By Jerome Kugan
I have nothing against the Chinese. After all, I myself am half chink. But every now and then, I think of how the Chinese community in Malaysia (as do other races in their own way) default to their 5,000-year-old continuous history’s worth of identity so self-assuredly when asked what it means to be Chinese. But Chinese-ness has changed (as have other ethnicities) so dramatically over the millennia (not the least how the diasporic experience has affected overseas Chinese communities) that not many realise when they brazenly raise the torch of Chinese moral values, they are trumpeting what is essentially a conflation of Confucianist and MCA ideologies.
Still, traditions are important to maintain one’s sense of identity and self-worth. I’m proud of my heritage as much as the next person. But when it’s represented, or rather hijacked for ideological purposes, in a totally superficial way (or worse, in a way that fails to address what it purports to deliver), one has to stop absorbing the media detritus and ask, “Do we really need this?”
The 3rd Generation is a local Chinese film by Malaysian director CL Hor (previously directed adverts and music video) screening now, released just ahead of this year’s Chinese New Year celebrations. The film, shot in Penang, concerns the Chan family in a transition period. It shows two generations – second and third – of a successful Chinese clan (of Cantonese descent) that’s steeped in strict Sino traditions including ancestor worship and domestic taboos. The film begins by explaining its title with a voiceover: the Chinese believe that a family’s wealth cannot be retained past the third generation – the assumption being: the first generation makes the wealth, the second lives it, the third squanders it. And while this may seem forced as a narrative template, it remains intriguing as it sets up the rest of the film as a sort of reflection on the current state of the migrant Chinese population in this country.
At the centre is protagonist Charlie Chan (Nicholas Teo), the second son of three siblings. Charlie returns home after studying in England, bringing back with him a wholly Westernised (not to mention, Christian) Chinese bride Susan (Amber Chia). On Charlie’s stag night out at a cabaret lounge (but shot at a KTV – snigger) with friends, he meets a waitress named Linda (Carmen Soo). His wedding to Susan is made official. An affair with Linda ensues.
For the rest of the movie, we are led down a number of subplots that swallow the main plot in their wake, simply because they are arranged to present no definite narrative. What is left is a barely sustained atmosphere of dreaminess, as though none of the events onscreen could ever take place in a real sense, but rather based on clichéd archetypes processed via a rather lazy imagination.
We see Susan deteriorating into a neurotic lonely housewife figure as a result of being neglected by Charlie, praying in an empty church. We see Charlie and his new(!) secretary Linda playing shadows in an unidentified alley and an erotically charged dictation session. Linda also prays, but in an ancestor worship temple. We see Charlie’s sister Judy (I-Fun) acting ditzy while being pursued by Charlie’s two flamboyant bachelor friends (Melvia Sia and Paul Khoo). We also occasionally see the (literally) shady eldest Chan sibling Seng in shorts and smoking a pipe, mumbling cryptically. Then we see Chan Wah (Cheng Kam Cheong) handing Charlie the family business; but what business that might actually be is apparently beside the point – we suspect it’s probably a credit loan company passing off as venture capitalists.
The movie climaxes as the Chan family itself undergoes a financial crisis (quirkily dubbed “Doomsday” in the film) which draws overemotional monologues from almost all the lead characters in the film. Then a phone call announces good news. After which Charlie again wanks a totally nonsensical speech, this time from an actual lectern, thanking his father and his mistress, and extolling the virtues of keeping the wealth in the family.
Look out for the fake sweat on Charlie and Linda as they tango a faux-erotic dream sequence. Lastly, after the two lovers decide to separate because they can no longer bear living in sin (though at this point, the viewer would be forgiven to think that the couple have simply bored the fuck out of each other), we are shown bowls of red eggs and pork symbolising that a fourth generation heir has been delivered, presumably to Charlie and Susan, and that the third generation survived the test. But exact details remain murky. The film ends as hazily as it begins, frustrating loose ends and split ends muddling whatever promise it held in the beginning.
Why deny Penang its history?
While the premise of the The 3rd Generation holds much potential and is historically significant – many Chinese families (both Peranakan and sinkek) in Penang who made it big during the tin mining and rubber booms of the 1920s and built sprawling mansions along Gurney Drive’s so-called Millionaire Row suffered severe economic downfall during the Japanese Occupation, and after, as playboy heirs accelerated the dwindling away of family fortunes – CL Hor makes only tentative attempts to draw from this socially (and politically) interesting period for the upper crust Chinese Penang community.
