Thursday, 20 December 2018

Between Sea and Sky: Woo Ming Jin's Cinema

Foo Fei Ling and Ernest Chong Shun Yuan in Woman on Fire Looks for Water

The setting sun has turned the sky into a gentle inferno the color of molten gold. Below, the jungle and the river are calm and still. A boat smoothly glides across the water's surface, its slender red hull spreading ripples that distort the glassy reflection of fire and clouds. Over the hushed murmur of birds, the boat's motor softly put-puts at a steady, soothing rhythm, pushing it onwards into the fast-approaching evening.

Tranquil moments like these are like a balm for the long days of hard work leading up to them. In Woo Ming Jin's Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009), the intoxicating natural splendor that surrounds and penetrates the coastal Malaysian village of Sekinchan, one and a half hours and a world away from Kuala Lumpur in Selangor state, is rendered just as vividly as the various tasks making up the fish farming operations by which the town's inhabitants make their humble livings. Through Wan Chun Hung's sumptuous cinematography, a thick layer of heat and humidity seems to permeate everything, a soft, orange-tinted haze coloring the lush jungle vegetation, the muddy riverbanks, the winding dirt roads, and the wooden huts in which heaps of shimmering gossamer fishing nets, cone-shaped fish traps, and boat hulls and components in various state of repair are kept, even spilling into living spaces. Here, life is dictated by work, the work defined by the demands and yields of the river and the sea, the processes of gathering up the fish that dwell in their murky depths. Woo's film dutifully portrays the gory toil that goes on here with an attentive, unflinching eye. Countless fish are pulled up from their vessels in nets and gathered in heaps, the camera lingering on the creatures' shiny scales, their staring eyes, their slick gills and fins and tendrils. Thick, heavy blades wielded by silent workers deftly slice the fish open, cutting away the guts and useless bits with impressive precision. What remains is then cleaned, packed with salt, and neatly spread out on nets and wooden boards to dry. The natural ubiquity of death is further emphasized elsewhere throughout the film: a pile of slain goat carcasses arranged into a bonfire; the rotting remains of a snake as they are swept away by splashes of water; the shock of a close-up on a frog's head getting severed by a pair of scissors, its eyes bulging grotesquely.

Throughout this sequence of vivid imagery integrating labor, gore, and decay into an ever-constant, ever-present cycle - all by way of a pungent, sensual earthiness that brings us up-close to the mud, sweat, and blood - ailing fisherman Ah Kau (Chung Kok Keong) prepares himself for his own impending demise. He visits old acquaintances and, most poignantly, Ai Ling (Mak Foong), the woman whom he nearly married many years ago. By deciding not to, he ended up making the biggest mistake of his life, leaving him with decades of burning regret and a box of old ticket stubs and photographs that he passes along to Ai Ling - a melancholy token of lost time, lost chances. At the same time, his son Ah Fei (Ernest Chong Shun Yuan) carefully considers his prospects for his own future. He makes a living selling frogs out of the cage fastened to his motorbike, but is told by Lili (Foo Fei Ling), his own heart's desire, hat he must find a more financially reliable profession if he truly wants to marry her. There seem to be few routes open to the poor fisherman's son until one day when he rescues the wife (Teo Mooi Cho) of a cockle factory owner, Mr. Lee (Chia Chen Tek), whose affluence is made clear enough by his spotless silver car. He introduces Ah Fei to his daughter Su Lin (Jerrica Lai) and shows him the facilities where his workers gather and process the hard-shelled cockles they bring in from nearby stretches of shallow river. The prospect of a new house and a top position at the factory suddenly opens up to Ah Fei - but only if he commits to marrying Su Lin.

