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)

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)