A Herstory of Violence – The Films of Yihwen Chen

With the upcoming release of ‘Eye on the Ball’, Fikri Jermadi analyses Yihwen Chen’s previous films.

This write-up is going to look at the fiction films made by Yihwen Chen (or at least, those I am aware of). Now firmly ensconced with The Star Media group, the majority of her career appear to have been spent working with documentaries. Yet she has also made a handful of fiction films, and I find these to be equally telling of a storyteller’s worldview, as I will hopefully illustrate after briefly introducing her films.

She first came to my attention as a prominent filmmaker in Malaysia around the start of the 2010s. Much of that is fueled by her victory at the 2010 BMW Shorties, as ‘Like Toy Dolls’ connected with the moment; while Abdullah Zahir Omar and Shanjhey Kumar Perumal were worthy winners, it feels like her film was the first one that truly crossed over into a more mainstream milieu.

Around the time of the film’s making and reception, the general public were being made very aware of the issue of babies being abandoned. Though not a particularly new idea, it remained one of those topics that would enrage people all the same. I recall a government at the time even opening a baby drop off hatch, for those who wish to leave their offspring in hands other than theirs.

What made ‘Like Toy Dolls’ particularly poignant is the film’s point of view. Toy dolls were used as its lead characters, standing in for the actual babies left out in the literal wild. Davina Goh’s voiceover and the music of Zach Tay added greater poignancy to the proceedings. Of course, it remains conjecture at best (you never really know what a baby feels, for sure), but the film remains effective at forcing us to project the worst, making us realise horrors many probably did not think about as much in the same way.

Winning the BMW Shorties gave her a generous filmmaking grant of RM75,000 to play with, which she would put to good use making ‘Memoria’. Coming a year after ‘Like Toy Dolls’, the film offers a different narrative, at least on the surface. It tells the story of a girl (Charlene Meng) in fishing village in Sekinchan. She would deliver lunch to her father (Tong Yeon Choy) daily, but these are merely the nomenclature of a tricky relationship between the two. Along the way, she is often accompanied by a young girl (Yap Pei Wen).

Though it remains a fine accomplishment, what I remember of the film’s reception when it was first screened was how some of the most common questions were related to the budget. Yes, RM75,000 is probably more than what your average Johan would spend on a short film, but simply put, filmmaking cost money. Quality costs money. I believe that for some, ‘Memoria’ was a disappointing experience precisely because it did not match their expectation of what such a film should be (Tan Ce Ding’s futuristic ‘The Masseuse’ is probably closer to what they had in mind).

It was a pity, for ‘Memoria’ put on screen what many other award-winning independent films would have done. If anything, there’s much of this aesthetic I would connect to highly-regarded Japanese films of the time, as picturesque images of the landscape (of the paddy fields swaying in the wind, for instance, as captured by Wan Kok Cheong) are allied with Joe Hisaishi-like touches on the piano (composed by the returning Zach Tay).

Perhaps the audience would prefer something a little more comical, in which case ‘Chicken’ would be right up their alley. Starring Miau Miau, the story is of a woman having dinner with… a chicken. By that, I mean that it is a cooked chicken treated as a meal companion for the night. The woman would hold a conversation with it, a bravura one-woman show that Miau Miau should be fully credited with. The story progresses along a revelatory path, as the woman’s insecurities becomes evident through a demonisation of others.

The final film, ‘Shades of Grey’, is the trickiest one to write about, simply because it is not available online as the others are. In fact, it has not been for quite a while. Made for a competition called KL 48 Hours in 2010, participants are required to produce a short film within the two-day time frame. Each team has universal elements to work with, such as a salesperson character named Danial or Danisya Mamat, a golf ball, and the dialogue line, “Okay, tell me what is the problem now.”

If I am not mistaken, the genre Yihwen’s team pulled out of the hat that night at FINAS was film noir. What came out of that is the story of a woman who engage a detective to do deeds on her part. It starred Grace Ng (perhaps transitioning from her role as an NTV7 newsreader to a more arts-based career?) and Alfred Loh (whom I remember seeing in an episode of ‘Geng Bas Sekolah’ once). It won several awards at the event itself, making Yihwen a filmmaker to be reckoned with even within very constrictive contexts.

With that overview, a number of points stand out. The most obvious one is that they all feature female protagonists. This is perhaps not a surprise, but it does feel as if these films, in their own way, are efforts to speak up against the systemic oppression of women in a systematic way. ‘Chicken’, through the character’s conversation with one, speaks to the social pressures of superficial beauty a woman is subjected to. The characters in ‘Like Toy Dolls’ who abandon their babies are also females: a marginalised (possibly migrant) woman of the urban poor here, a scared schoolgirl stressed by social pressures there (it is perhaps no coincidence that the only human being to actually beat a toy doll in the film is a man).

That leads to the most surprising discovery of them all: the films of Yihwen Chen are incredibly violent. Perhaps if you take her Red Shoes Productions opening credits as a preamble foreshadowing tool, it is less surprising. Nonetheless, there is a direct or indirect element of violence present in each and every single one of them. By direct, I mean graphic ideas and acts you would not want to be subjected to. I’ve discussed at length about the effectiveness of ‘Like Toy Dolls’. ‘Chicken’ has some of that as well, even if bits of it is more comical than most. Additionally, violence is also a key part of ‘Shades of Grey’, though that is more of a prerequisite, given the film noir genre.

In a more indirect sense, a film like ‘Memoria’ discusses psychological trauma from past events, as the girl would live almost in fear of her father. In a more literal, Kim Ki-duk sense, we are also shown fish being carved open, its entrails washing away down the drain. Is this a projection of the protagonist’s own wishes? An indication of something gone awry in the past? I’m tempted to say so, especially when it is allied with the voiceover peeling back the story’s superficial skin: “Is the brain a jar that holds our memories?”

What does all this mean for the upcoming ‘Eye on the Ball’? In truth, probably nothing. As mentioned before, Yihwen Chen is perhaps more accomplished and experienced as a documentarian, with her work as one of the lead persons on R.AGE more instructive of what we can expect. Nevertheless, it is fun to look back on and celebrate the career of a filmmaker I have long admired and respected, and I look forward to see what her latest work has to offer.

‘Eye on the Ball’ will be released in cinemas on 19th March 2020.

Featured image credit: FinTECHTalents

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