Acting Out – Baeu Baeu

Adi Iskandar tries hard to keep up with the film factory that is TK Cheng by looking at his latest effort, ‘Baeu Baeu’.

‘Baeu Baeu’ (directly translated from Korean to ‘Actor Actor’) is TK Cheng’s latest short film. In writing this, I must admit that keeping up with his filmography is slightly more exhausting than I thought it would be. It feels like it was only a few months ago that his short film, ‘Men without Women looking for BananaFish, Girl without Cat telling her Story’, was making an appearance at the SeaShorts Film Festival; while that film traversed festivals in Malaysia, Australia and the Philippines, a slightly older one, ‘Salary’, was a nominee at the recent Malaysia International Film Festival, having already completed tours in Hong Kong and Bangladesh, among others.

Officially, they did not win in their respective categories, but this is one context where a failure to step to the top of the podium is no failure at all. Black and white do not work well in a world of grey, and it is in this friction circle that TK has made a strong effort to excel. His work is not without quality (‘Salary’, for instance, puts into the spotlight how migrant workers are treated in Malaysia, an unfortunately neverending issue), but this quantitative approach, hammering out a relatively high number of short films within a fairly limited timeframe, is admirable.

That roll TK is on continues for ‘Baeu Baeu’, which made its international festival bow in Nepal recently. It tells the story of Emily (Emily Chan), an aspiring actress who fails auditions partly because she is not Korean enough. A Chinese Malaysian, unfortunately her lineage hails from the wrong side of East Asia, as producers are keen on having people familiar and fluent in the ways of the Land of the Morning Calm. The film opens with her speaking haltingly in Korean. We then see her venting to her friend on the phone, when, almost out of nowhere, a Korean girl (Pauline Tan) sits next to her. Intrigued by her, Emily begins a conversation, one which potentially changes the course of her life.

This film works on a number of levels. The first is the multilayered issue of performance. On the uppermost surface, we’re looking at performance by way of a profession. Both Emily and the girl are aspiring actresses, an ambition seen as more achievable than ever before. In realising this, however, there can be a saturation of the market, ironically making it more difficult to make such dreams come true. I find it interesting that key moments of the film occur in and around a playground (with Emily’s flowing blue dress, it feels like there is an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ vibe as well), almost as if to suggest that the flights of fancy of our childhood is so close, yet so far away, for the background is not the foreground.

Thus, those who do wish to work in that industry seek ways to differentiate themselves while remaining appealing to the mainstream. How, though, can one be unique, yet fit in with society’s expectations? This is where the second layer of performance could be introduced, where people ‘perform’ in real life according to certain expectations. Coming back to the point, I believe a part of that sought-after niche is defined by mimicking a little of 1980s Malaysian policies in looking east. This attempt can be seen within a more racial lens. Without wishing to cast any malicious aspersions on TK’s own objectives for this film, I think any discussion of the Korean factor and its influence in the formation of Malaysian identities (or not) is incomplete without bearing in mind how it relates to the different races. Of course, such identities are already forms of performance to begin with, as people race (pun intended) to prove just how ‘Malay’, ‘Malaysian’ or ‘global’ they are, a state of affairs that can, at times, be disappointing.

It is this so-called competition which leads to many acculturating aspects of the Korean cultural constellation into our own. To be precise, and based on more academic, personal and professional experiences, it can be seen how members of the Chinese Malaysian community place greater value on informed interactions with and through products of the Hallyu culture industry. Bearing in mind the risks that comes with such potential oversimplification, the point remains that there is enough to suggest the following, somewhat imperfect impression: if we present to ten random members of the Chinese Malaysian community the chance to delve either into the cultural texts of Malaysia (particularly those in Bahasa Malaysia) or of Korea, I believe seven out of ten would choose the latter.

Controversial? Perhaps. Incorrect? I’d actually love to be proven totally, utterly and completely wrong. Limited to Malaysia, and to certain communities in Malaysia? Absolutely not. Much of the reasoning of such a liking has to do with the perceived quality; Korean television shows, songs and films are seen to be produced at a higher level, or at the very least are strongly marketed as such. Others include a willingness to get closer to more traditional lineage (there are stronger similarities between what we identify as Korean and Chinese cultures, relative to the more native, bumiputera or Malay context), while I’ve also read of analyses focusing on a sense of cultural inferiority (connoting that foreign is almost certainly better). Whatever the reasons may be, I think ‘Baeu Baeu’ intends to at the very least explore such topographies of identity formation, if not to necessarily question or criticise it outright. “It’s impossible for a local to act as a Korean,” Emily bemoans out loud. It doesn’t mean people will stop trying, though.

Going beyond issues of identity, what TK did try to do is to challenge our perception of time and space, especially in the delivery of its narrative. There is a split that occurs somewhere down the middle, offering us a more experimental mode that may not be what you expect (and perhaps therefore like). I myself thought it was fine, but perhaps that is more a reflection of me. Is this the past? Is it a projection of the future? Does it work as a dream sequence instead? The film is less clear on that front, and I believe this is where people may well be lost in being led down this garden path.

The usage of colour was clever in parts, and I also like his framing, as TK sought hard to create an expression of emotion in a more direct sense. It’s simple, but rarely seen, and it’s the kind of thing that makes me feel excited about ‘Baeu Baeu’s potential reception. Not only is it a film whose full enjoyment will only come by way of exercising more than a few brain cells, it may well spark a more critical consideration of the bigger picture. Ideally speaking, this scenario depends on us being willing to be honest about our own blind spots (of which a few may exist here). You may not necessarily agree with that process, but that may well end up saying more about us than it does about the film, that every once in a while, we should consider how we perform as ourselves in real life.

Featured image credit: tradeKorea

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