Geran (Areel Abu Bakar, 2019)

“Our family is not merely living for the love of wealth, but for love of a family” according to the late matriarch of the family at the centre of Areel Abu Bakar’s spiritually imbued martial arts film, Geran. Showcasing the Malaysian art of silat, Geran finds the family at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt and selfish society, stoically maintaining their “heritage and dignity” in the face of constant encroachment by the destabilising forces of evil in the form of violent and greedy gangsters.

All the trouble starts early one morning when sister Fatimah (Feiyna Tajudin) discovers that the deed to the family home is missing and concludes that her delinquent younger brother Mat Arip (Fad Anuar) who has not yet returned has most likely taken it as collateral for his gambling debts. Patriarch Pak Nayan (Namron) is not too worried, after all there’s nothing they can do with a deed that’s in his name and would need his permission to transfer, but soon enough the goons turn up only to get a rude awakening, quite literally kicked out by Fatimah who is more than capable of defending herself. They won’t stay away for long, however, because Mat Arip has played right into the hands of arch gangster Haji Daud who has unfinished business with Pak Nayan and an insatiable need to acquire all the land in town. 

The family’s prowess with silat is in many ways presented as an extension of their Islamic faith, a deeply spiritual act which connects them to their land and their culture. There’s not a little irony involved in the juxtaposition of older brother Ali (Khoharullah Majid) training with his mentor and Mat Arip gurning frantically on the fringes of a street fight, a sordid bastardisation of their noble art further sullied by the fact Mat Arip has placed a bet on the match’s outcome (which as we later discover is also rigged). Ali meanwhile remains pure hearted, sure that justice will triumph in the end while determined to defend himself and his family from the corrupting forces which surround them. 

As we discover, Haji Daud’s venality is a direct mirror of Pak Nayan’s goodness, a revenge quest born of his own dark heart and insecurity. Yet he remains a shadowy figure, hiding in back rooms while sending his minions to fight on his behalf. Mat Arip is reminded that debts must be paid, something his spiritually minded family probably agree with even as they continue to forgive him while hoping he’ll be able to free himself of his appetite for self-destruction though it does not appear there is much else out there for him other than his life of vicarious thrills. Unfortunately for him, he’s mired in a macho posing contest with Haji Daud’s equally bored, though presumably better resourced, nephew following a drag racing altercation that eventually gives him pause for thought in robbing him of his car. 

“God’s law is inescapable” Ali echoes, assured that Haji Daud’s crimes cannot go unpunished in a cosmic if not an earthly sense and he will someday pay for his deliberate exploitation of the miseries of the poor. Targeted by goons, the siblings get ample opportunity to show off their silat skills, Fatimah chased through a marketplace, eventually assisted by friendly stall owners shocked at her near lapse in taking a cleaver to one of the gangsters, while Ali goes on-on-one with Daud’s chief minion before going on all out assault to rescue Mat Arip realising that he too has probably fallen victim to attack.

The voice of Ali’s mother eventually reminds him that his successes come not only through his own action but through the prayers of those who love him, reinforcing the importance of familial solidarity as the siblings commit themselves to rescuing Mat Arip while forcing the gangsters into retreat. A worthy showcase for the art of silat with its high impact, innovatively choreographed action scenes, Geran is also a potent spiritual drama in which the family does its best to save itself as a means of saving others, holding the line against the Haji Daud’s of the world with little more than bare fists and incorruptible integrity. 


Geran streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Sometime, Sometime (一时一时的, Jacky Yeap Swee Leong, 2020)

The relationship between mother and son necessarily changes over time, though both find themselves caught in a moment of flux in Jacky Yeap Swee Long’s Sometime, Sometime (一时一时的, Yīshí Yīshí de) in which educational crossroads, employment woes, and unexpected romantic pathways seem set to divide parent and child as they awkwardly swap roles but eventually discover a new equilibrium that will allow them to move forward into individual if perhaps co-dependent futures. 

At 16, Zi Kien (Jacky Yeap Swee Leong) is trapped in an educational limbo while he waits for exam results which will help him decide on the further course of his life. Meanwhile, he resents the helicopter parenting of his devoted single mother Elaine (Tan Chui Mui), arousing her suspicion locking his bedroom door when all he was doing was trying on a shirt he bought himself that she later complains is a little on the big side. When he figures out, however, that his mum has got a new boyfriend, Mr. Lee (Loh Kok Man), the situation is reversed. He doesn’t like it that she’s not quite so overly invested anymore and resents for the moment not being the centre of her attention. Insisting on coming along on a dinner date, he is deliberately difficult, suddenly claiming that he’s gone vegetarian despite having been seen eating pork ribs for breakfast solely to mess with Mr. Lee’s proposed order. For his part, Mr. Lee seems not to be particularly bothered, simply adding an egg dish while getting some sweet and sour pork for himself should Zi Kien abruptly change his mind. 

This flip flopping seems to be typical of Zi Kien’s character at least according to his mother who complains he’s sometimes one thing and sometimes another. Today he’s “vegetarian” but then again he might have forgotten all about it by dinnertime tomorrow. A young man at a crossroads, he flounders for direction, perhaps looking for guidance from the older generation but mildly mocked by some of his peers who regard him as a mother’s boy too afraid of upsetting Elaine to think about applying for the lucrative residential jobs at a casino resort as some of his friends are doing. Zi Kien lies that he bought the shirt for potential interviews, only to be railroaded into taking a short term placement at the supermarket where the worryingly domineering Mr. Lee works. “No need to think about it” he insists on hearing Zi Kien’s lukewarm response, acting as if it’s all arranged and leaving the boy with virtually no chance to refuse.

Yet there’s perhaps a part of Zi Kien that responds to the kind of authority that relieves him of the burden of choice. He finds himself parroting back words from Mr. Lee as if they were profound nuggets of wisdom rather than the banal logic of a slightly conservative middle-aged man. His friend Xue-Ting (Yap Jia Ern) even tells him that he sounds like one of her irritating uncles, once again remarking that his shirt looks too big for him and recommending he might be better to try the women’s section (adding that she herself often finds the kids’ selection a better fit). Only later does he start to wonder if there’s not something slightly arrogant in all Mr. Lee’s “guidance”, immediately making suggestions on how the video he showed him might be “improved” if he added some mournful music and interviewed a few more of his friends from the “lost and confused” generation. His birth father later viewing the same video advances something similar only seeing not anxiety but comedy, advising him that adding music might make it “funnier”. Only Xue-Ting thinks the video’s fine as it is, though Zi Kien later tries the same mansplaining logic on her in railroading the longterm vegetarian into trying “real” meat seemingly unaware that it has the potential to make her quite ill.  

Elaine at least seems better placed to resist Mr. Lee when he also tries to railroad her into taking a job at his company on hearing that the mall where she was working in a department store will soon be closing. Curiously, their relationship seems to breakdown afterwards, though he keeps hanging around hoping to catch the “psychopath” who damages cars parked in a particular space without authorisation. Elaine’s decision to get a haircut (one perhaps so disappointing that she ends up wearing an ugly wig) might be as much a reaction to her son’s possibly inappropriate clinginess as to her boyfriend’s domineering nature, but also speaks of her new desire to take control of herself and her life, buying a used car from a friend so they can be truly independent but then teaching Zi Kien how to drive it, not to mention even teaching him how to smoke a cigarette. Zi Kien is anxious enough to spend some of his part-time money on a long wig (an equally awful, retro 80s contraption) to put her back the way she was before, Elaine agreeing to wear it from time to time to show she appreciates the sentiment but later getting herself tidied up with a slightly more fashionable bob. 

Through their respective parallel dramas, mother and son eventually learn to reconfigure themselves for a new future, more comfortable in their roles and perhaps each with new direction. Elliptical and rich with doublings, symmetry, and repetition, Yeap’s gentle summer story is quietly humorous while undoubtedly well observed and filled with a loving empathy for this most essential, if sometimes frustrating, of connections.  


Sometime, Sometime streams in Poland until 6th December as part of the 14th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Festival trailer (English subtitles)

Miss Andy (迷失安狄, Teddy Chin, 2020)

“The things we like we’re still going to lose” according to a drunken young man lamenting youthful impossibility in Teddy Chin’s melancholy tale of marginalisation and frustrated hope, Miss Andy (迷失安狄). A Malaysian-Taiwanese co-production, Chin’s sensitive drama allows its disparate protagonists to find a sense of security in the solidarity of an accidental family, but all too quickly reminds us that despair is the enemy of love and that a lack of faith in human connection can undermine even the most genuine of bonds in those who can no longer believe in future happiness. 

The titular “Miss Andy”, Evon (Lee Lee-zen), has certainly had her share of disappointment. Now 55, she transitioned five years previously following the death of her wife but both of her grown-up children have since disowned her. Having lost her livelihood, she’s had no choice other than to resort to sex work in order to make ends meet, finding herself on the receiving end of male violence from her clients only then to be arrested with the man insisting that he was only defending himself against her advances and attempt to rob him while the unsympathetic police officer dead names and berates her with homophobic slurs. She is eventually forced to strip and expose her genitals while half the station gawp and take photos. Evon decides to give up on sex work and advises her friend Lucy to do the same, but she refuses to see the danger and is later murdered by a man who solicited her for sex. 

Feeling totally alone, Evon tries to claim her position in society, insisting on receiving her pay from her previous employer who tries to short-change her justifying herself with more transphobic slurs. Evon has only one other friend, Teck (Jack Tan), a young man with a hearing impairment who offers her additional work as a delivery driver during which she encounters a little boy looking longingly at some pastries in a small store by a petrol station. She decides to buy one for him, but the boy has gone when she returns. Later that night, however, she gets a surprise discovering the boy and his mother having snuck into her apartment after stowing away on the truck. Hearing that they’ve escaped an abusive relationship and have nowhere else to go she invites them to stay.

Sophia (Ruby Lin), the boy’s mother, is an undocumented migrant from Vietnam. She’s struck by the unlikely miracle of Evon because her name sounds a little like the Vietnamese for hope, something on which she was beginning to give up. We see her telephone her family, but her father only angrily demands more money, eventually passing the phone over to her sister who unsentimentally tells her that her mother has died. All the rest of the family were with her, only Sophia was absent. Feeling just as alone as Evon she is grateful for her kindness, swearing to find a job to repay it while cooking and cleaning as a means of saying thank you. 

Later joined by Teck and anchored by Sophia’s young son Kang who is the same age as the granddaughter Evon is rarely allowed to see, they begin to become a family, united in their sense of marginalisation each in some way rejected by mainstream society. Evon religiously buys lottery tickets using the birthdays of her wife and children as numbers in the hope they’ll eventually come up and she’ll somehow win her family back. Even Sophia who had perhaps not dared to dream of a brighter future eventually joins in as they idly fantasise about the kind of home they’d build if they actually won while sitting in an upscale furniture store before the server at a festive restaurant offers to take a picture of their “family”, but when that sense of possibility finally presents itself the illusion is shattered. Desperation undermines their fragile bond, pushes them towards doubt and betrayal, no longer able to believe in the viability of simple human goodness or mutual support as mechanisms for living but suddenly selfish and self-destructive destroying everything they’d built in mistakenly staking all on the vague possibility of material comfort.

Asked about her dreams, Evon had only stated that she wanted a safe and stable life but what she craved was the sense of togetherness and acceptance she felt with Sophia and Kang while her children continue to reject her and she finds herself marginalised by a conservative society that refuses to affirm her existence as a transgender woman. Bathed alternately in the melancholy neon of the outside world and the golden warmth of Evon’s apartment, Miss Andy leaves its marginalised protagonists wounded, pushed into acts of self harm having lost all faith in the veracity of simple human connection corrupted by the fear and despair of an unforgiving society ruled by inequality and prejudice. 


Miss Andy streamed as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Victim(s) (加害者、被害人, Layla Zhuqing Ji, 2020)

“People don’t care about the truth, they just need someone to blame because that’s the easy thing to do” according to a secondary victim caught up in the complicated events which led to the killing at the centre of Layla Zhuqing Ji’s empathetic debut feature, Victim(s) (加害者、被害人, Jiāhàizhě, Bèihàirén). A tale of two mothers, Victim(s) does its best not to apportion blame to any one individual but points the finger at a rigid and austere conformist society in which conservative social codes and a culture of victim blaming conspire to restrict freedom and breed unhappiness. 

Cast in the roles of victim and killer are high school students Gangzi (Kahoe Hon), the son of a poor masseuse (Remon Lim) stabbed to death beside an ATM, and Chen (Fu Xianjun) son of a wealthy single-mother (Huang Lu) who some say made her money in questionable ways. Students at the school speak of discord between the two boys, describing Chen as strange, a bit of a loner with an unpleasant superiority complex that, coupled with his status as top of the class, led him to look down on those around him. They say he viewed Gangzi with disdain because of his working class background and was upset because they both liked the same girl, transfer student Qianmo (Wilson Hsu), but she turned him down in favour of Gangzi. After a few days on the run, Chen turns himself in and confesses to the crime but has a slightly different story, claiming that, in fact, he was bullied by the other kids including Gangzi partly because he was wealthy, they were roughing him up for money, and partly because he was an outsider at school widely disliked as a swot. 

Of course, both mothers are convinced their sons are perfect angels but are eventually led to discover that perhaps they didn’t know their children as well as they thought they did. The technological divide between the generations trumps that of social class with the kids largely living in an online world where the traditional prejudices are only magnified through teenage gossip. Rather than swapping notes like in the old days, they group chat during in lessons and reinforce social hierarchy through shame and bullying. Transfer student Qianmo quickly finds this out to her cost, becoming a target for the ruling group of popular girls after she declines to join their dance troupe, while the boys are determined to hit on her despite her obvious lack of interest. 

Qianmo was forced to give up dancing and leave her previous school which specialised in the arts because, it’s implied, her dance teacher was molesting her, yet she’s already been branded a “teenage slut” online for supposedly seducing him. The other girls are remarkably unsympathetic, engaging in sexualised bullying they proudly film and share amongst themselves. The boys are doing something similar, yet even though the point of these videos is that the kids share them widely to humiliate each other, they are never a part of the official investigation and the adults have no idea they exist. Qianmo is too afraid to report her bullying because she fears they’ll ask why it is she’s being bullied and then say it’s her own fault, while Chen who finds himself scapegoated after a homoerotic porn magazine is discovered in the dorm, simply fears reprisals. Questioned by the police the other kids all toe the line, afraid that they’ll become targets too for speaking the truth, all too happy to let Chen take the blame while allowing the awful status quo to continue but resentful that he will most likely wield his privilege to escape justice. 

Chen meanwhile blames himself, repeatedly asking if he’s the the cause of others’ suffering while Gangzi works out his frustrations with his abusive father and repressed sexuality through delinquency. Both mothers desperately try to save their sons, but find themselves struggling to comprehend the gap between the image they had of the young men their children were becoming and the unpleasant truths they are beginning to discover. Meanwhile, external bullying from a media mob further obfuscates the truth, baying for blood and creating only more victims in the process as it insists its brand of socially conservative, compassionless justice be served at all costs. Yet against the odds, the women eventually come to a kind of understanding, choosing to accept the reality while protecting other victims, refusing the “easy” option of a prepackaged “truth” that neatly fits the needs the needs of a bullying society. Ji’s hard-hitting debut too refuses easy answers, finding that in the cycle of violence and abuse perpetrators and victims are often one and the same but each subject to the same petty oppressions contributing to an atmosphere of rigid social conformity which breeds nothing but misery.


Victim(s) streamed as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Soul (Roh, Emir Ezwan, 2020)

“We’re now living in a dangerous time. Many people are desperate and feel unsafe” according to the beleaguered single-mother at the centre of Emir Ezwan’s slow burn folk horror Soul (Roh). The latest film produced by Malaysian powerhouse Kuman Pictures which specialises in low budget horror, Ezwan’s tale of supernatural dread situates itself in a world in which there is “always something evil around us” and existential threat may arrive in the most unexpected of forms. 

This a small family discovers to its cost when they come across a little girl (Putri Qaseh) wandering in the jungle and, as anyone would, take her into their home where they give her food and shelter while trying to find out where she’s come from and what might have happened to her. Unfortunately, however, after some ominous events, the girl tears apart one of their chickens and eats it raw before cursing them by issuing the prophecy that they will all be dead by the next full moon, thereafter slashing her own throat. The woman, Mak (Farah Ahmad), and her two children, daughter Along (Mhia Farhana) and son Angah (Harith Haziq), are obviously upset and afraid but have no idea what to do. They take the body further into the jungle and leave it there. After that more visitors arrive at their remote hut, a hunter with a spear and a milky eye (Namron), and a wise old woman, Tok (June Lojong), who always seems to be offering them advice only to remember that she has other important business to attend to before imparting it. 

Things only get worse for the woman and her children who, as far as we know, have done nothing wrong, only try to help a lost little girl. Living as they do on the edge of the forest, they are well acquainted with its duplicitous mysteries. “Never believe anything that you see or hear in the jungle” Mak cautions the children, scolding her hungry son who’d wanted to take a deer he and his sister found mysteriously hanging from a tree and bring it home to eat. Along fears a tiger, but logically someone put that deer there for a reason and might not be happy if someone walked off with it, though as far as the family knew they were the only ones nearby. Still they don’t seem to find anything odd in the sudden arrival of the old woman who tells them she’s come from across the river to gather herbs, warning them that there are bad vibes all round their house and something untoward is sure to befall them if they don’t take care. 

Caught between the wise woman and the vengeful man apparently hot on the trail of the little girl, the family has no idea who to believe or where to turn. The old woman tells Angah that he has no need to be afraid, evil is all around us but can only hurt through other humans which is why it’s better not to trust anyone. Yet supernatural threat is always lurking, waiting for an opportunity to strike. We have no power over you, it later confesses, all we had to do was whisper and you obeyed. Mak, alone with her children, is entirely cut off from the outside world. She has no idea what has happened in the village across the water, and no recourse to help outside of Tok and the power of prayer, something she is later accused of not having valued enough. She and her children are accidental bystanders in someone else’s spiritual battle, completely powerless and entirely at the mercy of those who selfishly pursue their own desires with little thought to the family’s lives. 

Ezwan conjures a deep atmosphere of existential dread as the darkness begins to seep out of the forest and engulf all around it. Mak warned the children that they shouldn’t go taking things out of the jungle, but despite the eerie superstitions of ghosts and ghost hunters she knew from her youth was all too easily tricked by something that walked out on its own and followed them home. There is darkness everywhere, and with darkness fire. “Your next life will be as eternal as your soul” the voice of darkness warns, make your choices wisely.


Soul is available to stream in Europe until July 4 as part of this year’s Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Two Sisters (姐妹, James Lee, 2019)

The family home is supposed to be a place of safety, but what can you do when it’s also a source of trauma? The young women at the centre of James Lee’s psychological horror Two Sisters (姐妹, Jiěmèi) are each trying to put their houses back in order but find that their pasts are full of locked doors, crying women, and things which go bump in the night. In the end the past is the one thing you can’t protect yourself from, but not knowing can also be its own kind of hell, an inescapable puzzle that forever corrupts the image of the self. 

Elegant and successful, Mei Xi (Emily Lim) has just published her first book – a horror novel about a woman with multiple personality disorder which is, she tells her fans at a reading, a metaphor for the dual lives many women are forced to lead because of the pressures of living under the patriarchy. Meanwhile, her home life appears to be chaotic. We see her swallow a selection of pills before a one night stand cheerfully leaves her well-appointed apartment, only for her manager, John, to interrogate her after she’s late for an appointment wondering what she was doing the night before which prevented her from answering any of his calls. She reminds him that that’s none of his business. They may have slept together once but it meant nothing to her and anyway he’s a married man. Xi hopes they can keep their relationship “professional” going forward, attempting damage control on a possibly self-destructive business move. 

The main issue, however, is that her father has recently died and she’d like to sell the family home but needs the consent of her younger sister, Yue (Lim Mei Fen), who has been in a mental institution for over a decade. The doctors tell her that Yue has made good progress and they think it might be time to discharge her from the hospital so that she can start trying to reintegrate into mainstream society. Xi agrees to take custody of her, but there is an understandable distance between the two women. Yue is uncertain that Xi will be there when she needs her, partly because she neglected to visit her in the hospital on her last birthday and had apparently seen her only infrequently, Xi claims because she was busy with her book. Meanwhile, Yue is still unable to recall any of her childhood and is determined to move back into their family home in the hope of finally finding the truth behind whatever it was that happened to her. 

As expected, not everything is quite as it seems. A locked door is never a good sign, especially when there are multiple locks to unpick, but as soon as the women try to open it their shared reality begins to crumble. “What’s the point in knowing the truth?” Yue eventually asks an increasingly confused Xi, “it’s too late to change anything now”. The two women are each haunted, literally and metaphorically, by the ghost of their mother who died when they were small in circumstances neither of them are able to remember. 

The real horror lies in the family home. Badly let down by parental betrayal, the sisters attempt to rescue each other from shared trauma but are each trapped by the inescapability of the house. “I’ll always be by your side” Xi offers as words of protection, but is entirely unable to protect herself from the traumatic past. Yet Lee ends on a note of discomfort which sees Xi apologise to her mother for something that is in no way her fault, as if she had in some way betrayed her when quite the reverse is true. Xi’s words at the book reading prove truer than she knew them to be. She herself has her dualities, as did her mother, as a victim of patriarchal oppression which in this case has a sadly literal quality. The women of the Mei household struggle to free themselves from male violence and are perhaps destroyed by its memory which manifests itself in the ominous spectre of the family home which, rather than a place of love and mutual support, is a kind of prison filled with locked doors and dark secrets. 


Two Sisters screens in Amsterdam on March 6/7 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Walk With Me (雙魂, Ryon Lee, 2019)

Walk with me still 3“I will be at your side for ever and ever” promises a creepy doll at the centre of Ryon Lee’s Walk with Me (雙魂, Shuāng Hún). It might be better to have the creepy doll on your side rather than on someone else’s but, all things considered, it’s a heavy thing to carry. At least, that’s how the heroine, Sam (Michelle Wai Si-nga), begins to feel when she starts to wonder if spilling all her anxieties onto the doll was the best idea seeing as now people around her seem to be “disappearing”. Is the ghost inside the doll angry and taking its revenge, or is it just trying to protect? Assuming, as Sam does, that ghosts even exist.

A 20-something woman still living at home with an abusive, gambling father (Richard Ng Yiu-hon) and a mother (Anna Ng Yuen-Yi) still grieving for her lost little boy, Sam has a dead end job in a factory where she is being sexually harassed by the male bosses and mercilessly bullied by the other ladies on the floor. Part of the reason Sam is being bullied is that a woman in her building was recently “possessed” by the spirit of a dead child which is judged more than a coincidence seeing as Sam’s mother maintains a shrine and makes offerings to her late son. The strange goings on only started when Sam’s family moved in around 18 months previously so the obvious conclusions have been drawn.

Intensely lonely and a perpetual victim, Sam later tells a childhood friend she unexpectedly reconnects with that she has grown so used to being bullied that she just accepts it and has given up. Dao Dao, the creepy doll, has been her only companion for most of her life and Sam has been used to using it as a kind of therapy device, something she can talk to freely without fear of recriminations. Harbouring the uncomfortable belief that the doll may be possessed by the ghost of her little brother who died before he was even born, she is starting to worry that her father’s constant attempts to get rid of Dao Dao by cutting it up or otherwise brutally disposing of it may have made it angry. To test her belief that Dao Dao is the cause of the unexplained strangeness in her life, she’s started carrying it around with her which, of course, seems to be making the danger spread – conveniently into her work life where most of the people she most hates are located.

Meanwhile, she’s reconnected with York (Alex Lam) – a guy who used to be her only friend when they were kids and bonded over being bullied (her nickname was “bony”, his was “chubby” – he’s been working out ever since). Like the doll, York promises that he’ll always be by her side to protect her from mean people and ghosts too – he doesn’t believe in them but if Sam does then he’ll go with it. Pretty soon, York has moved into the spare room in their building and is doing his best to stand by Sam but the strangeness of events keeps escalating while Sam’s mental state fluctuates. She keeps thinking that she sees the ghost of a little girl in pig tails, but remains more afraid of bad people than of supernatural threat. Even her boss’ little daughter seems to be a budding psychopath, posed eagerly with her iPhone in front of the microwave in which she’s placed an adorable little puppy just to watch it go pop.

York tells Sam that if she wants to beat the darkness she’ll have to become a part of it, apparently meaning that she’ll need to become as strong as it is in order to stave it off. Events however point towards her interpretation, that she’ll eventually have to turn to the dark side in trying to stand up for herself or else remain a perpetual victim. It may very well be irrational to blame a doll for a crime spree, but then nobody seems to think getting possessed by a ghost, or trying to keep one in your home like pet, is anything out of the ordinary. In any case the ghosts Sam is most afraid of are the ones within herself, the ones that hint at her own duality, and embody all of the rage, despair, and guilt of which she is unable to speak. Dao Dao will indeed “always” be with her, only perhaps not quite in the way she thinks. A psychologically acute tale of painful repression and low self esteem, Walk With Me is less the story of a creepy doll and its supernatural revenge than of a lonely soul’s gradual fracturing under the intense pressure of constant rejection and wilful misuse.


Walk with Me screens on 4th July as part of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival

Show Me Your Love (大手牽小手, Ryon Lee, 2016)

Show Me Your Love posterIs it ever really too late to make up for lost time? Malaysian-born director Ryon Lee explores dislocations familial and geographical between a conflicted son and the guilt ridden mother who left him behind. Show Me Your Love (大手牽小手) shifts from frenetic, ambitious Hong Kong to sleepy, laidback Malaysia and from the ‘80s to the present day as two generations reprocess the idea of family in the wake of their own fears and disappointments both afraid and eager to put the past behind them while there is still time to make amends.

In the Hong Kong of 2016, Nin (Raymond Wong Ho-yin) is a successful teacher with a high-flying estate agent wife Sau-lan (Ivana Wongwho’s trying to convince him to give up his teaching job and movie to Guangzhou to invest in property. Home life is somewhat strained with Sau-lan working overtime and Nin worrying about a move he doesn’t really want to make, all of which means it’s the worst possible time to get an unexpected long-distance phone call informing him that the aunt that helped to bring him up when he lived in Malaysia has passed away. Travelling alone to the funeral, Nin is encouraged to reconnect with his estranged mother Sze-nga (Nina Paw Hee-ching) who has apparently started to behave strangely much to the consternation of Nin’s cousin who had been looking after her but is due to move to Australia to be close to her own children. Sze-nga angrily insists that she doesn’t want to return to Hong Kong with Nin and so he has little choice other than to place her in an old persons home at least until he can sort things out.

Nin’s melancholy voice over relates to us the various reasons he chose not to stay in contact with his mother. After abruptly moving them from Hong Kong to Malaysia when he was a boy, Sze-nga was continually evasive about her personal life and frequently told him minor lies which left him with longstanding trust issues and a lingering fear that she would soon abandon him. Sze-nga eventually did just that, depositing him with her sister while she went abroad again to work only to resurface 10 years later when her son was almost a man, taking him back and accidentally ripping him away from the surrogate family he’d formed with his aunt.