Ernest Chong Shun Yuan and Foo Fei Ling in Woman on Fire Looks for Water

This fresh temptation puts Ah Fei in danger of making the same mistake that led his father down the wrong path in his life, threatening to pull him away from true love and the woman he truly longs for in favor of a more comfortable existence in this remote corner of Malaysia. At times, the young man's ties to his father and their way of life seem too daunting and inescapable, driven home literally in the scene in which Ah Fei struggles to pull a boat onto shore, sinking in mud up to his hips as he pants and tugs on the stubborn cord, heaps of netting gathered around him.But in his time alone with Lili in the jungles and springs of Ulu Yam and on the dirt roads leading to and from the fish farm, Ah Fei's future seems open and malleable, a path beyond the stagnation, rot, and disappointment that haunts the older characters clear and in sight. Even though there is no easy way forward, there is still hope for these young people - if they make the right choices while there is still time.

Woo Ming Jin was among a handful of promising young Malaysian filmmakers who emerged in the early 2000s with their first works. Also including James Lee, Amir Muhammad, Liew Seng Tat, Tan Chui Mui, Ho Yuhang, and the late Yasmin Ahmad, this group has since come to be known collectively as the New Malaysian Cinema, their films screened in festivals around the globe and reaching viewers via online modes of distribution, introducing the various nuances and layers of Malaysian culture to a wide international audience.. Along with his friend and frequent collaborator Edmund Yeo, Woo has emerged as one of the most significant artists at the forefront of his country's national cinema, alternating between commercial works like the romantic comedy Salon (2005) and the surprise box office hit KL Zombi (2013) and more festival-geared films such as his feature debut Monday Morning Glory (2005), which premiered in San Francisco and played in the Berlinale, and The Elephant and the Sea (2007). Woman on Fire Looks for Water came about after Woo was inspired by Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (2007) to make a film that had a more personal, intimate feel than his previous works. He achieved his goal, creating a hushed, mesmerizing mood through the magic of Hung's camerawork, Yeo's editing, and Isabel Yam's low-key score. Weaving together tropical reverie, vérité-style attentiveness to the work of fishing, and the timeless themes of desire and tragedy into a masterful balance between the transience of life and the soft, beating reality of it, Woman on Fire is, indeed, captivating cinema.

Berg Lee in The Elephant and the Sea

Made two years previous, The Elephant and the Sea, shot in different locations in and around Sekinchan, is something else altogether. More cold and closed-in than the sun-dappled Woman on Fire, it is a haunting film about haunted characters - two, specifically, wo men who never meet, but weather equally bracing brushes with death and disease. One of them, Ah Ngau (Chung), loses his wife to a mysterious illness that sweeps through the area, forcing him to stay in a spartan shelter facility along with others who have been similarly affected by the outbreak. Shut up in a small room where they all sleep on simple cots, Ah Ngau keeping his wfe's ashes close to him in a cheap tin container, they are given some money by the government and boxes of worthless junk presented as charitable donations from the public. Once he is finally released, Ah Ngau returns to his riverside home, where he takes to sleeping outside under the afternoon sun, and begins to frequent a nearby brothel. The other, younger man, Yun Ding (Berg Lee), runs scams with his "big brother" Ah Long (Cheong Wai Loon) by placing wooden boards embedded with sharp nails across country roads, then later driving up to their victims' vehicles to replace their flat tires - for a price, of course. Ah Long also suddenly succumbs to the unexplained disease, leaving Yun Ding alone to fend for himself, which he manages through a string of odd jobs and dubious projects: by working a brief stint as a driver for some local toughs; by selling a few cameras, phones, and other bits of junk; by finding and selling a dead lizard, inspiring him to set up a trap to catch a Malayan sun bear, which would fetch him a far greater price; and, most amusingly, by repeatedly playing the lottery using numbers that supposedly appear on the sides of a prized fish he finds in a shop and keeps revisiting.

