"Do we know where each person came from, and why,
And from which unfriendly land?"
In the most tragic sense, the arrival of Edmund Yeo's second feature film on the worldwide festival circuit this year couldn't be more timely. The Malaysian filmmaker, now 33, wrote the screenplay for Aqérat (We, the Dead) back in 2015 when the brutal hardships suffered by the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar's Rakhine state, brought about by a sickening nation-wide ethnic cleansing initiative, hadn't yet made international headlines. He based his story on the shocking discovery of mass graves in northern Malaysia where the bodies of over two hundred Rohingya refugees, buried by Malaysian human traffickers, were discovered. Now, the plight facing the persecuted ethnic group has reached the status of international crisis, with over 800,000 Rohingya Muslims escaping the violence aimed against them in Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they face overcrowded conditions and dwindling supplies of clean water in vast refugee camps, while those refugees who made it to India are being considered for deportation by the Indian Supreme Court on the grounds of their alleged status as illegal immigrants and "a serious national security threat." As of November 12th, 2017, it was reported that the Rohingya exodus was visible from space – a grave underlining of its status as one of the worst global humanitarian emergencies in recent memory.
Aqérat, its title being the Rohingya word for "life after death," focuses on Malaysia's complicity in this troubling situation from the perspective of Hui Ling (Daphne Low), a character Yeo introduced in his 2014 feature debut River of Exploding Durians. That film chronicles the formative journeys the young Hui Ling and two of her secondary school classmates undertake from the safe, comforting havens of adolescence towards a greater understanding of their new roles in the politically- and economically-ruled arenas of the wide world, achieved through hands-on engagements with terrible events from Asia's recent past (via a series of arresting classroom presentations), a passion for books and faith in stories, tentative forays into activism, protest, and even vandalism, and disturbing confrontations with violence, imprisonment, and death. The film's main plot arc concerns the relationship between Hui Ling and her history instructor Teacher Lim (Zhu Zhi-Ying), whose paths, initially brought together by their shared concern regarding the controversial construction of a nearby rare earth processing plant, just as quickly begin to fracture and diverge from one another over their debates about the effectiveness of peaceful protest and, for Teacher Lim, the growing need for more extreme action in order to bring about meaningful social change. A haunting dream sequence in which Hui Ling shields a younger version of herself from burning pages, rising flames, and crumbling debris within the abandoned mansion where Teacher Lim's radical group convenes suggests the lingering presence of psychic wounds from past traumas while her connection with her increasingly fanatical mentor shows her the dangers of venturing too far into the shadowy realm of political extremism. In this respect, and especially now in relation to Aqérat and its continuation of Hui Ling's journey, River of Exploding Durians acts as a kind of origin story for Hui Ling, illustrating her preparation to leave the safe spaces of home and school behind and enter the world as an informed political being. Aqérat chronicles the next step, in which Hui Ling must now fight to survive and learn, through hard-won experience, to carry herself through the world as a moral being.
When we catch up to Hui Ling in Aqérat, she is living and working in the northern state of Kelantan near the Thai-Malaysian border, and all but the faintest traces of the idealistic young student we met in River of Exploding Durians have vanished, replaced by a toughened, no-nonsense, mostly silent young woman who has learned how to look after herself (with this film, her third and greatest collaboration with Yeo, Low reaches an exciting new threshold of natural ability as an actor). Whatever importance her late teacher's books and beliefs may have held for her, they have now been either forgotten or cast aside in favor of a focused determination to save up enough money to relocate to Taiwan. She nearly reaches her goal working as a server at a small roadside restaurant only to have her stash suddenly stolen by her treacherous roommate (Agnes Wang). Desperate to regain her finances as quickly as possible, Hui Ling becomes involved with a shady group of men who traffic Rohingya refugees into Malaysia and force their family members to pay outrageous sums for their passage - or suffer terrible violence when they can't make their payments. She witnesses the arrival of boats carrying scared, weary-looking people, takes pictures and shoots footage of them when ordered, sees the dead bodies of travelers who didn't survive the voyage. At one point she is even told to help herself to whatever she finds on one body lying underneath a bloody tarp; reluctantly, she takes a wallet full of cash, a cell phone, a tiny photograph of a young child. Inevitably, Hui Ling becomes increasingly disturbed by the steady flow of brutality and suffering that she witnesses and takes part in, even after she tries to teach herself to be sufficiently cold enough to carry out her wicked work. The channels and trenches of darkness she travels through run deep, threatening the flame of goodness that still flickers within her. Will her passage cost her too much?
