In recent years, young filmmakers like Osman Ali, James Lee, Amir Muhammad, and a host of graduates from the Multimedia University and other institutions, have realized a long-held dream of many a Malaysian youth – to make their own movies on their own terms for a whole new audience, local as well as international.
Evidence of this renaissance of energy and enthusiasm in do-it-yourself filmmaking can be found in the growing number of video festivals and public screenings since the new millennium began. As to be expected from this adventurous new genre, quality is bound to be uneven, yet most film aficionados are only too happy to see an aesthetic revolution like this happen in Malaysian cinema – which has long stagnated in the muddy backwaters of political intrigue and sheer gutlessness.
To watch a cripple begin to take his first faltering steps, unaided, is a miracle worthy of unmitigated applause and wholehearted support. But we may have reached a point when being merely able to produce a video feature isn’t going to warrant a warm and friendly reception. We’re going to have to make movies that others find worth watching, regardless of budgetary constraints – or else run the risk of being totally ignored, or ripped to shreds by reviewers experiencing bad-hair days.
Whispers my heart– a 55-minute feature by Eleanor Low and Linus Chung – happens to fall between two sets of review criteria. One can approach it on a supportive and sympathetic level, noting all its positive attributes and qualities. Or scrutinise the work with a cold unsentimental eye and find all sorts of fault with it. In this instance, I shall attempt to navigate a zigzag course between those extremes, and hope no one accuses me of being wishy-washy.
The story revolves around four main characters: a mentally handicapped girl named Annie (Annie Hu), her adoptive brother Zac (Frederick Gan), his girlfriend Kim (Alicia Daniel), and Annie’s daytime babysitter Mien (Chin Ann). Zac is a bland but nice enough guy holding a humdrum job in a mercilessly mundane reality; his only apparent perk in life being a good-looking girlfriend who lives in a better neighbourhood than he does. Since his adoptive parents died in an accident, Zac has taken on the role of “ko-ko” (elder brother) to the handicapped Annie who appears to have the mental and emotional age of a 5-year-old in a body that’s biologically 14 or 15.
Kim views Annie as a serious impediment to Zac’s career and their future together, and would like to see Annie packed off to a nursing home. Annie’s babysitter Mien has grown fond of Zac and dreams of being more to him than just a paid caregiver. As for Annie, she lives in a world populated by light beings and angels, and yearns to go home to the realm of pure spirit.
Shot on location at the Pekeliling Flats in KL, the opening sequence establishes from the outset that this is NOT going to be a glamorous movie. I can’t conceive any urban reality drabber than the low-cost Pekeliling Flats.
Frederick Gan’s muted, monotonous, and somewhat wooden performance makes him out to be a normal, hardworking, robotized human – but one with deep, pent-up feelings, capable of profound compassion and love. His girlfriend Kim as played by Alicia Daniel is perhaps the only bit of visual appeal in the entire movie (apart from Zachary Ong’s brief cameo appearance as an androgynous angelic apparition). She’s supposed to represent the self-centred callousness of young ambition that views handicapped people like Annie as merely a vast inconvenience. But, as none of the characters is developed beyond the most superficial level, the film doesn’t give much scope for juicier interactions that might have elicited more impressive performances from the cast.
Chin Ann’s portrayal of Mien, the faithful babysitter and Zac’s secret admirer, is restrained and fairly credible – but, again, her character isn’t given much opportunity to reveal itself, beyond a fleeting glimpse of her depth of feeling when she pauses midway through dusting the shelf to gaze with a touch of envy at a framed photograph of Zac and Kim.
As the mentally handicapped Annie, Annie Hu’s real-life experience working with handicapped children would have given her a sound grounding in her portrayal of acute autism. However, she lacked the inherent charisma to transform her performance into a truly memorable one. Her attraction to the light streaming in through grilled windows to illuminate a grim, depressing physical reality – and her fascination with heavenly symbols, for instance, a Madonna statue in the church grounds, or an angel in the street only she can see – can only be inferred from the storyline, not from some numinous quality within her own being.
What elevates Low and Chung’s work beyond the student level is the tasteful pianistic soundtrack scored by Anton Morgan. The simple, haunting melody is reminiscent of classic soundtracks like that of The Beekeeper and contributes significantly to the artistic impact of the work. A bit further down the line, Low and Chung make good use of an original song by Douglas Lim which, though quite unremarkable in itself, lends a wry, lyrical twist to the cloying sentimentality that some scenes are in constant danger of descending into.
From the conceptual viewpoint, it is clear that Low and Chung have their hearts in the right place and have injected a great deal of love and devotion to their project. Their intuitive use of subtle symbolism to create a somewhat Manichaean moral context reveals a sensitivity to the semiotics of cinematic art. For example, scene changes effected by the camera panning to nearby trees, revealing bits of sky, while the muezzin’s call is sounded at dusk, or as the characters walk past a church, effectively evoke the human spirit’s yearning for freedom. Long, sustained shots of commuter trains passing each other graphically depict the mechanization of the human experience, of people’s lives running on fixed tracks. Annie’s angelic epiphanies are her only escape from an oppressive, meaningless existence.
Whispers My Heart has the power to soften the hardened of heart, so that feelings of compassion and empathy can seep in through the cracks. The film’s touching moments, though lacking in technical finesse and dramatic depth, are palpably sincere – they offer a potent antidote to the urban warrior’s hardcore cynicism and his soul withering obsession with “getting ahead” in life.
There’s a Michael Franti lyric that goes: “You gotta be a rat/To win the rat race.” Low and Chung’s poignant and humble little movie reminds us: “The kingdom of heaven is within the heart, and the master key to heaven is a childlike innocence.”
First Published: 07.01.2004 on Kakiseni