Zombie Infection (Belaban Hidup: Infeksi Zombie, Ray Lee Voon Leong, 2021)

An indigenous village finds itself under threat thanks to concurrent waves of colonialism in Ray Lee Voon Leong’s indie undead drama, Zombie Infection (Belaban Hidup: Infeksi Zombie). “Don’t concern yourself with outsiders. Our longhouse should be our only concern” advises the village head, yet as the heroes will shortly discover nowhere is really as isolated as it might at first seem and the consequences of exploitation and abuse will eventually reach even the deepest of forests.

As detailed in the opening voiceover animation, evil Russian mad scientist Dr George (Weeam Shawaheen) has fled to Borneo after creating chaos elsewhere and is currently conducting his nefarious experiments on the marginalised taking villagers off the streets and tricking orphans with the promise of free medical care in return for participating in “clinical trials”. Unfortunately, Dr George’s marvellous medicine turns people into zombies which becomes a problem when a bunch of them escape along with a handful of orphans fleeing their captivity at the hands of the exploitative physician. After searching a nearby mall looking for a missing sister and picking up a little boy orphaned by his zombified mother, the gang make their way into the forest assuming that the rough terrain will make it harder for the zombies to follow them but unfortunately they are not quite correct in their assumption. 

Meanwhile, an indigenous village is going about its normal life hunting in the forest little knowing they are already under threat despite the persistent nightmares plaguing village head’s son, Gadang (Pablo Amirul). Gadang is soon to become a father for the second time but his relationship with his young daughter Suna is beginning to fray, his wife Jawai (Anna Melissa) cautioning him that he can’t keep making promises only to disappoint her later as he agrees to take her swimming in lieu of allowing her to accompany him into the forest. His father patiently sharpens knives, insisting that it’s best to be ready for any eventuality though village life seems to be happy and as far as they know there is no reason to feel unsafe. Nevertheless, the infection soon catches up with them even if they are slow to believe claims of an undead invasion coming from “outsiders” later blamed for bringing evil into the forest. 

Only, it wasn’t the orphans who brought it, one of whom has indigenous tattoos on his shoulders and speaks the same language as the other villagers, but arguably two of their own who had sold out their people to collaborate with Dr George in return for riches. Realising the scale of the problem on his hands, Dr George determines to look for an antidote but there’s nothing he can really do to put right the chain reaction his immoral greed has caused in his exploitative misuse of the marginalised members of a small South East Asian nation. 

“What has happened is indeed alarming” according to one of the villagers in what might be the understatement of several centuries, but isolation is no longer enough to protect their longhouse from the ravages of colonialism as they find themselves assaulted by hordes of man-eating monsters created by the greed and amorality of the infinitely corrupt Dr. George. Gadang is forced to face his nightmares, anxious in assuming his father’s responsibility to protect the village while mindful that he has perhaps in a sense neglected his duties as a husband and father while playing the big man in the forest. It’s just as well his dad sharpened all those knives, because they are its seems their last defence even as they’re forced deeper into the forest in search of a safety that may no longer exist. 

At its best when exploring the lives of the indigenous community, Zombie Infection reaches its stride only when arriving at the forest even while its attempt to shift focus from the fleeing orphans to the villagers is only partially successful. Nevertheless, the film makes the best of its meagre budget with some impressive prosthetics and zombie choreography as the villagers go after the undead threat with indigenous weapons and wearing traditional dress. Yet as the film’s melancholy conclusion perhaps implies, the legacy of colonialism can’t be overcome so easily leaving the survivors in the middle of a battle seemingly far from its end. 

Zombie Infection streamed as part of Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival 2021.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Babi (Namewee, 2020)

No stranger to controversy, Namewee’s latest, Babi, saw him once again questioned by the authorities when a complaint was lodged citing the film’s alleged “racist elements” which “tarnished Malaysia’s image” while the producer was also later accused of failing to gain the proper license for the film’s production. In fact, some were convinced that the film itself was fake and Namewee’s claims that it had been shortlisted for major international festivals were just bluster, yet it does really exist even if some really wish that it didn’t considering the rather bleak picture it paints of a society marked by racial discrimination and corrupted authority. 

Namewee opens with a lengthy context sequence outlining major events which occurred in the year 2000 from the Australian Olympics to Bush’s election while claiming that the shocking story he’s about to tell is true but was never reported because, it’s implied, it was covered up by the authorities. A boy dies at an ordinary high school, apparently having gone over one of the balconies and landing in the courtyard below. The school, panicked, want to get this cleared up as soon as possible, preferably before going home time because they’d rather the parents didn’t find out about it and are desperate to keep it out of the papers. For all of these reasons, it’s best for them to call the boy’s death a suicide, yet empathetic and soon to retire police officer Singh insists on a full and proper investigation. 

