There is a bleakness about this film that is somewhat unsettling and yet familiar at the same time. It doesn’t help that the film itself is in black and white. It makes things a little bit more ominous, a little bit more depressing, a little more hopeless, in many ways. I don’t know whether there is a clear relation between than and the director’s intention, but the story itself is not one that is particularly nice to know about.
Which is very different from saying that we shouldn’t know about it. In fact, this film is based on a true story, and it is a pretty amazing story that deserves to be told in such a nice way.
But I think I am a little ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.
The film starts with the news telecast of a man who is about to jump from a bridge. Though we know it not at the time, it is later made clear that the man is Li Wu-hisung (Chen Wen Pin), a labourer who does odd-jobs to make a living. It is especially related to dealing with engines on boats, a job that requires him to spend a lot of time underwater. The complication is his daughter, Mei (Chao Yo Hsuan), a girl who is just about to turn into the schooling age. Trying to register her for schooling, he finds that he is not actually the legal guardian of her; rather, it is his long-gone wife and another man with whom she supposedly married before their time together. The seemingly simple act of trying to send his child to school becomes more and more complicated, as he is sent from one government department to another, without much success. Instead, with the government becoming more and more suspicious of their relationship, he runs the risk of actually having her being taken away from him as well.
At first, with the revelation that his wife was married to someone else, I thought this would be a film of ‘what if’. A film of ‘what if’ is what I call it when the situation is somewhat imagineable complex, and does not have a clear ending you could think of. One example, in terms of concept, is ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’. Whatever you may say about the film, you can’t deny that the concept alone makes it seem like the kind of film that doesn’t come around all that often. It strikes me as something truly original, and a similar thought process runs through here.
In fact, it is this kind of runaround that makes this film totally and utterly real. I have no doubt that we get similar treatments everywhere we go. I get it here in Korea and Malaysia, and wherever you, dear reader, may be, you will almost certainly be able to relate to what is going on in this film. The amount of red tape and governmental maze that has to be negotiated is always something that can rile you up, and here the consequences are costly. If he is not able to get the right help at the right time, his daughter won’t be able to go to school. Worse, he could be separated from her, and this fear, this nervousness, plays out well on the screen. A big part of that is due to the main actor, Chen Wen Pin, who also happens to be the film’s producer and co-writer. This is a story that is not necessarily made easy for us to accept, and the main role is one that absolutely banks on us to give our sympathy. The sympathy lies not so much with the young girl, but with the main actor, and here you feel as if he is living his role. His clothes are shabby, his demeanour is that of a low, working-class, uneducated man. He seems to be perplexed at almost every turn, and is at a lost of what to do when told that he is not the legal guardian of the child. Witness the fear he portrayed when he thought the authorities were coming to his shack to take away his child. It is an incredibly believable performance, and everything, from the delivery of his dialogue to his body language to the sweaty patch on his t-shirt makes your heart cry out in sympathy for him.
It’s not only him who deserves the credit, but the director, too. Leon Dai likes to connect the scenes together, and provides hints for us. One example is the aforementioned scene of the authorities apparently coming to his home. The seed: his friend had suggested that the authorities could come to take his child away from him. Within the next few shots, he is asleep at home when we hear a knock on the door. It was sudden, and unspoken, and immediately I think of the authorities. This is masterful manipulation of not just my emotions, but my thought process as well. It is something I could learn a lot about.
For the rest, it is not so much a work of masterful fiction, but merely the portrayal of reality (or as close to it as you can get). I mentioned before about the earlier red tape. It’s also interesting that the director chose to portray some of the events as if it is part of a news broadcast. As is the case with news these days, I would say that the majority of it is consumed and discarded away with ease. Yesterday’s news, today’s nasi lemak wrapping, as the saying goes (well, not really, but I’ll take some credit for this anyway 🙂 ). The people watching the news broadcast, oblivious to the situation that Li is really going through, didn’t take it all that seriously, merely sniggering and talking lightly about whether he will jump or not. Why, though, did the director choose this as the starting point? Could it be that he’s further trying to manipulate us, asking us to assume the same stance as the rest of the crowd (and, by extension, the rest of society)? To look at the situation through the prism of a class above Li’s working station? This class issue, the issue of society not being kind to those who are not as privileged, puts itself in sharp focus within the film itself: “So what if I’m not educated? What’s wrong with being a worker?!” There is a fantastic shot of this, a single shot that encapsulates the entire movie, during which the office workers of the government department all stand behind the counter, arms folded, literally looking down on this little cretin of a man seated across from them, without an inch of sympathy or human understanding to his plight whatsoever.
By the movie’s end, you will probably want to scream to the director, “Give him the happy ending already! Please!” Having seen this film, I may not be the first to say this, but Leon Dai is a master filmmaker. I have not seen his other works, but I want to. I don’t usually like being played around with, but I don’t mind being putty in his hand, because this is a fantastic little film with a big, big heart. I believe that whoever you are, whever you may be, you’ll be moved not just by the story, but also how it’s told.
I also wonder whether the real life Li and Mei have the same ending…
Based on the title, Fikri actually thought this film is Spanish.