For some seasoned viewers, The Elephant and the Sea will bear a fairly strong resemblance to films by Tsai Ming-Liang like The River (1997) and What Time is it There? (2001). Like his fellow countryman - Tsai was born in Malaysia, but was educated and has made most of his films in Taiwan - Woo here turns an unflinching eye towards the basic needs and drives of the human body - to eat, to move, to rest, to fuck - and its disquieting sensitivity to ailments and environmental conditions. Lee's mostly silent presence throughout the film, remarkably similar to that of Lee Kang-Sheng in his regular collaborations with Tsai, is mostly defined by body language - gestures and behavior that evoke the childlike simplicity, suggested innocence, and inquisitive mannerisms of mime. In another Tsai-like development, a faint mark appears on Yun Ding's nose, sending him to a man who tells him to wear an amulet that will apparently absorb all of his negative energy and remove the blemish - a quaint spiritual remedy that sharply contrasts with - and seems totally ineffective against - the film's hard, physical world of fallible bodies, crude transactions of money and sex, and very little else for the characters to cling to and live off of. This is a film about scarcity and loss in which both the sluggish, depressed Ah Ngau and the dogged, inscrutable Yun Ding come through their respective trials with renewed appetites for life, fellowship, and affection, just barely regaining control of the base animal urges that drive them in their daily quests for survival and comfort. As in Woman on Fire, humans come across as simply another component of the harsh natural world of life and death that dictates the jungle's beckoning depths and the sodden, mud-choked riverbanks.

Monday Morning Glory and The Elephant and the Sea were the first films Woo made under the banner of Greenlight Pictures, the production company he launched in 2004 that has since served as home base for his and Yeo's many fruitful film collaborations. The Elephant and the Sea received financial assistance from the International Film Festival Rotterdam's Hubert Bals Fund (as did Woman on Fire and a number of Woo's later projects), was given the Special Jury Prize at the Torino International Film Festival, and appeared on Tony Rayns' list of his favorite films of 2007 for Film Comment alongside Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Flight of the Red Balloon, Lee Chang-Dong's Secret Sunshine, and David Fincher's Zodiac. Three short years later - just one after Woman on Fire - Woo's most riveting portrayal of survival and endurance to date premiered in the 2010 Cannes Film Festival's Directors' Fortnight program. The Tiger Factory tells, through a Dardennesian closeness to its heroine that barely relents its tight focus over its brisk 84 minutes, the story of Ping Ping (Fooi Mun Lai), a young woman determined to get to Japan to make a new life for herself. She works two jobs, in a restaurant as a server and dishwasher under a tyrannical manager, and in a pig farm where she assists in feeding and inseminating the filthy creatures amid the deafening din of their grunts and cries. However, she is also involved in another, far more insidious operation: she offers up her own body for impregnation, carrying and delivering babies who are then sold to outside parties through her aunt, the cold-blooded Madame Tien (Pearlly Chua).As she braves the moral and medical dangers of this scheme on top of her additional hardships, Ping just can't ever seem to get ahead in achieving her goals. The film opens with her most recent delivery resulting in a stillborn child (or so she is told), leaving her short on the amount she needs. A visit to Piu (Bok Lai Loh), the human trafficker who can arrange her passage to Japan, yields not an inch of sympathy for her predicament. "Tell you what, why don't you come back when you have the money," he simply tells her. Desperate and short on options, Ping goes back to her "Auntie Tien" to offer herself up for another pregnancy. This leads to her regularly meeting with Kang (Rum Nun Chung), a Burmese immigrant with a family of his own, to make her pregnant. A subdued sort of friendship grows between them until information comes to light that forces Ping to seriously reevaluate her trust in Tien as well as what she is or isn't willing to do to escape her grim situation.