What follows is a Rashomon-like series of alternative witness statements each of which move silently towards the truth. What’s certain is that a fight broke out between rival gangs in the cafeteria after rich kid Kiet’s coke was knocked over, he assumed deliberately. Kiet is an extremely unpleasant and entitled young man resentful that no one likes him but constantly harping on about his prominent father while showing off his wealth by, among other things, driving a BMW to school. This perhaps plays into an unpleasant stereotype as Kiet is a member of the ethnic Chinese community which, despite being a minority, is resented by some Malays the film suggests for its supposed stranglehold on the national economy. The Chinese minority, meanwhile, continue to suffer degrees of discrimination. The boy who died, Chong, had been turned down when applying for a university scholarship because of his ethnicity despite his Malay friend Yisin attempting to speak up for him with the teachers. 

The teachers are, however, not interested and apparently extremely racist themselves. Arch villain Mr. Nasir quite obviously has it in for anyone not Malay, snapping as the leader of the Indian boys is questioned that “Indians are all liars” which is even more awkward considering the lead policeman is an Indian Sikh. Bullying another Indian student, he likens the necklace he’s wearing to a “dog collar” while branding Chong an “outsider” and an “immigrant” when he dares to ask questions about the procedures for awarding scholarships which Mr. Nasir claims are intended for the indigenous community while continuing to insist that Chong must be rich simply because he is Chinese. 

Mr. Nasir is himself a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the contemporary society and an embodiment of the corrupt authority that provokes the boys’ rebellion. He is actively, even gleefully, racist and routinely abuses his power in the most heinous of ways, while the leaders of the Chinese and Malay gangs also lost fathers to corrupt authority figures. Aside from his racism, Mr. Nasir is also extremely homophobic, taking aside an effeminate Indian student, ripping off his accessories, and later humiliating him. Yet his chief complaint is about the word scrawled on the bathroom wall, “Babi”, meaning pig, which he takes as a mockery of Islam. 

As the closing captions explain, the teachers were later transferred while a number of students were expelled from the school though we cannot know the veracity of Namewee’s claims, no one has apparently ever reported on the case. The incident remains “unreported but not forgotten”. In any case there is genuine poignancy in the frustrated friendship between a Malay boy and his two Chinese friends, eventually corrupted by jealousy and resentment caused by societal conservatism and discrimination. Yet as bleak and nihilistic as the film’s conclusion may seem, it does allow a ray of light in the youngsters’ eventual rebellion against the corruption which so oppresses them, united if only in a moment by their desire to break free of its duplicitous constraints. 

Babi screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

The Story of Southern Islet (南巫, Chong Keat Aun, 2020)

A wife finds herself thrown into a complicated world of spiritual confusion when her husband is struck down by a mysterious illness he himself attributes either to black magic or divine wrath. Set in 1987 (a year which saw a series of authoritarian crackdowns), Chong Keat Aun’s autobiographically inspired tale A Story of the Southern Islet (南巫) is partly a treatise on the absurdity of national borders but also one of cosmological ambiguity in which the acceptance of that which cannot be explained provides the only hope of cure for those burdened by the sin of transgressing against the gods. 

The gods are a constant source of tension in the marriage between Yan (Jojo Goh), a Westernised educated woman from another village, and her husband Cheong (Season Chee), a superstitious Chinese-Malaysian who makes a living selling seafood at the local market. Yan wants to have the statue of local deity Datuk Gong moved, finding it inconvenient in front of their house while Cheong chastises her for potentially offending the god by disrespectfully hanging her washing out to dry right next next to him. All the trouble starts however when Cheong chases a poisonous snake away from the statue and accidentally damages the fence of the man opposite, Nam (Kuan Kok Hin). Cheong already feels conflicted, worrying that the snake was a manifestation of Datuk Gong and he may have made a grave mistake in being so unwelcoming when a an extremely upset Nam comes over late at night and bangs on their door insisting on compensation. Nam is then killed on his way into town to get repair supplies leaving Cheong feeling extremely guilty and later collapsing with a mysterious illness that among other things causes him to vomit rusty nails. 

To Cheong, that sounds like black magic, a mild degree of suspicion falling on devastated widow Keaw (Pearlly Chua). Yan first takes him to a regular hospital where he’s diagnosed with “food poisoning” and sent home with a few pills, Yan’s attempt to convince a nurse by showing her the nails backfiring as the young woman backs away in horror insisting that she have some respect, they are doctors not shamans. An attempt to ask a local hardware store to help her identify the nails ends in a similar fashion, the salesman offended by the implication that the nails he sells are rusty. Out of her depth, Yan finds herself progressing through each of the spiritual systems in place in the local area, turning then to a shaman who is offended that she hadn’t come to him earlier her local friend Loy (Ling Tang) explaining that she’s from another village and didn’t know shamans did healing only for the shaman to express incredulity not only that there are places where no one worships Datuk Gong but that Yan is a Malaysian woman who cannot speak Malay and needs Loy to interpret for her. 

