Autistic People are not Broken – The Wayang Kids

Hassan Muthalib takes a closer look at ‘The Wayang Kids’.

‘The Wayang Kids’ tells an entertaining story about primary school children of various races who try to overcome cultural and language barriers to represent their school in an international Chinese opera performance.  Leading the team is a student with mild autism, who has to convince his classmates, teachers and parents that he deserves a role in the play.  With the support of his classmates, he shows courage and perseverance to finally step up onto the stage as the Monkey King.

Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC) have launched a campaign, ‘Autistic People Are Not Broken’, to raise awareness for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), in conjunction with Autism Awareness Month this April. The campaign kicked off with a media screening of ‘The Wayang Kids’, with the attendance of the film’s Penang-born director, Raymond Tan, and young Singaporean actor, Austin Chong, a martial arts champ who has won three gold medals at the 2016 Singapore National Youth Wushu Competition. ‘The Wayang Kids’ is supported by the Lee Kuan Yew Fund for Bilingualism.

Kudos to GSC for coming forward to do their civic duty! RM1 from every ticket sold will be channeled to the National Autism Society of Malaysia (Nasom) for its programmes and activities. You can do your bit while being entertained by a well-written and directed movie. It is such films brought to the mainstream that make audiences more aware of not only about special needs kids, but also of anyone who is ‘different’ from others. And in-between, director Tan makes comments about adults who themselves have language and adjustment problems – even though they are not disabled! It is all done entertainingly with tongue-in-cheek humour. While social values such as racial harmony, resilience, and coming to terms with reality, as well as the preserving of heritage arts, are brought across, director Tan does not lose sight of the main intent of the film. What ultimately comes across is the importance of the need to promote awareness of autistic people in society.

Chong plays an autistic boy nicknamed Open, who gets to prove himself by portraying the Monkey King in a stage show after a Chinese-Canadian exchange student becomes friends with him. With a Chinese opera teacher and a supportive headmaster, the audience follows the trials and tribulations of the schoolchildren. The story is given a mild treatment without too much of drama. Mild, because Tan does not want to overdo the dramatics, and the real story is not about the children. It is actually about the adults and their reactions to the problems they face, in particular that which is related to autism. Even Open’s mother has switched off mentally because she cannot face the reality that her son is autistic, and that he is ‘different’. Ultimately, it is the adults’ recognition of their responsibility and duty, and the reversal that follows, that is at the crux of the film.

Tan gives the film a classicist treatment. He shows a world and characters who are not deprived of worldly wants or in the pursuit of career. Their problems are more about acceptance and learning how to cope with the reality of situations that they are confronted with. By using the entertainment medium, Tan does not take a didactic slant, but is hopeful, in his own words, “of planting a seed in people’s minds so they can learn more about, and at the same time raise awareness on autism and the challenges experienced by special needs individuals and the people around them.”

Tan’s expert handling of the performances of children with no acting experience results in a highly professional production. They say that all Indians are born actors, and the Indian boy and his precociousness in the film definitely proves this to be true! And in a tasteful exercise at multiracial harmony, Tan introduces, without any pretentiousness, Indian and Malay influences into Chinese opera. At the same time, he puts forward a case for preserving a traditional art form that can be, in this instance, carried forward by the very young, and of all races.

‘Redha’ by Tunku Mona Reza was the first film with autism as its subject. Treated as a heavy drama, it nevertheless created awareness of autism and, rightfully, has gained accolades around the world. Both ‘Redha’ and ‘The Wayang Kids’ are proof that the aspirations of these film directors, producers and exhibitors is not just profit but, like Iranian cinema, of their being able to contribute meaningfully to society. May we have more of such people!

Featured image credit: Zolima City Mag

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