raoul Wallenberg Institute (RWI) Asia Pacific Award 2023 at Minikino Film Week 9. Given that the garment industry has been the cornerstone of Cambodia’s economy for years, The Wedding Ring stands as the first of two films of the ReFashion Study, a project that followed the lives of 200 women garment workers in Cambodia for two years since the beginning of the pandemic.
The film opens by showing an iconic yet traumatic visual emblem of the pandemic: masks. A documentary-style shot, showing busy roads of Phnom Penh flooded with motorcycle drivers wearing masks, giving a clear hint of the film’s time setting. Amongst the crowd, a group of women can be seen crossing the road before getting on a truck. Through on-screen texts, the film directly unveils their identities as Cambodian garment workers who were laid off due to the pandemic. The Wedding Ring departs from the true story of Leakhena, one of the garment workers whose lives are forced to take a turn because of the mass layoff.
After bringing back the masks, the film continues to wake our memories of the pandemic by showing the struggles of people who used to wear them. On her way home after the layoff, Leakhena, who is pregnant, hitches a ride alone in a man’s car. Driving with his mask hanging around his neck, the Man shows his clear ignorance, both towards dangers of the pandemic and Leakhena’s condition.
Knowing about her pregnancy and recent layoff, the Man seemingly wants to cheer up Leakhena, by bringing up a conversation about how children can be “future assets” for their parents. This particular perspective is commonly shared across Southeast Asian culture, justifying people having many children, as well as easing the struggle of raising them. But, being put in Leakhena’s context, it appears insensitive, worsening her wound rather than easing it. Obscured by the thought of how children will bring fortune in the future (when pandemic makes the future seems so unsure), he fails to see how the world has begun to became very unstable—too unstable for anyone to simply live, let alone raise a child.
Upon arriving home, Leakhena is greeted by the rent bill—a stark reminder of the pandemic’s devastating impact on both her and her husband’s employment. With their livelihoods in jeopardy, Leakhena has no other choice but to let go of her only sellable asset, her wedding ring. This precious ring, which symbolizes and encapsulates her marriage and family’s journey, must now be exchanged for something considered more crucial: the future well-being of her family.
Leakhena’s ring serves as a poignant evidence of how the pandemic was able to deprive humans of their precious belongings, in one snap of a finger. These belongings becomes the “money” that goes around, decreasing its value to only just a tool to exchange for survival. Or perhaps, it is also a symbol to a much important thing that was snatched away: the life itself. As the life itself being tossed around, we are taught to reconsider its true value, to reflect whether we have perceived it the way it is supposed to.
Besides revolving around Leakhena and her family, The Wedding Ring also uncovers how the pandemic impacts the people around her. One of them is the Aunt who owned the jewelry shop. The quiet shop with no customers in sight and her relieved smile after Leakhena came, becomes a bare evidence of how the pandemic has been consuming her business. She even refuses to buy Leakhena’s ring at first. But after understanding the misfortune Leakhena has to face, the Aunt finally agrees to buy her ring for only half the price. She candidly states, “We are struggling too dear, I am sorry”.
The owner of the property, the Uncle, also finds himself grappling with challenges. The film showcases how he must confront his conscience when his tenants, including both Leakhena and the Aunt, struggle to pay their rent on time. The look of pity he gives to Leakhena when knowing she lost her job, shows perhaps the one-week extended time given is the best he could do amidst his own struggle during the pandemic.
However, the film proceeds to make me question the Uncle’s stance. When he wants to take Leakhena’s recently sold wedding ring in exchange for the Aunt’s rent money, the film chooses to specifically highlights his sparkling gold watch, leaving his face blurred in the background. This deliberate contrast, coupled with his statement about how he wants something gold to invest, almost portrays his action as driven by greed.
At a glance, I feel like the Uncle and the Aunt serve as a representation of the binary opposition of human nature—the black and white of human’s true colors. But as I delve deeper into my memories of the pandemic, I begin to realize how, during that time, people tend to be labeled as inhumane for not aiding those in need. Perhaps, the uncertainty of the pandemic naturally forced people to prioritize themselves over others. But, by empathetically showing the usually unseen process of pondering, Narciso invites us to view their decisions not as characteristics of ignorance or greed, but rather as a human way of withstanding their own life in the middle of a completely uncertain world.
The Wedding Ring becomes a very bitter reminder how the pandemic single-handedly scrambled our life priority scale. Forcing us to go back to fulfilling the basic, yet rare needs. Humans were shoved from the upper side of Maslow’s Pyramid, down to the very bottom of its feet. Some are able to climb back up, some other, like Leakhena, are still struggling with debts that constantly pull them back down.
Despite the pandemic having just ended this year, the illusion of time moving slower during the pandemic era made me feel it happened much further in the past. This creates a feeling as though I’m wandering through my own memories while watching The Wedding Ring. As the pandemic spreaded evenly and inevitably to all sides of the globe, I witnessed all those masks, faces of struggles, belongings being sacrificed, appeared around me as well. I can’t help but to believe that the struggle of Leakhena and the people around her is actually the struggle faced by majority of the world. This makes me perceive the film as a retrospective tool, which gives us a glimpse into the past and see how we reacted during crises. Giving us a question to think about, “How can we do better?”