CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2006
When Michelle Wong's brother, Philip, committed suicide at the age of 36, she felt that she had to find out why. Her film, Pieces of a Dream, is her attempt to understand her brother's death and to deal with his loss. This is a very sad journey. Obviously Philip's death has had an impact on many people; no one in Philip's circle has been untouched.
The opening scene sets the tone of the film. As the family is gathering at Philip's grave, Michelle states that her family was never good at talking about things. Their privacy has made dealing with their loss that much more difficult. Her sister says that one never gets over this kind of pain. It may get dulled over time, but it will not go away.
Philip Wong grew up in St. Paul, AB. According to Michelle, he was very popular and someone she wished to emulate. Thirteen months her senior, he led the way for her, and, despite the fact that they were the only Chinese students in the local high school, Philip made things easy for her.
After the break up of their parents, Philip joined his mother in Las Vegas. His best friend shares that Philip did not want to follow in his father's footsteps and take over the family restaurant. Going to Las Vegas would give him the freedom to map out his own path.
Michelle did not see Philip for 10 years after he moved away. When they reconnected, she was impressed by the life he had made for himself. He was married, had twin children, a nice house, and a Lexus, plus he carried a wad of hundred dollar bills in his pocket.
Gambling had always been part of their experience growing up. It was a form of entertainment. However, when Michelle gave Philip $500 to gamble and he managed to lose it all in 10 minutes, she was shocked at how calmly he reacted. That, she says, should have been a warning.
Philip's wife states that she did not know that he had a gambling problem. He would go out every night at midnight, come home in the morning and give her $100, his winnings for the night. Sadly, this lie was simply part of the problems caused by his compulsive gambling. Over time, he managed to lose his car, and the bank was coming for his house. His father gave him $10,000 to help save the house, but that amount only bought him six months. When the family had to move to a smaller apartment, Philip's wife hid $200 in her wallet; she knew Philip would take the money if he found it. He did and lost it too. Desperate, he asked his mother for $5,000. When she refused, he threatened to kill himself, his wife and their children. When his wife wanted a divorce, he also threatened to kill her, the children and her mother. He had become physically abusive to his wife and stole $7,000 from his mother's secret hiding place and lost it all. The gambling only stopped when he was sent to jail for shooting his wife's ex-husband. After a year in jail, he was offered more jail time or deportation to Canada. He chose the latter and was back in St. Paul, seemingly cured from his gambling addiction.
Once back home, Philip opened an arcade beside his father's restaurant. According to Michelle, business was fine, but he seemed at the bottom of his barrel. One of his children came to live with him, but after Philip's wife saw how she was turning out, she refused to send her back to him after a vacation. Michelle states that Philip suffered from damaged pride and "loss of face." He was depressed initially, but with the loss of his daughter, he felt that he had nothing. Michelle learns that, before he died, Philip had gotten into drug trafficking, owed a dealer $12,000 and had gone back to playing slots.
While death may have removed Philip from his suffering, his absence has had a powerful effect on those left behind. Michelle states that the family has re-found itself and can lean on each other for support. However, her sister admits that she cannot accept his death and has not dealt with it at all. Philip's father cannot contain his grief when Michelle asks him how he feels. Philip's best friend collapses in tears as he describes their last meeting.
Michelle clearly blames the addiction to gambling for Philip's death. She expresses concern for others who may be in the same situation and not receiving any help.
Pieces of a Dream is a difficult film to watch. The emotion presented is raw and brutally honest. This is not a slick production, and that is its strength. While the topic is gambling, the film could be used equally well for the discussion of suicide and its impact on those left behind.
As an aside, after I turned off the VCR, the television went to a station featuring a celebrity poker programme. Pieces of a Dream is vital these days especially as there seems to be a legitimizing and glorification of gambling on television and on-line. Michelle quotes a statistic that she heard: "50% of gamblers in debt admit to thinking about suicide." That side of the story should be heard as well.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.