Fooi Mun Lai and Rum Nun Chung in The Tiger Factory

Ping shares a room with Mei (Susan Lee Fong Zhi), a young woman her age who also works at the pig farm and also has her sights set on Japan. Edmund Yeo tells her story in his companion short Inhalation (2010), which overlaps with the events of The Tiger Factory, adding another angle to both films' examinations of the factors motivating Malaysians - specifically those of ethnic backgrounds of other countries such as China and India whose "outsider" status means they aren't treated with as much fairness or tolerance as their native-born compatriots - to move abroad for better opportunities and quality of life. Indeed, Ping and Mei find themselves in a world even more harsh and treacherous than the one seen in The Elephant and the Sea, this one arranged as a brutal economic food chain in which ruthless, wicked figures of control and power exploit the weak and vulnerable ones beneath them - be they migrant workers like Kang or the young, desperate ones like Ping and Mei - without so much as a flinch, driving some to the most tragic depths of risk, danger, and determination to somehow break free. Some may look at Ping and her actions and react with shock or disgust, but Woo's film demands a more sympathetic consideration of her case, factoring in the fear, survival instincts, and warranted measures of pain, trauma, and grief that influence her dubious choices, complicating any simplistic reading of her character. With her present in nearly every scene, Fooi Mun Lai's performance is an understated feat of quiet courage and willpower, matched by Pearlly Chua (who made such a strong impression in Tsai Ming-Liang's I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006)) as the icily calculating, utterly remorseless Madame Tien, a screen villain as chilling and memorable as they come.

The Tiger Factory paints a frightening picture in which the stuff of life itself - pig semen, sex, women's bodies, newborn babies - is reduced to crude market goods, ensnaring the participants in a cruel, rigged game of sacrifice and moral compromise. The hard-edged aesthetic Woo applied to his and Yeo's screenplay is amply supported by Yeo and Kenny Chua's crisp editing, making the finished film one of Woo's most kinetic and captivating works. But even after recognizing the great strengths of the films examined here thus far, it is 2014's The Second Life of Thieves that stands as perhaps Woo's finest achievement to date, revealing a fresh threshold of liberty and confidence in his filmmaking, summoned to service a personal story that demanded his utmost care. Woo was inspired by his uncle, a private man who mostly kept to himself in the time Woo knew him during his youth in the town of Ipoh. Years later, it came to light that his uncle had in fact been living as a closeted gay man, keeping his true self hidden behind an arranged marriage, struggling with alcoholism, alienation, and the guise of straightness before AIDS eventually claimed his life while he was still just in his 50s. Strangely enough, this story closely resembled that of Chung Kok Keong, Woo's lead actor from The Elephant and the Sea and Woman on Fire who, like his uncle, was forced to live in the closet for much of his life. He too took a wife, with whom he had a daughter, and had to play straight roles throughout his acting career. Given this difficult history, it must have come as a shock of surprise and relief to Chung when Woo approached him with the role that would finally allow him to openly channel the full breadth of his experiences and identity onscreen. He did it justice, delivering a strong, emotionally rich performance that both anchors The Second Life of Thieves and drives it forwards in its painful reckoning with buried secrets, hidden truths, and flames of passion long extinguished by tragedy and time. The film opens with Chung's character, village chief Tan, learning of his wife's sudden disappearance with his best friend Lai. He teams up with Sandy (MayJune Tan), Lai's daughter, to investigate the strange case, prompting her to tell him of the illicit affair her father (Berg Lee) pursued with Tan's wife (Emily Lim) thirty years ago. This passage, told in a captivating extended flashback, soon turns to Tan's side of the story, in which, as a young man (JY Teng), he and Lai began their own forbidden romance in the lush groves and on the shell-strewn beaches of Selangor - a romance even more surely doomed than that between Lai and Mrs. Tan thanks to the suffocating poison of social stigma and the fear of discovery that surrounds the two men even in their most intimate moments together, the impossibility of their situation setting in as a lingering pain they must learn to endure for the rest of their lives.

