The Carrot and the Stick – BEE, My Friend

Adi Iskandar is stung by Cheng Thim Kian’s latest effort.

‘BEE, My Friend’ is the latest film from Cheng Thim Kian. It tells the story of Chew Zhi Xuan (Kendra Sow), a young teacher now tasked at the primary school where she used to study. Though most of the students appear to be amenable enough, one of them, Zhe Yu (Eden Yong), is shown as more troublesome than most. In trying to help him, she finds that the key to bridging the gap between them comes from remembering her past, lessons which could prove crucial in how she shapes his future.

Such connections between characters and the self is essentially a hallmark of Thim Kian’s films. While it could be argued that every film is a riff of this same chord, it remains intriguing to see the ways in which this is approached. For instance, his previous films, ‘Hikikomori’ and ‘Share’, consider the role of technology in distancing those already intimate. Conversely, the likes of ‘Salary’ and ‘Baeu Baeu’ appears to have a bigger picture, more sociological layer in mind.

In fact, for that last film, I wrote, “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.” Some of that ambiguity seeps into ‘BEE, My Friend’, as even by the film’s end, I could not quite determine which of the two characters above is the main protagonist, on whom we should hang our hopes and hats; while we appear to initially side with Zhi Xuan, there is also significant development and screen time given to Zhe Yu.

All this is aided by a fine set of aesthetics. This is not surprising, given Thim Kian’s regular collaborations with the likes of Edmund Yeo and James Lee, filmmakers who know how to stretch their ringgit a long way. There were also some beautiful shots, with the guli on the phone being a particularly inspired choice that is both attractive and meaningful. It offered a visual I had not thought of previously, so kudos to Thim Kian and his cinematographer, Lee Ling, for making it work.

The music, composed by Lim So-young, is also quite effective, even if it jars with some of the tonal consistency, with parts of offering a sudden shift in the story’s feel. We’re pottering along in an indie drama world, before the genre suddenly changes, transitioning to what may not be out of place in a Taiwanese comedy. This actually mirrors the story itself, with a build-up in trust occurring almost out of nowhere. It’s a slight awkwardness that makes me feel there is some connective tissue missing here; an additional scene or plot point may have made for a smoother ride.

That, however, is nitpicking on a film that considers more critically power imbalances in the education setting. In particular, I found the way the concept of achievement badges handled here to be intriguing. In and of itself, it is not particularly new, but what is different here is that such merit marks are meted out based on those who think they deserve it. At the risk of perpetuating labels, it explains a little of the kiasu mentality certain minorities in Malaysia have often been stereotyped with.

Yet this would become a flashpoint of conflict early in the film. Zhe Yu, already positioned as the troublemaking backbencher, calls out his classmate, Qian Min (Isabelle Tan Yie Bei), for falsely suggesting a perfect attendance record to claim a Badge of Punctuality. For this, he is castigated by classmates, a fallacy exacerbated by Zhi Xuan herself in explaining why Qian Min was late that one time: “Next time you should show more consideration for your classmate.” His ‘crime’ here is standing up for the truth, while not being privy to information he had no right knowing; as someone else tried to lie their way to the carrot, he is the one whipped with the stick.

Stepping back to consider the bigger picture once more, it seems that there are hints here and there that would make for an interesting discussion about Malaysia (the national flag on the wall, a surprisingly common feature in Malaysian-Chinese short films) and Malaysiana (tudung-wearing students in a Chinese school, very muhibbah). Such tokens, much like the badges of merit, are cool bits and bobs I see in ‘BEE, My Friend’. I don’t know whether Thim Kian actually intends for this to be the layers I peel back, but the commonalities for some could be illuminating for others.

Few scenes are as illustrative of this as Zhe Yu’s drawings in his workbook. With lines printed on the page, these books are perhaps meant to be used for more ‘formulaic’ subjects, like Maths and such. Yet by going beyond borders on paper (an act for which Zhe Yu would be disciplined), Thim Kian also hints not only at Zhe Yu as a soul not meant to be contained, but also at the social backlash that refuses such ‘scriblings’ to begin with. It is a common refrain heard in Malaysia, accentuated further by the use of marbles and a circle in later scenes. Once again, the grey is not accepted in a black and white world.

I must admit that much of ‘BEE, My Friend’ is not particularly new. After all, it’s difficult to say that the story of a teacher connecting with so-called troublesome students is unique. If anything, this is a relatively conventional film by Thim Kian’s standards, a ‘Dangerous Minds’ on much safer ground. It’s actually a welcome change of pace, relative to his more experimental side shown in ‘Baeu Baeu’ and his most celebrated film, ‘Men without Women looking for BananaFish, Girl without Cat telling her Story’).

Yet much like Zhe Yu, it seems like he himself struggles to stay in such boxes, perhaps connoting a freer spirit more comfortable in pushing boundaries as he explores human connections. Maybe it is this clash that leads to some of the inconsistencies I mention above, but this does not necessarily detract from the film in a way that hinders more constructive discussions. All the same, I feel that Thim Kian should channel his inner Zhe Yu, and believe that he is fine enough without the badge.

We previously reviewed ‘Baeu Baeu’ and published an excerpt of an interview with Cheng Thim Kian, which you can read in full here. ‘BEE, My Friend’ is an official selection for the Osaka Asian Film Festival 2020, running from Friday 6th March 2020 to Sunday 15th March 2020. Click here for more information on its screening times.

Featured image credit: Granton Parish Church

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