Coming across her other film recently, Fikri Jermadi tracks back to Ling Low’s first effort.
In watching the films of the 2020 Locarno Film Festival, as ever I made sure to pay attention to the Malaysian ones. Some are by those I whose names I recall briefly (like Ananth Subramaniam, winner of the 2019 BMW Shorties). Others, like ‘Highway’s Chee Chia Sum, are a lot less familiar, which is a polite way of saying I’ve not heard of them before.
Straddling this divide is ‘The Ruby’, a short film directed by Ling Low. On camera, there are some stellar names doing some good work. It’s a similar story behind the lens, as I note the likes of Al Ibrahim and Mahen Bala, whose paths I crossed some time ago; having previously been involved with Filemmakers Anonymous, it is also great to see the name of Effa Desa in the mix.
Far less familiar is the director herself. Setting that right with a Google search, I came across ‘Closure’, an earlier film of hers. It looks at a former couple sometime after their break up. Lina (Dawn Cheong), having moved on from Alex (Gavin Yap), returns to his place to collect her stuff. Though they appear to be happy in their current ways, this brief and awkward encounter suggests more than just a resurfacing of residual feelings.
That which lies beneath was very well realised on screen. This had much to do with the chemistry between Gavin and Dawn. Both are experienced and talented professionals on stage and screen, with Dawn having won awards for a similar role in ‘Cuak’. Gavin even made his own feature directorial debut with ‘Take Me to Dinner’, proving that these are people who know how many storytelling beans in a row make five.
A lot of that equation had to do with the unspoken. In my scriptwriting classes, I often emphasise on the importance of silence as a conduit of meaning. Moments to breathe in dialogue does more than just create a difference in the storytelling flow, it provides a space into which the audience can project their own feelings, creating greater empathy between the seer and the seen.
The framing by Artur Sienicki is also important, manipulating the gaps on screen in projecting the characters’ feelings onto us. In a scene near the middle of the film, both Lina and Alex are being dishonest, a choice as uncomfortable for them as the framing is unnatural for us; instead of giving us more space in the direction of their gaze (towards each other), there is a squeeze, making us feel more directly the characters’ experience.
That’s not to say ‘Closure’ is all show and no tell. Lina and Alex exchange plenty of words, a flowing and natural diction to highlight the unspoken between them. Ironically, the dialogue in ‘The Ruby’ left me feeling a little flat at times, perhaps due to the constant switching of codes. Here, with a more singular English medium, Ling was successful in making me feel; I started the film not knowing what to expect, and ended up punching the air at key moments.
On that note, I wonder whether this film could be considered an addition to the Urban Wave I had identified earlier. Writing about it in 2015, I noted the rise of English-language films in Malaysian cinema, led by the likes of Khairil M. Bahar; I even namechecked Gavin in that write-up. These are films and filmmakers comfortable with a more global outlook of the self and society, often deploying English in a natural depiction of middle- to upper-class characters and contexts.
Perhaps that’s a part of the reason why I was not as aware of Ling’s film. Beyond a premiere at the 2014 Brussels Short Film Festival, I do not know of many other selections for festivals elsewhere. This reminds me of the words of Liza Diño, the chairperson of the Film Development Council of the Philippines: “Philippine films are being boxed in one kind of films shown in film festivals.”
It reflects how, intentionally or otherwise, the selection of regional films for international festivals is often couched in portrayals of imbalances, highlighting and exotifying poverty and oppression in countries like the Philippines. This applies to Malaysian films as well; as hinted at by Paolo Bertolin in the Open Doors Roundtable session, the selection of ‘The Ruby’ at Locarno was predicated in part by its multiethnic approach.
Though I see it as a strength of our cinemas, I also feel its reification limits how others see our films (and indirectly, how they see us). Lacking the cultural capital to balance the negative with the positive, it further cements a particular image of Southeast Asian stories and societies to and for those unfamiliar to us. Exceptions remain, of course, but so do the unspoken rule of gaining traction by broaching and breaching taboos.
Mores the pity, because ‘Closure’ is quality. Being closer in spirit to the likes of the Before trilogy by Richard Linklater, in a way it may not tackle sensitive social issues the way others do. In other equally important ways, it absolutely does, touching on the sensitive side in all of us by telling a story many could relate to. In short, Ling and her team were successful in making me root for Lina and Alex, and for that, I thank them.
Featured image credit: Malik Venema/Pixy