Truth be told, Nin never quite felt as if he belonged in his aunt’s family either despite her best efforts. A nosy a relative made sure he was pulled out of the family wedding photos in case someone thought he’d been officially adopted, somehow signalling his liminal status like a stray cat given temporary refuge. Perhaps for that reason he never managed to keep in contact with his aunt, either, forgetting to send her a New Year card as he’d promised he would. Broken promises become something of a theme from Sze-nga’s constant attempts to smooth things over with a comforting lie to the guilt and resentment that stands between mother and son.

Failure to communicate honestly continues to cause problems for the pair as well as for Nin individually whose longstanding fear of confrontation has led him to avoid telling his wife he’d rather not move to Guangzhou or to explain what’s going on in Malaysia. Eventually joined by his wife and daughter, Nin begins to repair his familial wounds by coming to understand a little about his “difficult” mother in that she always wanted the best for him but had a funny way of (not) showing it. Before it’s too late, he decides to make up for lost time by making good on some of those long forgotten promises as seen on a cute homework assignment he made as a 10 year old in which he was tasked with figuring out his mother’s hopes and dreams.

Despite the fierce sentimentality, Lee makes space for some typically Hong Kong verbal humour to lighten the mood while Nin’s melancholy childhood reminisces take on a rosy, whimsical tone even as he relates his own heartbreak in feeling abandoned and rejected by his often absent mother. Show Me Your Love is a warm and funny tale of putting the past to rest before it’s too late, making the most of the time you have left with the people that you love before it runs out with too much left unsaid.


Show Me Your Love screens as part of the eighth season of Chicago’s Asian Pop-up Cinema on 26th March, 2019 at AMC River East 21, 7pm where actress Nina Paw Hee-ching will be present for an introduction and Q&A.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Canadian-Hong-Kong actress and Cantopop star Ivana Wong also sings the same titled main titles theme

Dukun (Dain Iskandar Said, 2018)

Dukun posterInspired by a notorious real life crime, Dain Iskandar Said’s Dukun proved too controversial Malaysia’s censors and is only now reaching cinema screens after languishing on a studio shelf for the last twelve years. It arrives, however, alongside a number of similarly themed East Asian horror films which pit ancient “superstitions” against “respectable” religions and, unlike many, broadly comes down on the side of Islam which perhaps makes the fact that it was banned a little surprising. Then again, as a lawyer points out midway through the unconventional femme fatale’s murder trial, there are many who believe in “black magic” and perhaps faith is not enough to hold off the overwhelming supernatural dread of incomprehensible otherworldly forces.

Said opens with the conclusion as Diana (Umie Aida), the “gifted” shamaness and glamorous nightclub singer, dolls up in a beautiful ballgown to be sure of making an impression at her own hanging. Dialling back a little, the dismembered body of a businessman is discovered with evidence that suggests a ritualised killing. Meanwhile, veteran lawyer Karim (Faizal Hussein) is desperately searching for his 17-year-old daughter Nadia (Elyana) who ran away from home after an argument. Fearing Nadia has gotten herself mixed up with drugs, Karim hopes to get an old police contact to help him keep tabs on new arrests but in return he finds himself agreeing to defend a difficult client who has already rejected all 23 public defenders put in front of her. Diana argues that the businessman died as a result of a ritual intended to make him invincible because he didn’t listen to her instructions and the spells didn’t work – his death, therefore, is not her “fault” but the unfortunate consequence of improper respect for shamanistic practices.

Dukun’s banning is apparently not so much down to a direct confrontation of Islam and shamanism, but the sensitivity surrounding the real life case which inspired it. In 1993, former pop-singer Mona Fandey, who had rebranded herself as a top shaman catering to the rich and famous, was arrested for the murder of a politician whose dismembered body was eventually discovered in her storehouse. As the investigation progressed, more bodies were discovered as was a lengthly paper trail detailing a shopping spree which even included a face lift. Unsurprisingly given all the grizzly details and celebrity connections, the trial was a media sensation which Fandey milked for all it was worth.

Though the narrative and facts of the case have obviously been fictionalised, the comparisons are obvious – the accused shamanesss is even called “Diana” which was the title of one of Fandey’s unsuccessful albums. Actress Umie Aida perfectly mimics Fandey’s deluded fame hungry creepiness but also adds the oddly alluring quality of a film noir femme fatale as she shifts between elegant nightclub singer and all powerful practitioner of black magic. Diana plays to the gallery, attempts to charm the court, and acts as if her trial is just another show conducted in front of her adoring fans while preparing herself for the grand “finale” which, unbeknownst to the legal system, may all be a part of her greatest work of ritual magic.