Yet this village is on the border between Thailand and Malaysia, many of the local people speak Thai while the boys are prone to knock the TV onto a (not really suitable) Thai broadcast in an attempt to avoid the endless speeches about national unity and patriotism. Then again the boys attend a Chinese school where pupils are discouraged from speaking their home dialect and one girl’s mother has even changed her name in the hope of giving her an easier future (as part of Operation Lalang teachers not educated in Chinese were parachuted into Chinese-medium schools giving rise to fears of an attempt to undermine the language). No one at the market seems to want the local seafood, everyone wants the “better” quality, if apparently more expensive, catch from Thailand leaving Cheong with a minor business problem. The shaman tells Yan that Cheong’s condition was caused by accidentally urinating on sacred land but when she ventures into a cave in the hope of praying directly to the mountain deity a disembodied voice tells her that Nenkan Keriang is not so petty, and not only that neither is she Malay meaning the gifts Yan has been told to bring of betel nut and a sarong are also inappropriate. 

Nenkan Keriang’s sad story is in one sense a historical echo of female subjugation, Keriang apparently a Chinese princess who became the victim of an evil shaman after turning down his romantic overtures. If anyone would be motivated to help Yan, it is most likely Nenkan Keriang (and it may well be to her she eventually owes her salvation). Nevertheless, after Malay shamanism fails, Chong courts (further) controversy by sending Yan to ask a Muslim spiritual leader instead who first insists he no longer dabbles in Shamanism before agreeing to help giving Yan instructions and the equipment she needs to rid herself of an unwanted demonic presence squatting on her land. 

It remains unclear if Cheong’s affliction is self-delusion, that in his guilt over Nam and also a series of other minor transgressions including “stealing” fish from a paddy field that belongs to another deity he’s made himself ill and can only be cured psychologically through the reassurance of ritual, or if Yan, who may or may not believe herself, actively cures him by exorcising their demons with the assistance of a transplanted animist deity. Beautifully shot with a lingering ethereality, Chong’s mystical tale places gods and demons amid the everyday while demonstrating the ebb and flow of deeply held cultural beliefs in a border community where harmonious coexistence has long been the norm. 

The Story of Southern Islet streams in Poland until Nov. 29 as part of the 15th Five Flavours Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Hail, Driver! (Prebet Sapu, Muzzamer Rahman, 2021)

“Big city, small people, tough life” a jaded sex worker commiserates, slowly bonding with an illegal taxi driver trying to find a way to live in contemporary Kuala Lumpur. The ironically titled Hail, Driver! (Prebet Sapu) casts its cosmically unlucky hero adrift, literally roaming the city and coming in a sense to a new understanding of it thanks to his impromptu conversations with fares many of whom are only slightly more lucky than he is. Yet while his radio constantly updates him on the upcoming elections, he struggles to believe that real change is possible or that he will ever find a way out of his itinerant poverty. 

Aman (Amerul Affendi) was once a writer, but times have changed and no one buys magazines anymore. He’s been living with his sister in the city, but his brother-in-law makes no secret of his unhappiness with the situation, arguing with his wife about Aman’s inability to contribute economically to the household. Hoping to make some extra cash, he decides to make use of his sole inheritance from his late father, a rundown but reliable and recently serviced vehicle, to become a driver with ride hailing app Toompang. The only problem is that Aman has no official driver’s licence and is unable to get one because of his colour blindness, while the car is technically not of a sufficient standard to be used as a taxi. Paying a middle man for fake documents, he begins working but is quickly made homeless when his brother-in-law changes the locks while he’s out one day and announces he’s bringing his own brother to live with him instead forcing Aman to make the car his home, using public conveniences to wash and occasionally sleeping in 24-hr establishments such as laundromats. 

Aman’s plight is an encapsulation of the problems of the modern city, the radio explaining that house prices are a major point of interest in the upcoming elections. He searches for affordable accommodation but finds nothing suitable while quizzing his various fares about their living conditions, whether they rent or own their homes and how much they pay. One woman with a young son explains that of course she rents, there’s no way she could buy on her low salary while starting a business of her own is, she claims somewhat crassly, a no go because of the “flock of immigrants” in the city. Another of Aman’s fares reveals he came from Bangladesh some years ago, works in a hotel, and shares a reasonably priced apartment with his brother. Meanwhile Aman ferries sleazy politicians and their much younger mistresses to just such establishments. 

