“Who are you?” the lead actress asks herself, at one point in several languages, as she tries to reclaim her identity from the library of roles which she must play key among them mother to six-year-old son and recent divorcee plagued by scandal. Tan Chui Mui’s meta drama Barbarian Invasion (野蛮人入侵), in which she also stars, is in part a search for the self along with the desire to assert ownership over a physicality that is otherwise uncomfortably shared but also an exploration of local indie filmmaking and the unique challenges faced by a female filmmaker in the South East Asian industry.
Moon Lee (named for the Hong Kong star and played by Tan Chui Mui herself) was formerly a successful actress who married a high profile actor but has now divorced and is raising her six-year-old son Yu Zhou alone. Responding to a request from an old friend, she’s agreed to travel to the coast to revive her film career and has brought Yu Zhou with her as his father is filming in Japan and her mother has just had a knee operation. What Moon hadn’t realised is that she’ll be starring in a low budget action movie inspired by The Bourne Identity and that the director, Roger (Pete Teo), wants her to look convincing as a top assassin. Moon isn’t really convinced but begins to see it as an opportunity for personal growth training with the mysterious Master Loh (James Lee) who, like the wise old monk sitting outside, is fond of cryptic aphorisms.
Nevertheless, Moon’s attention is constantly diverted by Yu Zhou’s restlessness. He darts in to defend her while she’s trying to practice martial arts and runs away when left with a baby sitter, making friends with the daughter of a local cafe owner. She tells the assistant Cathy that when she was pregnant people would come up and touch her belly as if her body no longer belonged to her but had become public property. Moon resented being told that her baby was her greatest work, as if all of her other achievements paled in comparison to her motherhood and she herself had become nothing more than a conduit for her child’s existence. A mere 3D printer for the next generation, as she puts it. Yet what’s she’s doing is in effect an attempt to reintegrate body and soul. As the wise old monk tells her the body is not the prison of the mind but the mind a prison of the body. She achieves mastery over herself through embracing unconscious action. “What is “myself?” she asks Loh and finds the answer in the her that automatically raises its fist to her head in self-protection.
But that doesn’t perhaps help her differentiate Moon Lee the woman from Moon Lee the actress and the various roles she’s played on and off screen. It seems there was a degree of scandal in her recent divorce that’s prompted her into a reconsideration of herself, while she is left feeling betrayed when Roger explains that the producers want to cast her ex Julliard (Bront Palarae) as her love interest and may even pick him over her if she refuses because he is still a big box office draw. Roger then gets a major offer of investment, but it’s from a Chinese actress who wants Moon’s part. Chinese producers want a Chinese star he tries to explain to an increasingly exasperated Moon who wonders what all this is for if she is so easily replaceable.
In any case, an event which seems to transgress the borders between the real and the fictive throws her into the role of her amnesiac heroine who has only muscle memory along with the ability to speak several languages chiefly those spoken by roles she previously played such as a Burmese refugee and Vietnamese bride. Still, as her character begins to recover her identity she too comes into herself, brings some ironic closure to her relationship with her ex, and embarks on a somewhat mystic journey into the self all while ironically riffing on classic kung fu movie themes injected with a little contemporary pop culture. To the challenger the sword was everything, to Musashi everything was the sword Roger explains of a tale in which the elderly Miyamoto Musashi defeated a young rival through turning the world around him into a weapon, adding that to him while film was once everything everything is now film. And so it is for Moon in her ongoing psychodrama rediscovering herself among many others as she fights her way towards bodily autonomy and the reclamation of her authentic identity.
Barbarian Invasion screened as part of this year’s Five Flavours Film Festival and is available to stream in Poland until 4th December.
Original trailer (Simplified Chinese / English subtitles)