The Axe and the Tree – The Boys Club

Fikri Jermadi discusses why Yihwen Chen’s latest film is surprisingly unsurprising.

Earlier this year, Maria Chin Abdullah, the Member of Parliament for Petaling Jaya, was interviewed on an episode of ‘Good Things’, a show on BFM. It covered a range of topics befitting a well-regarded activist who had done many a great thing in her lifetime, but the most relevant of these here touch on the treatment of women in professional industries.

In particular, her discussion of the treatment of female journalists in the 1980s was enlightening of the harassment they faced in doing their jobs, especially in covering issues related to their own health and well-being. Yet even as they sought to raise awareness of these issues, these are the very two factors they unfairly had to put on the line, an almost inevitable byproduct of a toxic socio-cultural environment.

Those themes connect with ‘The Boys Club’, Yihwen Chen’s latest film. It touches on the problems she faced in the making of her previous one, a feature-length documentary. In particular, Yihwen focuses on the sexual harassment she faced in its production, as well as the lack of support she received from her higher-ups when she shone a light on this problem.

Several scenes highlighted not only how troubling the situation is, but also the lackadaisical attitude stifling attempts to correct it. On-screen, we see snippets of her email and chat conversations with her friends, peers and bosses. While there is a degree of sympathy from some, the most infuriating are the responses of the actual few in a position of power, especially when that power is not exercised positively and constructively.

A part of me is surprised by this, as her then-employers is a major media organisation in the country. From the outside, I would have imagined them to have a strong and clear code of conduct appropriate for a company operating at that level. Instead, their unwillingness to go to bat for one of their own hints at a cowardice unbecoming of persons in such authority.

Additionally, their chucking of Yihwen at the wolves as a sacrificial lamb intended to protect their own bottom line reeks of an endemic victim-blaming process. This is a part of the #MeToo problem, a movement which had been going on for a number of years now. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of it gaining true traction in countries like Malaysia, as misogyny still holds a stronger currency than it should.

At the same time, I am also not particularly surprised, as anecdotes of such forms of abuse and harassment is a dime a dozen, a rumbling disquiet represented through the cacophony at the start of the film. It conditions us not only to ‘The Boys Club’, but also the socio-cultural landscape it is couched in. Phrases like “Dia pakai seluar pendek, mestilah aku nak tengok” is not uncommon, an unseemly aspect of a society in which a majority often portray themselves as strong practitioners of Muslim values.

We then proceed to the opening scene featuring Yihwen in an empty cinema, gazing wistfully at the blank screen. This is meaningful on two levels, as the film she had faced such problems in making had its public exhibition shuttered due to the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020. It was also her first feature film scheduled for a wide release on the big screen, which she noted in a rare moment of excitement in the film: “Wow, I actually made a film, after all that I went through.”

That enthusiasm remains weighed down by the disappointment, even if we don’t always see her on screen. In fact, most of the shots here are cutaways tied together with her voiceover. Edited by John Hafiz, there is a smooth flow from one seemingly-unrelated shot and scene to the next. Additionally, Yihwen being her own narrator is significant in reclaiming the power her abusers may have sought for themselves; their attempts to silence her are not successful.

The cinematography (by Wong Chin Hor) work in a lingering sense, with many shots of the city focusing on the spaces left behind instead of those who populate them. This is poignant in two ways. The first is that it works as a documentation of lockdown Malaysia; though it wasn’t easy to live through history, looking back on such images nonetheless still evokes a certain sense of disbelieving nostalgia.

They also highlight spaces in which many events like those Yihwen went through occurred. The tree remembers what the axe forgets, and ‘The Boys Club’ reminds us these things can and do happen even when (and perhaps especially because) no one is around to witness them. In principle, this film works well to historicise that.

It certainly is an effective one, packing a mean punch in a lean 22-minute runtime. That duration made me wonder whether Yihwen is targeting a later date with television channels, but as it stands, it should secure itself a decent run on the festival circuit, as it is a very good film in its own right. In addition to John and Chin Hor, we also have Mohsin Othman’s sound design lending extra urgency to Yihwen’s confessional.

All this adds up to a sense of peeking at a diary of unsavoury memories, the reliving of which must have been anything but relieving. For instance, in highlighting a hotel incident, Yihwen’s voiceover stitched together shots of a hotel corridor and room. I appreciate the skill in creating this narrative rhythm and flow, but there is also a discomfort at how such storytelling must have been tinged with a touch of trauma.

Having said that, as a filmmaker Yihwen has not previously shied away from this. ‘Eye on the Ball’ is perhaps an outlier of opportunity more than anything else, but her previous films like ‘Memoria’, ‘Shades of Grey’ and ‘Chicken’ all feature female protagonists pushing back against the enemy; even ‘Like Toy Dolls’, lacking a clear-cut lead character, touch on difficult dilemmas certain women face.

Two years ago, I noted how these films “are efforts to speak up against the systemic oppression of women in a systematic way.” I did not imagine then how accurately they could describe Yihwen’s own trial and tribulations since then, but there is an uncanny connection here all the same. It is a connective thread which highlights her own courage and bravery, and it should be applauded.

That none of this will make the headlines of the people’s papers does not discredit Yihwen and her team. That the story is one worth telling (and one well told) does not make it any less of a pity that it needed telling to begin with. That it exists, however, makes ‘The Boys Club’ significant not only as a documentation of misogyny in Malaysia, but also as a point of pushing back, to allow those affected to begin reclaiming their power and voice for their own.

‘The Boys Club’ screened in competition at the 2022 Busan International Short Film Festival., where it became the first Malaysian documentary to win the NETPAC Award. Listen to an interview with Yihwen on BFM Radio, and read our thoughts on her past films here.

Featured image credit: CoinDesk

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