Chung Kok Keong in The Second Life of Thieves

Woo shaped nine months' worth of footage into several different versions before arriving at a final cut that finds Tan and Sandy sifting through the rubble of the past in a blue-tinted, sharply framed present, with certain cuts and compositions inscribed with the stinging sureness of a surgeon's blade or razor wire (in addition to his co-writing and -producing duties, Yeo's editing is in fine form here, as is the vivid cinematography by Kong Pahurak). Cast in a noticeably warmer color palette, the past sequences hinge upon Berg Lee's smoldering portrayal of the vain, brooding Lai, whose polished shoes and print-patterned shirts are as jarringly out of place in Woo's fish farms and riverside piers as his dreams of literary fame and shipwrecked fortune, which supplant his responsibilities to his wife (Hana Wong), infant daughter, and the family fishing and grocery businesses he stands to inherit as surely as his extramarital affairs. The tantalizing, pulpy allure the character of Lai and Lee's seductive presence bring to The Second Life of Thieves along with the steamy sheen of melodrama that adorns its tangled tales of love and despair make up some of Woo's most pleasurable flourishes, all of it spiked with the bittersweet notes of Wong Woan Foong's moving piano score. Elsewhere, from decade-spanning jump cuts and clever in-camera transitions to the elegant, poetic prose of its voiceover narration and dialogue, the film is layered with a clear appreciation for the various forms and powers of storytelling, reinforced by the abundance of separate side stories that surround the central thread. Early on, Tan is called in to investigate a worker's death after he was pressured by his unsympathetic boss to descend to the place where he was drowned by tidal waters, soon leading the village chief to another body, that of a Burmese migrant who fled religious violence in her home country only to discover conditions in Malaysia weren't that much better for her. Both cases join the pointed studies of minorities facing mistreatment and inequality that Woo and Yeo pursue in The Tiger Factory, Inhalation, and Yeo's second feature, Aqérat (We, the Dead) (2017). The same topic is addressed from an alternative angle in Sandy's account to Tan of her disappointing experiences as an expat in London that led to her getting deported back to Malaysia (Sandy also appears in a scene in Yeo's 2014 debut feature River of Exploding Durians, an inspired bit of complementary worldbuilding similar to the role Yeo's Inhalation plays in relation to Woo's The Tiger Factory). And every so often, the film cuts back to an outdoor stage where elderly folk and children watch two actors (Steve Yap and Joanna Chan Yein Sime) give impassioned performances, his character describing his insatiable bloodlust and the redemptive miracle of his child's birth while she, in the role of yet another migrant worker, tearfully begs the audience with her dying breaths to remember her story and pass it on to others. Among all these narrative threads, some patterns become clear: some people will always be susceptible to the temptations of greed and lust, tragedy and suffering are inevitable forces in the flow of life, and the acts of telling one's story and having it heard can at least provide, in place of proper justice, indescribable measures of relief to those who have suffered in loneliness and silence.

JY Teng and Berg Lee in The Second Life of Thieves

Other aspects of the film are altogether more cryptic. For example, what is one to make of the mysterious young woman named Fern (Heen Sasithorn) who appears to Sandy in a dream as her attentive caretaker who helps her recover from a paralyzing illness? Fern also happens to be the name of the central character played by Sajee Apiwong in Girl in Water, the 2011 short film Woo co-directed with Danish filmmaker Jeppe Rønde that is set in familiar locations: dense forests, simple huts, tranquil riverbanks, the sea. These are places where people stake their futures on hard work and dreams of future happiness, torn between traditions and regrets forged in the past and the burning fires of desire and ambition that may yet clear a fresh path to something more - that is, if they don't first bring about destruction and tragedy. Either way, the ever-present constants of sea, river, and sky bear witness to everything, the muddy banks and swaying leaves betraying nary a trace of history as scenes of heartache and bloodshed are enacted on their timeless stage settings of water and earth. These scenes make up the cornerstones of Woo Ming Jin's cinema, giving us an essential chronicle of rural Malaysia with the scope, vitality, and raw, universal emotions of timeless myth.


  Woman on Fire Looks for Water and The Tiger Factory are available on a region-free DVD set from Objectifs.
  The Second Life of Thieves is available to watch online via FilmDoo.
  The following films by Woo Ming Jin are available to watch online: