If you have an Astro decoder installed in your home, then you would have noticed the trailer for ‘The Journey’ playing over and over again on every channel, especially during the Chinese New Year period.
It was everywhere.
There were banners, posters, trailers – all of it screaming at you to go and watch this locally produced film that was bound to change your perspective of Malaysian cinema because it was not a film about Malay gangsters, illegal motorcycle racing or things that go bump in the night. So naturally, like every other kepoh Malaysian out there, I went and watched it.
It felt almost like a Filipino cinematic experience, whereby the audience respond enthusiastically to every pun and joke in the film, laughing at all the right places and sighing sympathetically at the scenes that one would usually sigh it. It was a director’s dream. That being said, the majority of the audience in that cinema on the day that I went to watch it consisted mostly of Chinese families, aunties and uncles of all ages, including even my 86-year old grandpa, who sat next to me eating popcorn at an alarming pace for a man of his age. There is a point to me mentioning this, which I will get to later. For now, let’s review the film.
‘The Journey’ begins with the return of Bee (played by 2007’s Miss Astro Chinese International Pageant winner Joanne Yew), a Chinese girl who has lived most of her life in England, to her hometown in Cameron Highlands, along with her English fiancé Benji (played by Australian actor Ben Pfeiffer). Bee’s father Uncle Chuan (played by first time actor Lee Sai Peng), is a traditionalist who does not believe in interracial marriage and does not understand why his daughter has chosen a fan guai (foreigner, in harsher terms) who has no understanding of their culture and customs to be her husband. He eventually relents, but demands that his son-in-law to be accompany him on a journey (geddit? geddit?) to send the wedding invitations to his closest friends, that consist of eleven of his classmates, some of whom he hasn’t seen in forever and aren’t sure if they are even alive. But off they go on this journey (again, geddit? geddit?) that will eventually change the relationship between father and future son-in-law (among some other relationships) forever, giving the audience a nice feel-good ending to the whole film.
I definitely felt like this wasn’t exactly a film for all Malaysians per say, and it definitely had a target audience of the Chinese community (particularly those who have married foreigners/had foreigners as a family member). Most part of the film is scripted in Cantonese, with a little bit of English and Bahasa Malaysia slipped in between. The jokes made are definitely in a context only the Chinese community (or people related to them) would understand, especially when the full effect of the joke is only felt when made in Cantonese. So despite the rave reviews by people like Lisa Surihani and Aznil Nawawi on Astro, I still feel like the film’s impact still lies with a certain community and doesn’t necessarily reach out to all Malaysians as a whole. Anyone who isn’t Chinese or affiliated to a Chinese family would not understand the significance of the head and rear end of the chicken during Chinese reunion dinner, for example; a taboo that was showcased in the film but wasn’t really explained to the audience.
I really enjoyed the progression of the relationship between Uncle Chuan and Benji throughout the movie. The way the hostility between the two slowly turns into affection, and the efforts made by Benji along the way to try to connect to his father-in-law despite not being able to speak the same language is something that I felt was fairly realistic. The relationship between Uncle Chuan and his classmates was also something that I felt was depicted in a fairly realistic manner. Having witnessed first-hand how important friendships are as a person gets older, the efforts Uncle Chuan put into trying to locate all his former classmates in order to invite them to his daughter’s wedding felt very honest. The pain in losing a close friend at that age along with the regret of not being able to say goodbye was also something that the director managed to pull off in a realistic manner. The scenes between the classmates are the scenes that led to the audience rooting for them and their efforts near the film’s end, which I’m sure is the desired effect.
I found many loopholes that I felt should not have been in a feature film that was advertised at such a scale however, beginning with the choice of the lead actress. Joanne Yew, whilst possessing a very pretty face, failed to effectively portray the character of Bee even on the simplest level. Bee is a girl who has lived in England for most of her life, and is now returning to Cameron Highlands. Upon reading this, you would immediately assume that she would have a fair command of English, and being Chinese she might be able to speak her mother tongue, which in the film is established as Cantonese, correct? Well, Joanne’s English and Cantonese were in my opinion horrendous, and completely unconvincing and unbelievable, which begs the question – why cast a person who cannot speak the language to play a lead character? (Upon much Googling, I found out that she was the last person to audition for the role of Bee, and she is fluent in Korean, which raised even more questions such as “why isn’t she in some k-drama instead then?” and “if she was the last person to audition for the role, is it possible that everyone else who auditioned was even worse at the languages than she was?”)
Also, Bee is fairly inconsistent. Okay, she has daddy issues, but then she runs off to an island where she and her father used to vacation (which by the way, is in Sabah, nowhere logistically near Cameron Highlands) while her fiancé and father are off delivering wedding invitations, then doesn’t make her flight back home and feels all terrible about it. None of this is portrayed in her acting by the way, much less her dialogue. Throughout the whole film, it felt like Bee’s character basically existed to create a connection between Uncle Chuan and Benji, so that their relationship and characters could progress and thrive throughout the film, whereas her character remains completely stagnant and in some cases, downright redundant. There were inconsistencies with Benji’s character as well, mostly with his accent considering Ben Pfeiffer’s Aussie slang was coming out like an eager joey out of a kangaroo’s pouch, but I am willing to forgive that given his acting ability which unfortunately was non-existent in Joanne.
Let us now move to the ideology in this film – the idea that any Asian girl who goes overseas, will almost certainly end up with a foreigner (more commonly known as the Sarong Party Girl ideology). Considering migration and the amount of Asians sending their children overseas to study (under JPA scholarships or otherwise), I find it a tad unrealistic to always pair an Asian girl with a white man. Aren’t there Malaysian Society clubs in foreign universities? Watering holes the Asians overseas gather at frequently? Alright, it is a given that Bee’s character has lived in England for a fair amount of time, but if she was truly homesick (as she passive aggressively shows in the film), wouldn’t she search for something or something that reminded her of home, something or someone familiar, like a Chinese man? While I suppose it is true that nobody chooses who they fall in love with, could it be possible that standards have been set for Asian girls to find a white man and are further enforced in this film?
Overall, ‘The Journey’ was definitely a good step to take in the direction of changing what Malaysian cinema is about. It was fresh and different compared to the generic feature films one would normally see in the theatres. But like many a first step, it had many glaring flaws. Perhaps with a little more practise and possibly better scrutiny of the script, plot and logistics, future feature films could rise up to be big blockbuster hits and possibly be more wholesome and inclusive to a wider target audience.
Sheril does not wear the sarong when she parties, as that will be sarong (so wrong). Chiu Keng Guan’s previous film, ‘Great Day’, was discussed in episode 14 of the Thoughts on Films podcast.
Featured image credit: Liew YJ