The award-winning filmmaker tackles the trending issue of seniors living and dying alone at home in a world that’s increasingly dependent on AI.

Let’s take a look at some disconcerting numbers and statistics. According to a parliamentary news highlight that was published by the Ministry of Health, about 10 percent of Singapore residents aged 60 years and above lived alone in 2020. That’s a staggering 88,000 elderly.

In a country like Singapore with increasing reports of seniors dying alone at home – their decomposing bodies only discovered weeks later, one might add – are we doing enough to protect our vulnerable elderly? Vikneshwaran Silva explores that thought.

After winning Best Director for two years in a row at *SCAPE’s National Youth Film Awards, the 35-year-old rising talent returns with Solitude. This gem of an indie film marks his second foray in the sci-fi genre. Very apt indeed, seeing how AI is involved.

More than meets the eye

The compelling short film sees Detective Tristan (played by Aaron Mossadeg) enter the home of 74-year-old Deva (played by Panneeirchelvam) who supposedly died naturally from a suspected cardiac arrest in his HDB unit.

With the help of his AI Assistant Deputy, he investigates Deva’s death, and slowly realises something more sinister might be at play, involving Deva’s estranged daughter Nithya (played by Veronica Mathyalagan) and a deceptive AI technology helmed by a wealthy vice-president (played by Benjamin Eio).

Artificial Intelligence: Friend or foe?

While the use of exceptionally advanced AI in Solitude might seem a tad far-fetched – at least for now – the film does paint a picture of what may come to be in the distant future. It also opens up a dialogue about the ethical concerns pertaining to AI. Is it friend…or foe?

With Goldcare, the fictional AI-powered eldercare system that (supposedly) protects seniors who live alone, the answer to that question has never been less clear. This uncertainty in the realm of fiction carries itself into modern-day reality.

According to a recently published article by UNESCO, AI-driven decisions are “not always intelligible to humans” and susceptible to “inaccuracies, discriminatory outcomes and embedded or inserted bias”.

For all of its benefits, AI does potentially put human rights at risk. And in the case of Solitude, it resulted in the death of a human – a human who was old, isolated, helpless and lacked the digital literacy to navigate the world of AI-powered technology.

Aesthetics and linguistics

Throughout the 26 minutes and 13 seconds of Solitude, one does wonder if the sci-fi element becomes cringey at some point. Let’s face it, Singaporean productions don’t exactly have a great track record with this genre, if James Lye’s VR Man is anything to go by.

Furthermore, this is an independent effort; not a Hollywood blockbuster with a Marvel franchise budget. Will the special effects look amateurish? Thankfully no, and quite the opposite, actually. The visual treatment for Solitude is tasteful and well-executed.

Aesthetics aside, linguistics play a very important role here. The interaction between Detective Tristan and his AI assistant Deputy was meticulously scripted. The communication is believable, even with all the tech-heavy jargons thrown in. Solid writing; we’re sold.

On the matter of humanity

After everything that’s been said and done, what ties this short film together is its tender core that touches upon the matter of humanity. Beyond the stylish facade of a sci-fi mystery drama, you’re confronted with the very real question of what is right, and what is wrong.

Actor Panneeirchelvam brings the message home with his masterclass portrayal of an abandoned father. The phone conversation between father and daughter is heartbreaking, and his realisation that he is truly alone, isolated and unwillingly confined will haunt you.

But the filmmaker doesn’t just paint his characters in distinguishing colours of good or evil. Oftentimes, humanity exists in the grey area, and Nithya’s heartlessness towards her father – while not condoned – is understandable. You might even brand it poetic justice.

Sign of the times

Vikneshwaren’s career as a filmmaker is still very young; but, his body of work thus far takes a very mature and socially-conscious look at very real issues in Singapore today. His films are really a love letter to Singapore; his way of pleading for you to care.

With each project, he manages to handle and portray the complexities of human nature with sensitivity and empathy. That is the hallmark of a true filmmaker who is to be applauded and continually supported.

Review by: Arman Shah

*Solitude is part of Viddsee Originals Scene City anthology. Viddsee is now Dolby-ready, and the short film can be watched here with #DolbyAtmos/ #DolbyVision capabilities that provide realistic and immersive audio experiences for audiences.