Fikri Jermadi tucks into the ways he was surprised by Samantha Tan’s directorial debut.
In purchasing some items recently, I eventually gave in and made an effort to look it up on Amazon. Though this is not the first time I had tried it, the previous experience was not a particularly positive one; I’m not really been a big fan of online shopping, and wasn’t planning on getting started any time soon. However, needs must, so I bit the bullet as I did my deal with the devil.
An interesting option tempted me with a trial of Amazon Prime. Already on that slippery slope, I slid further and started to check out what they had to offer. Relative to other streamers, by and large the range and prestige of these films do not measure up, compounded by a disappointingly small selection of Malaysian films. In my search, however, I came across ‘Ally Chia’, a film I had never heard of before, and sat down to find out more.
The film follows our eponymous protagonist (Samantha Tan, also the film’s director and writer), a struggling Malaysian cook based in Los Angeles. Hoping for a break, she is making food for a film production, even though it is late at night. In doing so, she juggles between interacting with her mother (Peggie Ng) on video call, and her African-American boyfriend, Lakeith (Ikenna Okoye).
Striking that balance (or trying to) is the name of the game. It begins with close-up shots of Ally cooking Malaysian food, which, for the natives outside of Malaysia, will always be a double-edged sword of pain and pleasure. Not that it is entirely inappropriate, for that in itself is representative of the dichotomies in the film.
The first is a discussion between modernity and tradition. Firmly representing the latter is her mother. Not only is she unable to figure out how to use her webcam properly, once that was done, she took the opportunity to admonish Ally’s skimpy choice of clothing. Her mother’s continuous comparison of her to others is another trope many may relate to.
In particular, I am reminded of a classic sketch in ‘Goodness Gracious Me’, in which a son’s achievement of getting into the Millwall first team was diminished by his father (“Mr Owen’s son is getting into Liverpool!”). The mother, exasperated, raised her voice to better contextualise the situation. Cue the camera cutting to the son, revealing him to be a boy: “He’s only six!”
Going beyond such intra-Asian conflicts, we also have a contrast between Ally (a Malaysian Chinese) and her boyfriend. Even though we are in the 21st century, Asian societies like those found in Malaysia (and perhaps even more so in Ally’s context) do have a strong conservative streak, pushing back against such differences. It is why she has yet to introduce Lakeith to her family, a sore point for him. This double life, between one she is living and another her family thinks she is living, must be a tiring battle.
It is interesting that some of this fight takes place in the kitchen. Often portrayed as a space of domesticity where women ‘belong’, I feel that Samantha’s effort at emancipating Ally is, at least in part, driven by the politics of this (dis)location. I can certainly appreciate how Ally’s attempt at making her way in the world originates from that very restrictive physical and political space.
Unfortunately, that’s where things start to go wrong for her. A moment of intimacy leads to other, more disastrous ones, building up to a crescendo of conflicts. In trying to find her way through, Ally finds that all these little moments pile up. As the Malay saying goes, sikit-sikit, lama-lama jadi bukit. Some of these hills, however, prove to be more problematic than most.
Chief amongst them is Ally’s difficulty in flying the coop. Trying to break free from restrictions both social and societal, the story’s development indicates how this is perhaps a swoop too soon. There is perhaps even a hint of arrogance in her rebellion, a quality I had initially thought of as a strength. However, she is left with little to lean on, other than to resort back to the very pillars she tried to stand away from.
This is problematic because ‘Ally Chia’ wears its feminism loud and proud. In researching this film, I found out it was crewed by an all-female team. While that is a fine achievement in its own right, it does mean that there is a need for the story (and its character) to live up to the billing. In that context, it came up short, lacking perhaps an extra scene or two to return that power to Ally.
Equally uncomfortable is the handling of Lakeith. Being an African-American, that is an identity imbued with all sorts of complexities being openly discussed right now. Like Ally, I can appreciate Samantha’s attempt to go beyond the lines in the sand, directly addressing some of the stereotypes associated with being black. However, the film’s last line of dialogue, an attempt at humour, is, for me, a disappointing step back.
More’s the pity, because everything leading up to that end ticks plenty of the right boxes. ‘Ally Chia’ puts Samantha right, left and centre, with some long-ish single takes to showcase her talents on screen. Though there are times when it did feel like it, this is above and beyond a mere audition tape masquerading as a short film, and should lead her to good opportunities in the future.
I’d like to also commend Suzaine Aguirre’s camerawork, suitably straying in and out of focus in certain scenes to reflect our protagonist’s mindset in the moment. There is also a quieter moment in the film, in which Ally’s acquiescence is showcased cinematically by receiving an e-cigarette. This is a good display of film language (though it is still not unproblematic; those wearing academic lenses may well consider this acceptance of a phallic symbol to again run counter to the film’s apparent mission).
Whatever you might feel about that, I believe Samantha Tan has taken steps forward in ‘Ally Chia’. As discussed above, maybe it’s not quite the stride she had in mind, especially in terms of representation. I also wondered how necessary the heightened scene of intimacy was to the narrative. However, that is perhaps more of a reflection of me and my own biases. For Samantha, I believe ‘Ally Chia’ is something she can be happy about, and it is worth checking out.
Especially if it’s free…
You can watch ‘Ally Chia’ on Amazon Prime.
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