Fikri Jermadi checks out the latest film from Edmund Yeo.
‘Malu’, the latest film from Edmund Yeo, tells the story of two sisters, Hong (Mayjune Tan) and Lan (Sherlyn Seo). We traverse across an interesting landscape, in which their tale intersects not only with different time periods (the past and the present are often conflated, either through sight or sound), but also through geographical space on screen (taking in urban and rural Malaysia and Japan).
Hong is the older of the two, but there is another to complete the triangle of trauma: their mother (Lynn Lim). As a single parent, she found it tough trying to make ends meet; early on in the story, she even attempted to end all their lives, literally (and figuratively) tying them together before eventually deciding not to jump into the river. Yet the film starts long after the story itself has begun, as her passing is the catalyst to unite the sisters together again after a long period apart.
That their relationship would get going again after such a loss reflects the film’s themes. ‘Malu’ constantly reexamines the past, with the present a conduit through which the weight of history and trauma is constantly reconsidered and, at times, reenacted; several scenes feature characters reaching out across the sands of time to connect with that which had been buried deep in their (sub)consciousness.
Such weighty chips on both shoulders great affect how they carry themselves, as seen in the contrast between Hong and Lan. Having been separated from her immediate family for a while, she appears to be more comfortable in the modern setting, even when it is clear early on that there’s more than a little residual resentment. “I sound like an old woman,” Hong mused aloud at one point, “always talking about the past.”
In contrast, Lan internalised more of such thoughts and feelings, to the point where I wondered whether she is mute. Later events put paid to such notions, but through that fire is forged a resilience in a complex character, one that shines through her actions and behaviour. This fits the pattern of the bigger picture, where we are shown a lot more than we are told.
This is aided by the restraint found in the performances of all the leads. In particular, Mayjune and Sherlyn stands out by keeping their emotions bubbling beneath the surface. The same applies for Lynn Lim, even if she is restricted to a more limited screen time. It doesn’t quite get to the extremes of, say, ‘3-Iron’ by the late Kim Ki-duk, but much is said even when it’s not spoken aloud.
That’s not to say that there is no dialogue at all. In fact, when there is a need for it, Edmund is not afraid to get verbal, his words carrying a certain wisdom musing on notions of loss, trauma, regret, and the realities of family and life. It aids the character development as well, as Lan is seen later in the film as a more vivacious person; without completely removing herself from her past, there is greater room for her to (re)imagine herself in a different way.
Those scenes are set in Japan, a country in which Edmund has spent a great amount of time. Without suggesting any of this to be autobiographical, I nevertheless wonder whether Edmund himself found the same degree of emancipation, to grow in a different way; far apart from banal familiarity and politics, it could be that, like Lan, the shedding of domestic concerns allows for a reconstruction of identity in a more satisfying way.
That openness might also be connected to the imagery of open water. Such sights and sounds are commonplace in films he has either directed or produced, and ‘Malu’ is no different. One particularly striking image is that of both sisters in a small boat, floating in the middle of the sea. As they move according to the ebb and flow of the water (and life), the imagery makes it clear: whatever their paths may be, both remain inextricably linked.
On that point, ‘Malu’ is the culmination of all the tools of the trade Edmund acquired in his past filmography. ‘Kingyo’, for instance, also featured the interaction of different times and space on the same screen. Similarly, there were occasions here where a minor shift in the camera movement created a whole new perspective; there is an identical trick in ‘Exhalation’, where a slight pan revealed a greater dynamism to what I had thought to be a single shot on stilts.
As enthusiastic as I am about this film, it could also be argued that ‘Malu’ is not for everyone. The constant chopping and changing between different time periods might be confusing for some. Additionally, there is a slight shift in tone between the Malaysian and Japanese scenes, one that does not quite maintain a uniformity you might expect.
For me, however, this film is definitely one I could get on board with. ‘Malu’ is a treat for long-time followers of Edmund and his films, going back to the days of ‘Girl Disconnected’. It may walk down a pathway trodden by many before (including Edmund himself), but his anchoring of the story with his own filmography makes this a quality film worth watching and connecting with.
Featured image credit: Wallace Chuck / Pexels