Instead, CL’s “third generation” is a highly-stylised, ultra-affected, and super-unreal family that seems to exist outside of any “real” context. In fact, what the film does is tantamount to a kind of rose-tinting over Penang’s (and to a large extent, the whole Chinese Malaysian experience’s) much grittier past. OK. I can accept that the movie itself never really hints at where it’s meant to be set (and that it’s not meant to represent all Chinese Malaysians). It could’ve been set in Ipoh or Malacca. But who can mistake the blue walls (keeping in mind that blue for the Chinese is a colour of mourning and is truly unfortunate) of the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion – gorgeously shot to represent the Chan family mansion – for anywhere else? Why deny Penang its history like this? (Don’t even get me started on how Cantonese was used as the main dialect of this movie – and not a trace of Hokkien, the most prevalent dialect used in Penang.)
It’s not always necessary, of course, to contextualise a film in “real” terms. A movie can be self-contained, referencing its own idiosyncratic universe to create a meaningful discourse. But even if The 3rd Generation‘s terms are negotiated from a self-conscious visual artiness, they still don’t make the movie any more compelling. When used wisely, a self-aware conceptual aesthetic can enrich a work of art and add layers of subtext. But the kind of unnecessary hedging that goes on in The 3rd Generation is ridiculous, and effectively subtracts any trace of humanness that was presumably present during its inception.
At the core of the film’s flaws is its severely underdeveloped script. The characters are totally drained of life, mouthing clichés and unwittingly hilarious dialogue (in one scene, the two lovers share an insipid exchange that sounds like a toad mating-call [“Nei…” “Ngo…” “Nei…” “Ngo…” translates as “You…” “I…”]) Their actions are predictable to the point of parody, their reasons for existing in the script curiously absent, and their presence adding little to the film’s narrative. Needless to say, the move to cast wooden and featherweight actors didn’t help the already cardboard script.
Elsewhere in the movie, the characters even morph into pirated versions of Wong Kar Wai’s characters. The scenes of Charlie and Linda toad-calling in rather picturesque cobblestone alleys, for instance, are unadulterated plagiarism of the scenes between Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love. Ditto the “cutting off’ of the heads of characters who represent the shadier side of the Chans (the mysterious Seng and the wheelchair-bound figure whom Chan Wah visits, for instance). (A move that ultimately reveals CL Hor’s amateurish handling of the film’s subtext.)
While most filmmakers are guilty of imitation at one point or another, what CL Hor has done here is just shameless. Whereas Kar Wai’s film (itself a revision of the Shaw Brothers legacy) is wrought with a truly indelible sense of heartwrenching romance and evokes 1950s Hong Kong noir effortlessly, CL Hor’s vision is like an unrealised spoof, completely unaware (or overly aware) that his film looks like the work of a well-meaning student who got the lesson all wrong. In the end, it’s like an extended advertisement for a kind of moralised ideology that’s thick with whiffs of MCA’s politically correct/corrupt notions of the “exemplary Chinese”. As it is, what the film seems to be suggesting is that it’s OK to have a mistress as long as you do it in picturesque alleys, take over your father’s business (however vague it may be) and make more money. Hmm… makes you wonder what it really means to be a well-adjusted Chinese individual in this country.
In the end, it’s hard to understand why this film was made, or who it was made for, or what can justify the amount of money (rumouredly a million ringgit) spent on it. It fails as a love story – the lack of chemistry between the two errant lovebirds is laughable; even though this is not supposed to be a comedy. It fails as a period movie – we think it’s meant to be set circa 1950s/60s but inconsistencies with details such as props and costumes are glaring. It fails as an exploration of family politics or notions of Chinese-ness in Malaysia – even if the film is meant to be a self-contained family drama, this mess of a narrative could’ve happened to any self-absorbed upper middle class family; with a slight change in skin colour, it could’ve been Dynasty on valium. It fails as an artistic venture – I’m sorry but technical wizardry (which abounds throughout the film) and pretty tableaus shouldn’t be used as excuses to cover up the flaws of what is essentially an inane script. And lastly, it fails even as a hackneyed homage to Wong Kar Wai – I’m sorry but plagiarism is not homage.
While it’s heartening to see the rise of a generation of local Chinese filmmakers addressing essentially Chinese themes and subject matter in Malaysia (James Lee’s The Beautiful Washing Machine and Ho Yuhang’s Sanctuary are superb examples; and regardless of their inherent flaws, these two films are infinitely more engaging and original), it is still disappointing in that all the films have so far failed to account for the culturally and racially complex meta-discourse that is the sense of Malaysianness (yes, what is it exactly?). Chinese filmmakers are not solely guilty of this, however. Much of mainstream Malay cinema continues to represent non-Malay characters in an insulting tokenistic manner.
The 3rd Generation takes this ethnic tokenism to a new low. A Muslim prayer call is heard in the opening credits, an Indian chauffeur named Guna appears occasionally to open doors for Chan Wah and drive Linda to church, and lastly, an ethnically-vague silhouetted police officer puts the cuffs on the equally shadowy Seng, saying what humorously sounds like an apt verdict to this film, “Saya tak boleh tolong awak.”
Jerome Kugan is back in Sabah to celebrate Chinese New Year
First Published: 18.01.2006 on Kakiseni