It’s his innate kindness, however, which eventually allows him to move forward after accidentally bonding with Chinese-Malaysian sex worker Bella (Lim Mei Fen) who came to the capital from Penang in search of a better future. She offers to let him use her spare room in return for his services getting to and from her clients, but even as they begin to develop a kind of mutual solidarity Bella confesses that she’s never felt a sense of belonging in the capital while her abandonment issues, her mother apparently living in the US after leaving her behind at five years old, have left her feeling spiritually homeless. “Not all dreams can be achieved” she advises Aman, each of them united in a sense of defeat as they reflect that nothing ever changes hearing the news that the party in power has again won the elections despite the ongoing problems in the city. 

Filmed in a crisp black and white, reflecting both Aman’s colour blindness and sense of hopelessness, Hail, Driver! paints an unflattering portrait of life on the margins of a burgeoning metropolis but eventually finds a degree of possibility in the unexpected, perhaps in its way transgressive, connection between the Malay taxi driver and Chinese sex worker who eventually find a sense of belonging, of home, in each other even as they bond over shattered dreams and urban disappointment. A striking debut feature Muzzamer Rahman’s empathetic drama captures the elusive city in all its unobtainable beauty, apartment blocks literally towering oppressively over the kindhearted Aman, but finally suggests that freedom may lie only outside of its repressive borders. 

Hail Driver! streamed as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen, 2019)

Legacies of trauma and displacement frustrate the connection between two floating youngsters in Lau Kek Huat & Vera Chen’s poetic drama, Boluomi (菠蘿蜜, Bōluómì). Making a direct connection between the Malayan Emergency and a sense of rootlessness in the contemporary generation, Lau & Chen send their conflicted hero overseas in an attempt to plant himself anew but even there he discovers himself merely another kind of other even as he forms a tentative bond with a similarly displaced woman rendered still more marginalised by her undocumented status and inability to speak the language. 

The film opens with the central trauma which is itself one of many as a child is born to a communist guerrilla fighter, Gyun (Vera Chen), and is then abandoned in the forest hidden inside the shell of a jackfruit or “boluomi” as is the custom apparently intended to ensure the child’s survival. In this case the child does indeed survive and like the opening of a fairytale is rescued by an older muslim Malay couple who have no children of their own and decide to adopt him, giving him the name “Mi” inspired by the unusual circumstances of his birth. Segueing to the present day we’re introduced to the hero, Yi-fan (Wu Nien-hsuan), just as he’s been humiliatingly stopped at customs on his return to Taiwan where he is studying agriculture because the homemade sambal his mother gave him is apparently too fragrant for the authorities’ taste. They won’t meet until later, but it’s at the airport that he first crosses paths with Laila (Laila Ulao), a young woman from the Philippines escorted out as one of many “carers from South East Asia” though as we later discover her true destination is a local massage parlour where she works as a cleaner in order to send money home to her family. 

Connecting the two timelines through a fragmentary dream we can assume that the abandoned child is Yi-fan’s father and that his double abandonment, later taken away from the loving older couple he believed to be his parents when his birth mother resurfaces, is responsible for his rage and fecklessness which has in turn left Yi-fan angry and resentful. The legacy of the Malayan Emergency is also perhaps connected to his feelings of alienation as a member of the Chinese minority, denied a place at university he feels solely on the basis of his ethnicity. Yet when he gets to Taiwan he’s suddenly not “Chinese” enough and incongruously finds himself speaking Malay even if there’s a double irony in being told that he should speak Chinese while in Taiwan. His professor with whom he seems to be on slightly awkward terms, perhaps another manifestation of his suspicion of male authority figures, pours cold water on his suggestions of finding a way to stay in Taiwan by opening a business instructing him that diaspora students have a duty to go home to stimulate social change. 

In a rather pregnant metaphor, the teacher’s opening lecture concerns foreign fruits successfully transplanted to Taiwan but also uncomfortably references viruses lurking in the soil, while Yi-fan’s attempts to grow a hybrid boluomi tree by grafting the Malaysian plant onto the Taiwanese eventually fail in parallel with his frustrated relationship with Laila who finds herself equally rootless while attempting to care for a fragile friend trafficked from Vietnam as a mail-order bride and now suffering ill heath but afraid to get treatment because of her status as an undocumented sex worker. Yi-fan befriends Laila by becoming an interpreter, helping her at the post office by translating into their shared language, English, and thereafter deepening their connection through the similarities found in Malay and Tagalog. Yet Yi-fan’s simple dreams of romance are frustrated by the world in which they live even as the pair bond through a shared sense of continual displacement. 

Try as he might, Yi-fan can’t make the boluomi grow, though it seems Laila could, putting down firmer roots while Yi-fan remains perpetually on the margins unable to escape the legacy of loss and alienation even in wilful migration. Struggling to survive in the precarious, largely hidden migrant worker underclass, Yi-fan and Laila’s romantic fantasy can never be more than just that though eventually comes full circle with another boy abandoned in the forest and a tree finally taking root.

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

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

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)