Widening Horizons – The Films of Michael Wong

Adi Iskandar counts the long and short of Michael Wong’s films.

‘The Story of 90 Coins’ begins with a scene between two people, Wang Yu Yang (Hang Dongjun) and Chen Wen (Zhuang Zhiqi). They are lovers, but Chen Wen is unsure of cementing their relationship with marriage. As a way of extracting a more conclusive answer from her, Yu Yang makes a promise to her, to give her a coin daily for 90 days. If, by the end of that, she wants to get married, the nine dollars could be used to pay for their marriage certificate.

Having started with this, I must admit that I thought the focus would have been on the 90 days themselves. However, we reach that point fairly quickly via a rapid walkthrough of a montage. They did not get married, but it did help to strengthen their relationship, bringing them closer together. ‘The Story of 90 Coins’, then, is not about the accumulation of them, but what comes after, with the presence of Andre (Jose Acosta), a French colleague of Chen Wen, proving to be a key challenge.

After the surprise had died down, and thinking about it in the cold light of day, it feels like the director, Michael Wong, made a good decision. That three months would form the foundation of the story, on which they would fall back on later in the film. In fact, it appears that while it is not entirely insignificant, the process itself is not all that interesting, and so the decision to focus more on the conflict is one that would maintain my interest a lot more.

In fact, the presence of Andre allows us to read the film in a deeper way. Though his actual on-screen time is very limited, there is that shadow of a European whiteness, an other which threatens more established norms in countries like China. His brazen confidence, in getting close to Chen Wen, is enough to bring out a strong insecurity in Yu Yang. It is most unfortunate, but it is also a very relevant concept which has never really gone away. Perhaps it could even be argued that while yellow fever has been covered to the death (at least in Western media), the reverse, an emasculation of the native (sometimes by the self) is not the main and obvious focus in many films I have seen.

Perhaps a part of that is the eases with which such identities crumble. In the case of Yu Yang, it’s actually a bit of a turn off. I had initially rooted for him to emerge as the victor in this (imaginary) battle, yet his insecurities, fed by little more than morsels of heightened fears, made him look very immature. He is also incredibly passive, at least relative to Andre’s aforementioned confidence (the first we hear from Andrew is a voice note asking Chen Wen to come to Paris).

Yet even in the face of this, Yu Yang does little to actually fight for Chen Wen. He is perhaps not unjustified in expecting a stronger response from her (more on this later), and neither am I suggesting an actual fight; misplaced machismo should not always be equated with strength and character. Acts of affirming his love for Chen Wen might do the trick; the 90 coins suggest that he has a track record of doing this. Instead, he withdraws, becoming more husk than man.

At the same time, Chen Wen is also annoyingly flaky. Though I did not notice a discernible attraction between her and Andre (beyond an Asian girl enjoying the attention of a white European male) to begin with, it seems that the resolve built up over those 90 days (and more) crumbled easily at the tempting promises of Paris. Again, this was disappointing, another indication that post-colonialism remains a discussion many refuse to have, even as it hangs heavily in the air.

That is a bit of a shame, because the rest of the film is a lovely little treat. Kudos must be given to Jian Liwei, the cinematographer, for they are due. Michael himself has an extensive background in the advertising industry, with 15 years in his back pocket. In a Malaysian context, this is not uncommon, as we can see much of the same from the likes of Nadiah Hamzah and Tan Ce Ding. Yet what is a little more unique about Michael is his relocation to China, a decision which perhaps contextualises the strong East Asian aesthetic. The film is ostensibly set in Beijing, but it could easily have been transplanted to South Korea or Taiwan.

At the risk of implying a ‘y’all look alike’ outlook, it feels as if in terms of the story, there is much that would also be at home in those cinemas and dramas. Simply put, ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ would not look out of place in as a Korean drama. Imagine, if you will, a ‘Doctor Stranger’ adapted into a short film. If you ever wondered how two months of ‘I Can Hear Your Voice’ can be compressed into less than ten minutes, then ‘The Story of 90 Coins’ is your answer.

If anything, perhaps the experience would be better if we are given more room to breathe. Michael’s professional background and the cutting skills of Song Kaiyi can help to explain the brevity with which the story is told, but its (at times) breakneck speed makes it difficult to fully appreciate the finer things in the story’s life. A slight delay in the fade aways, for instance, would help us to take in the gravity of the situation. This is a weird connection to make, but Osman Ali’s ‘Ombak Rindu’ partly fails because of this cinematic faux pas. There is a build-up, there is a sense of importance, yet the quick cut to the next scene means that certain emotions fail to truly sink in.

With that in mind, it’s probably not such a good idea, then, that his next film, ‘The Tattooist’, is defined as a micro horror. No, that doesn’t mean that the film has a small amount of screams in it (far from it), but rather, it’s duration is relatively mini in length. Coast to coast, it runs for 80 seconds; my kettle takes longer than that to boil water. I don’t know whether that says something about how I heat H20, or about this film, but hopefully that gives an idea of what the picture looks like.

Within that picture, the story follows a tattooist (Wang Yanhu) in the midst of historicising his latest creation on a customer. The camera roves about the place, before a montage of cuts show what happens to his other customers. They are basically incarcerated or held against their will, in some cases with visible marks of torture on their bodies and faces. These are snippets of a snapshot of brutality, so keep your eyes peeled.

Or not. It’s not really the kind of things I want to be looking at, because I’m not quite into gory films as much. Having said that, I can definitely appreciate the artistic direction and effort put into achieving a very impressive look for this film. Once again, it feels as if Michael has called in on a few people he has worked with, in order to create a concept film that will hopefully be propelled further as a feature film. That in itself would be very cool, but I feel that those most able to empathise will be those who are into getting tattoos. Again, I am not a part of that target audience, so that’s the context you should bear in mind.

When all is said and done, Michael Wong is certainly a filmmaker worthy of bearing in mind. Perhaps there is more than needs to be considered when it comes to dissecting deeply the political underpinnings that may be evinced from critical analysis, as can be seen in my attempt to see the depths of ‘The Story of 90 Coins’. Then again, it may well be intended as little more than popcorn fare, as ‘The Tattooist’ is wont to be if it is expanded beyond the time it takes to microwave said popcorn. What is clear is that Michael is a filmmaker with a wide palette, painting a picture that is sure to be attractive one way or another. I look forward to see what else he has up his sleeve.

You can watch Michael’s films here.

Featured image credit: Irish Central

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