We stepped outside into the light, emerging from the darkness of the cave that had been the screening theater for Ho Yuhang’s latest film, ‘At the End of Daybreak’. It was the first film I saw in Pusan this year, one that was as a result of my shoot. That, in itself, was a lesson of a different kind. Yuhang’s ‘Daybreak’ was a lesson as well.
Lesson in what, exactly? Generally speaking, filmmaking and directing. I can’t quite put my finger on it at the time, but I will try to explain further down below.
“He didn’t even study film,” my friend continued. “How on Earth can we get that far, Fikri? How can we reach that level? Genius lah, that guy.”
Tuck Chai (Chui Tien You), is a twenty-something youth, someone who’s still looking for some meaning in life, even as he is whiling his days away almost aimlessly. Ying (Ng Meng Hui), in contrast, have yet to even finish her schooling, having all the care in the world of a girl of 16 or so. In general, both aren’t troublemakers; in fact, in many ways, in terms of obedience and piety, they are the model son and daughter. This is despite of the lower-class existence that Tuck Chai and his mother (Wai Ying-hung) leads. It doesn’t help that his father had previously left his mother for…her sister. Depressed, she often turns to the bottle, seeking for solace in alcohol.
There is one thing they do that won’t be met with the approval of many parents: having met online, Tuck Chai and Ying begin a secret relationship together. Trouble crops up when slowly, but surely, they become more and more influenced by their peers (especially Ying, whose classmates appear to know a little more about the anatomy of a dude than is comfortable), and they begin experimenting sexually. All hell breaks loose when their parents find out; since Ying is terribly underaged, Tuck Chai and his mother tries to figure out a way to beat the statutory rape charge. Ying’s parents appears to offer a way out for them, but when they reneged on that, Tuck Chai and his mother finds themselves stuck in a moment that they can’t get out of.
What we have here, then, is a film that deals with the moral cycles of society. I say cycle, because it appears to be a trend that keeps on going round and round and round. Morality, or it’s lack, becomes the driving force of the film, from as much as I could see. We start off with two relatively innocent characters, who are not necessarily perfect, but appear to be inherently good. Two characters who paid the price for a mistake, a mishap that led to grave consequences. I know that’s how most synopses in reviews describe the film, but there really is a feel of things and tension building up. It all leads to a place where you find yourself asking, “What now?”
How, then, do we build this up? How can we construct the road that leads to the climax? Here, I find that it is the devil in the details, the small things, that works its way through. I am not entirely sure, but off the top off my head, it feels a little longer than ‘Rain Dogs’, Yuhang’s previous feature effort (a quick look reveals that the running time is actually quite similar). In comparison, the character feels a little more fleshed out, and a little more complex. Witness the relationship between Tuck Chai and his mother; at times, it seems as if that relationship is reversed, with the son coming to the rescue of his mother time and again after she gets drunk.
But of course, such comparisons can ultimately be futile. Different times, different places, different films. Standing by itself, what are the strong points of the film? I find myself being attracted to the marriages of several different factors. For example, shots of Tuck Chai on his motorbike, with the light from the inside of the tunnel reflected against his visor…and then suddenly, out of nowhere, the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer. I fear that I may have revealed a little too much, but it is such unexpected turns like this that makes this film stands slightly above the pack. An early scene of a rat being harshly treated by Tuck Chai also stays in my mind. This film is not totally out of the box, but there is something about it that is slight off-center. Put it this way: you won’t have all of your ideas confirmed easily, both in terms of how the camera worked itself throughout the film as well as the turn in events.
I also like how the film takes a turn and looks at how greed and desire work themselves on different levels (and sometimes even in concert with each other). Despite all of the trouble she has with her former husband (who actually ran off with her sister), it is him that Tuck Chai’s mother turns to to look for help. Though they still hold a sense of civility for each other (“I don’t have any, your sister controls the money” brought out a laugh even in the Korean next to me, hinting at the universalness of that truth), it is money that brings them together. It is also money that would lead to the film’s tragic end, not because it is necessarily needed but because of the greed for it. In that respect, Ying’s lack of emotion at times troubles me (she doesn’t really respond when she was bullied), and it is precisely this, the lack of a sense that something should be corrected, that really puts the writing on the wall for the characters of this film. Pete Teo’s music adds to the overall feeling of the film incredibly well. Haunting, at times chilling, but always beautiful.
It is the sense that something should be done that partly inspired the film: an apparent murder case sensationalised by the media. “The reporters applied other buzz words: ‘overbearing parents hampering child’s growth. How the young became too dangerous. Neatly packed psychological summation’…They could not criticize enough the obvious social ills as a result of these: the failure of the education system, out-of-control media representation of sex and violence, corruption as an acceptable social norm, and everything else that is fast, cheap, and out of control.”
I write this, then, not as a review in a way, but more of an exposition of what I feel and think as I watch this film. I feel a sense of pride, somehow, that such a film, though made with international support, was essentially done by a Malaysian whose touch, I feel, has grown with each of his work. I was already a fan of Yuhang before this film, and his win at the Locarno International Film Festival further stoked my interest. Great, then, are the expectations I held before the screening.
I was not disappointed. Neither, I think, will you be.
Fikri thinks the Chinese title of ‘Devil in the Heart’ sounds more interesting, somehow…