Small Film, Big Ideas – River of Exploding Durians

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This is a film I’ve been looking forward to for a while. When we interviewed Edmund years ago, he said he hopes to have it done sooner rather than later. Six years later is a bit later than many expected, but ‘River of Exploding Durians’ (screening in competition at the 27th Tokyo International Film Festival) certainly couldn’t come soon enough for me.

It tells of two stories. The first durian (ho hum) is a story of love. Ming (Shern Koe) is a high school senior in love with Mei Ann (Joey Leong). Both are from different classes, with Ming’s more comfortable existence incomparable with Mei Ann’s working class life. Though theirs is a love not unrequited, the pressures are strong: Ming’s family expects him to graduate and move on to Australia, while Mei Ann’s father struggles to even make ends meet.

The other story concerns Miss Lim (Zhu Zhi-ying), Ming’s history teacher in school. They’re approaching the business end of the year, but Miss Lim has a revolutionary way of teaching history: she asks her students to put on presentations of historical protests and events. For example, the students chose to look at the Thammasat University student massacre a mere generation ago.

Worst date ever.
Worst date ever.

One of the brightest students in class is Hui Ling (Daphne Low), whose respect and admiration for her teacher is mutual. It grows to the point where she actively assists her teacher in opposing the building of a rare earth plant in the area. This was a slightly unexpected, but not unwelcome development.

Similar in style to the Woo Ming Jin-directed ‘Second Life of Thieves’ (where he served as the producer as well), ‘River of Exploding Durians’ fits nicely in Edmund’s oeuvre. To begin with, I’m a fan of the more subversive elements of the story. The Lynas rare earth plant has been a hot button issue for quite a while (Ming Jin even made a film about it a while back), and is kept alive by those more personally affected. As such, expanding upon the issue on a bigger scale is not surprising.

Having said that, this film does not look at that issue exclusively; it only really took center stage in the second half of the film, and even then, I suppose a more accurate sentence would be that it’s a comprehensive analysis of the lives affected by the Lynas plant.

The interesting title is not entirely misleading, for the durian becomes a metaphor for exploring a thorny issue within local contexts, one which may provoke wildly different reactions in some. As noted in the review of ‘Penanggal’, sometimes a civil discussion is not an option, leaving some to consider revolution as the only choice.

PAS were canvassing for new members.
PAS were canvassing for new members.

In some ways, the storytelling is revolutionary in parts. The shifting of protagonists halfway through was a less-than-comfortable approach for me, with three protagonists/main characters whose perspectives we lived the story through. This is a tricky act. Ming, a character with whom we’ve invested emotionally in the earlier part of the film, was marginalised as the story progressed. I wondered whether it encourages the viewer to take a more objective, third-party stance in watching the film (looking at the story, if not the issue through different perspectives).

Edmund was also very minimal with both mise en scene and the mise en shot (many scenes consist of only a single shot). Most of the time, he utilises it well, but it is not without its limits. One fight scene, a key moment the character’s development as they realise just how big the challenges are, was not entirely convincing. It was the kind of handbags at dawn that shouldn’t have left anyone bloodied.

Then there was the ending. There came a point in the end when the narrative felt…complete. Visually, spiritually, there was little else left to be done, and a soft fade into the credits would have been perfect. At least for me. Edmund didn’t think so, though, and tacked on an extra scene that fulfilled an initial objective of his, but I suppose this is where we have to agree to disagree.

It reminded me of a discussion a long time ago about the primacy of the narrative. Who determines what ends where? Is it the director, or is the story truly king? While I am not saying the director is useless, I have both feet planted firmly in the school of the latter. For me at least, my satisfaction comes from the sense that I’ve developed the story as much as I can, rather than putting my foot down and saying, “OK, story, you stop right now.” The line is fine, but it is there.

Captain Planet had new Planeteers.
Captain Planet had new Planeteers.

In spite of this, this is a film I really like. The minimal approach was creatively expounded in many scenes, and could have been used for analysis in my previous classes. One particularly violent scene late on was enlightening, with its slow reveals here and there. It allowed for the story to breathe, as well as for us to infuse it with our own interpretations and ideas.

For this is a film laced with all sorts of meaning. “All we do is sit and listen as teachers ask us to memorise things for exams,” lamented Ming. “It’s all so meaningless.” Much later on, the principal shut down the aforementioned presentations, as they weren’t in the curriculum. Superficial exam grades are prioritised above and beyond actual knowledge and creativity. Is that a critique against the school system? The government itself? Society at large?

That society can also be seen peeking through the cracks. I may be wrong, but a dead pig discovered by Ming and Mei Ann can be symbolic of the Malaysian Chinese experience in the country. A few beats later, a class is in session, and the teacher can be heard saying: “The relationship between neighbours can help to create harmonious lives between society members of a certain location.”

Ultimately, ‘River of Exploding Durians’ is an important text capturing not only contemporary feelings on film with regards to Lynas, but also the Chinese diaspora as a whole (though it’s not a department lacking in effort over the years). It’s a film packed with many ideas that might have been better served by a slightly different approach in filmmaking and storytelling, but it is also a logical progression in line with what Edmund (and Greenlight Pictures) have been making all these years.

Furthermore, it’s spearheading a mini-movement of Malaysian feature films with strong festival circuit credibility; in addition to this and ‘Second Life of Thieves’, Nik Amir Mustapha’s ‘Terbaik Dari Langit’ (also screening in Tokyo) and ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’ by Liew Seng Tat are making the rounds. To paraphrase Mei Ann, we Malaysians may be small, but these are mighty exciting times, and I’m glad to have finally seen an Edmund Yeo feature film.

It’s been a while since Fikri had any durians. Read our interview with Edmund here.

Featured image credit: Ummah.com

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