Adi Iskandar dives deeper into two short films by Lim Han Loong.
Last year, we had a chance to do an interview with Malaysian filmmaker Lim Han Loong. For reasons of our own fault, that didn’t come to fruition, but in preparation for that, I watched a number of his films found floating on the Internet. He is a young filmmaker of some experience with a burgeoning reputation, and having seen ‘1304KM: Girl from Sumatra’ and ‘Family Dinner’, it is not undeserved.
They are very different films, yet both have, at their core, a strong similarity in themes and significance. ‘Girl from Sumatra’ tells the story of an Indonesian maid (played by Mia Sabrina Mahadir) tasked with taking care of an elderly man (Yap Ching Fong). Tempted by the bright lights of Kuala Lumpur, they take a trip on the LRT, a journey which would not proceed according to plan.
In ‘Family Dinner’, the focus is on a family getting together for a meal celebrating their mother’s (Gai Yes Lan) birthday. Her son (Alvin Wong), an insurance agent, spends much of the dinner dominating the conversation, as he complains about being ripped off in getting his car repaired. His mechanic brother-in-law (Chua Sek Khim) concedes how such workshops can indeed be unscrupulous, prompting the son to exclaim: “You people are the worst!”
However, he loses his footing on this moral high ground when his sister (Carmen Tok Suh Yuh) enquires whether he can help her ailing friend with an insurance plan. His stern refusal to do so, coupled with a lecture clearly nobody else at the table was paying any attention to, reveals himself to be of a similar ilk to the very mechanics he had spent the whole dinner railing against.
That same economic factor is interpreted differently in ‘Girl from Sumatra’. In an early scene, the maid has a phone conversation with another Indonesian maid. Looking out over the balcony at night, she sees the Twin Towers gleaming in the distance, a beacon on the hill symbolising Malaysian modernism and economic might.
While locals are more ambivalent about it these days, it remains a magnet for many across the region. “My ambition is money,” says the maid. “In Malaysia, if you are able and willing, nothing is impossible.” Though not unproblematic, it works as a clear refrain of the American Dream, as people seeking better lives for themselves and others back home are willing to cross oceans and borders.
Another point of discussion is that of intimacy. For ‘Girl from Sumatra’, the maid is essentially a live-in stranger tasked with the caring of an elderly family member. Left to their own devices, the blocking and Sam Koay’s camerawork highlights how their physical proximity doesn’t necessary translate to an emotional one. Given the difference in nationality, ethnicity, language and culture, that is not a surprise.
What is a surprise is how it is mirrored in ‘Family Dinner’ as well. Here, the cinematography by Tan Seng Kiat is a lot closer and more dynamic in parts, floating on each character’s face as they eat their food. By placing us at the table itself, it makes us feel more engaged with the interactions (and perhaps even serving as a pseudo perspective of the mother).
At the same time, that physical closeness belies an emotional one. For instance, when the son discovers that the mother is using a lot of medicines, he begins to tell her off, but falls silent when she insists on continuing with her ‘sleeping medication’. She speaks of her trouble sleeping, due in part to environmental factors like speeding motorcycles in the middle of the night.
This is common in high-density flats, which are not silent environments. The trials and tribulations of the working class urban experience have been the focus of some films in recent times (see Muzzamer Rahman’s ‘Prebet Sapu’ and ‘High Way’ by Chia Chee Sum, who is also listed here as having provided the sound equipment), and ‘Family Dinner’ adds a fairly straight-up view of life on this side of the margin.
The urban discussion is also touched on in ‘Girl from Sumatra’; when the maid is taking the old man for a day out, for instance, she asked for directions to KLCC, uttering the immortal line “Excuse me. How go to KLCC?” It is a classic, often heard in LRT stations, but the help sought for was not found from the first person she asked, further highlighting the laws of the urban jungle that is Kuala Lumpur.
Once on the train, we see a shot of two other passengers. Their skin being of a darker tone, it could be inferred that they are migrant workers, much like the maid herself, which connects to the Malaysian Dream point made earlier. At the same time, it’s a grey area worth pointing ruminating on; I think they could be locals as well, as skin colour alone is not a useful guide to nationhood.
It’s always worth remembering that Malaysia is far more a pastiche than many would like to admit, with various points of origins. Apropos to nothing, we can also see an inverted sticker of the 1Malaysia logo behind the maid, promoting a programme by the Najib Tun Razak administration to shape a certain and more singular projection of Malaysian identity to itself and the world.
Yet, somewhere along the way, and coming back to the point of social intimacy and relations, both films highlight how the primacy of urban expansion and modern day social niceties have not come together hand in hand. The ever-taller monoliths we build do not mean as much if we do not also have more bridges of compassion between both the people we know and the strangers we don’t. After all, human beings are not recyclable goods on the backs of trucks.
This sense of isolation is hammered home for the son ‘Family Dinner’, as he realises how he is not as aware of his mother’s condition as he should be, signified by the following cut of a Jenga tower falling down. I read this as a signification of his own sense of things falling apart, an uneasy dissatisfaction made more evident by his silence when he is with others after dinner and heading home.
All the same, I run the risk of not doing Han Loong’s films much justice, for as much as I’ve leaned towards an analysis of widening social and personal chasms, there are also moments where we see people connecting in positive ways. That Jenga tower I mentioned earlier? The blocks came down because a toy car crashes into it; in the next shot, we see the mother smiling as she plays with her grandchildren.
I have also not highlighted as much of the actual filmmaking prowess. In particular, ‘Girl from Sumatra’ is a very fine film made on relative shoestrings. Mia’s performance as the maid, for instance, is a controlled one, her trains of thought not roared out loud but implied through minute changes in behaviour.
We also get moments of her looking at herself in the mirror. That is not an original method (‘Jagat’ and ‘Sometime, Sometime’ do similar things), but one particular shot is more unique than most; with the camera itself serving as the mirror, the maid looks directly at us as she puts on her lipstick, the old man positioned in another room in the background, almost as if he’s in a faraway thought bubble. That caught me off guard, and I thought it was absolutely brilliant.
Additionally, there is also a shot of her on the balcony, looking longingly once again at the Twin Towers. Down below, not one but two trains go past from opposite directions with great synchronicity. This could have been a huge stroke of luck, but I prefer to think of it as exploiting a strong local knowledge of the trains and their schedules.
There is also a sense of balance in how both films are made and distributed. ‘Girl from Sumatra’ is the product of the Next New Wave workshop, a programme initiated by renowned filmmaker Tan Chui Mui. It was also nominated as a finalist in the 2016 BMW Shorties, a long-running event. This can be contrasted to ‘Family Dinner’, a nominee at the lower-profile Movie Makers Malaysia 2020 competition.
That both are also made some years apart suggest a consistency to the quality and quantity we see here, pointing to a filmmaker simply keen to make films and get his stories out there. It marks him out as a filmmaker to keep a closer eye on; at the time of writing, he is developing and shopping his feature film project, ‘Maybe Today, If Not Today, Maybe Tomorrow’, in various incubation programmes.
Watch ‘1304KM: Girl from Sumatra’ and ‘Family Dinner’.
Featured image credit: Wikihow