Meanwhile, Karim attempts to defend her with a keen application of the law, pitting “irrational” ritual against state sponsored logic which itself is perhaps largely under the sway of conventionally religious thinking. Karim’s wife disappeared ten years previously, leaving him to raise his daughter alone only to have her disappear too. Diana seems oddly familiar with Karim’s difficult family circumstances and offers to “help” him in return for delivering makeup and a mysterious object from her apartment. Karim is desperate enough to accept, but in accepting may have already betrayed himself even if he’s careful to also consult his local Imam as to the best course of action.

As in the all best supernatural noir, darkness is coming for Karim. Engulfed in an inescapable spiral of dread and despair, Karim finds himself sinking ever deeper in his quest to rescue his daughter little knowing that they are all involved in an ancient conspiracy over which they have little or no control. You can’t play around with the supernatural, Diana counsels, but the supernatural may very well play around with you.


Dukun screens as part of the New York Asian Film Festival 2018 on 13th July 6.15pm

Official trailer (English subtitles for dialogue, contains disturbing imagery)

Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口, Nam Ron, 2018)

crossroads one two jaga posterThe world is increasingly interconnected but far from greater freedom and increased possibilities, exploitation is often all that awaits those seeking opportunities overseas. Crossroads: One Two Jaga (十字路口) places the undocumented migrant worker at its centre and uncovers a deeply entrenched system of corruption and hypocrisy in which the line between the forces of order and chaos is so thin as to be barely discernible. The migrant worker is exploited twice over – once by the employers and again by the police who blackmail and extort, pulling in anyone who seems “suspicious” whenever they find themselves short of a few pennies. With no recourse to the “law” and no route “home”, there is little hope for a brighter future for any but those who seek to profit from other people’s misery.

Beginning at the end, we open on the bruised face of a young man who has prominent stitches on his cheek. Something tells us he is a police officer, but he is in questioning over the death of a young boy, killed by a bullet from his weapon. The officer looks stunned and claims to know nothing. As it turns out he may be telling the truth, but he alone is responsible for a child’s death, on the one hand, and exposing a corrupt police chief, on the other.

Flashing back, Joko (Izuan Fitri) – the son of Indonesian migrant worker Iman (Ario Bayu), wants to go for a ride with Adi (Amerul Affendi) – the adult son of Mr. Sarip (Azman Hassan) who runs a small construction firm (among other enterprises). Iman doesn’t really want his son to go, but he ignores him and goes anyway. Iman has another problem on his hands – his sister, Sumiyati (Asmara Abigail), who has left the family she was working for as a maid and wants to go home to Indonesia. Mr. Sarip says he can help with that (for a price) but Sumiyati is stopped by Hassan (Rosdeen Suboh) and his rookie partner Hussein (Zahiril Adzim). Hassan really just wants a bribe because his wife really needs money to avoid family embarrassment, but things goes south when Iman ropes in Adi to try and help him out only to escalate the situation into a declaration of war on the “rogue” policemen.

Undocumented workers exist in a kind of grey area which makes it possible for the unscrupulous to misuse them for their own ends. Sumiyati, like many young women, has gone abroad to work as a maid but found herself kept a virtual prisoner by her employer who holds her passport as a guarantee. With job parameters unclear, she finds herself not only maid but cook, babysitter, and office assistant and all for almost no pay. Fed up she upped and left, but lost her passport in the process leaving her with no legal way back to Indonesia which is where she’s decided she’d rather go. The only way “home” is through the back door channels operated by men like Mr. Sarip who have fingers in many pies and friends in all the right places.

Ordinarily speaking, a righteous rookie cop would be our hero, but we already know Hussein is our villain. Though he wants to enforce the letter of the law and resents the casual corruption of other officers, it’s his hotheadedness and refusal to play the long game which eventually cause so much trouble. Accidentally or otherwise, he does manage to unmask the kingpin responsible for holding together a system of corruption running from the top of the force down, collaborating with the criminals and turning a blind eye to real “crime”, but it comes at a heavy price and one to which Hussein seems worryingly indifferent.

Stylishly shot, Crossroads weaves a complex picture of interconnected exploitations in which the innocent are made to pay the price for the world in which they live. Realist in essence but expressionist in intent, gritty images of children disposing of bodies mingle with a father’s nightmare as blood colours the rain soaked ground and a young woman disappears in its miasmic haze. Malaysia maybe the crossroads of Asia, but it also finds itself at something of a junction unsure in which direction to turn, unwilling to confront the darkness that lies at the heart of the modern society.   


Screened at the 20th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Official trailer (English subtitles)