Aqérat finds Yeo appropriately modifying his style to suit the graveness of the situations his characters face; the film, amazingly shot on location in a mere twelve days with a crew of under twenty during the monsoon season, feels noticeably leaner, rawer, more naturalistic and fast-paced than any of his previous works, operating as a brisk, in medias res action film of continuous motion and movement through intoxicatingly rendered environments. Even in its quieter moments, the film crackles with a persistent tension, periodically amplified by regular Yeo collaborator Wong Woan Foong's spare, experimental score, a nervous procession of rattles and creaks, dissonant chimes, and the loose jangling of fraught strings. The arrival of physical violence in Yeo's world as he moved from the impressive run of short films he made between 2008 and 2014 to feature films was a sign of his progression in maturity and confidence – a brave willingness to raise the stakes in his cinematic universe, address the darker aspects of the contemporary world, and engage with more dramatic story material. He deployed it in just a few bursts of shock and tragedy in River of Exploding Durians, then adjusted his technique to make it more frequent, nasty, and rough in Aqérat. In this respect, along with the film's close focus on its heroine, the barrage of hardships she must face to ensure her safety and survival, and her harrowing immersion into a ruthless economic machine that turns vulnerable human beings into crude units of monetary value, Aqérat makes a strong impression as a companion piece to Woo Ming Jin's The Tiger Factory (2010), the gripping exposé on the underground trade in newborn infants that Yeo edited and co-wrote with his longtime friend and creative partner. While seeming to channel that film's fast-paced momentum and close proximity to realism, Yeo also somehow successfully manages to weave his trademark visual sumptuousness into his new film's grim proceedings, working with director of photography Lesly Leon Lee to plant Hui Ling in a lush, earthy realm of cool blues, velvety shadows, and emerald greens dominated by creeping amassments of leaves, branches, and vines that surround the winding jungle roads and wind-swept sand banks dotted with impossibly tall palm trees – a humid, hazardous alien world through which both Hui Ling and the silent, fleeing refugees pass.
Following the late arrival of its title card some fifty-seven minutes in – a move that, along with dialogue addressing the Burmese immigrants also making their way into the country, invokes the spirit of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Blissfully Yours (2002) – Aqérat briefly crosses into the dream-like fable territory of Ingmar Bergman and Hiroshi Teshigahara with the story of Wei (Howard Hon Kahoe), a hospital worker whose encounter with Hui Ling reawakens his memories of a young woman (Ruby Yap) and her mysterious, bandage-covered sister (Daphne Low). Yet despite this beguiling, romantically charged detour, the film's central focus never falls too far from sight: in one scene, a distressed colleague (Andy Darrel Gomes) tells Wei of a mistreated Rohingya woman who now haunts his dreams while, shortly later, Wei himself risks his life to help Hui Ling as she tries to ensure an escaped group of child refugees don't fall back into the hands of the menacing traffickers.
The diverse selection of languages spoken throughout Aqérat - Malay, Thai, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin – further builds upon Yeo's longstanding fascination with the intricate multiculturalism of 21st-century Asia, explored to such great effect in his short films, which has in turn led him to critique with increasing persistence the prejudicial nature of Malaysian politics and culture that places preference on the Malay portion of the population while pushing the less-favored ethnic groups such as Chinese and Indians to pursue more accommodating living conditions and avenues of opportunity abroad, as Yeo's characters do in Inhalation (2010), River of Exploding Durians, and Aqérat (and as Yeo, himself a Malaysian Chinese, did when he went to live in Australia and Japan in the 2000s for school and work). But Aqérat paints an even fuller picture of the global migration crisis now reaching heightened levels of complexity and severity in the Asian region, with the conditions pressuring Hui Ling and her Malaysian Chinese counterparts to leave Malaysia for Japan, Taiwan, or Singapore forming one angle of the issue, those forcing the Rohingya to look for new homes in Malaysia, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and beyond forming yet another. Of the latter, the resulting shockwaves of widespread horror and collateral opportunistic corruption that have spread to Yeo's own countrymen are brought to light by the unflinching attention he and his collaborators have brought to their work, their fine efforts having produced a compelling artistic statement, at once a feverish reverie, an intense sensory rush, a tender poem to the possibility of love even in the most unlikely surroundings, and a moral quest journey that leads right to the brink of a consuming, potentially unending cycle of hate and harm, the reality of which driven home by the film's chilling final shot. With the force of a typhoon and solemnity of a whispered prayer, Aqérat is a sincere plea for awareness and compassion towards those less fortunate than us - an urgent reminder for us to keep our humanity in check for as long as the storms of strife persist.
Aqérat (We, the Dead), a Pocket Ideas-Greenlight Pictures coproduction represented by Good Move Media, had its world premiere at the 30th Tokyo International Film Festival (2017), where it earned Edmund Yeo the Best Director prize and lead actress Daphne Low a Tokyo Gemstone Award, a new prize recognizing four up-and-coming actors and actresses featured in the festival selection. Aqérat most recently screened at the Singapore International Film Festival and Indonesia's Jogja-NETPAC Asian Film Festival, and is set to next appear at India's International Film Festival of Kerala (Dec. 8th-15th, 2017).