By Benjamin McKay
Some filmmakers use film as a tool to tell narratives and build worlds. Other filmmakers, a rare few, inhabit film as if it were already a tangible world – a world in need only of some simple shaping and orchestration to produce fine semblances of life. Ho Yuhang’s Sanctuary (2004), a simple but harrowing look at the pathos in a relationship between two siblings, had me earmark the 35-year-old director as one of the latter.
With his new feature, Rain Dogs (Tai Yang Yue; Malaysia, 2006; Cantonese and Chinese Dialects), Yuhang confirms my suspicions.
Writing a film review only a few hours after seeing it is a risky, and perhaps foolhardy, undertaking. I am still digesting the film; a situation that might make things a little too raw for true reflection. But moments of movie-going magic are so rare – when encountered, these deserve to be captured while still new and oh-so bitingly fresh.
Rain Dogs centres upon Tung (Kuan Choon Wai), a young man from a small town who ventures off to Kuala Lumpur to meet up with his elder brother. The journey to the city is fraught with misadventure, a catalogue of everything that could go wrong going wrong. Defeated, Tung eventually returns home to his mother only to discover, shortly afterwards, that his brother has been killed in a KL pool-hall.
Tung and his mother journey back to the capital to bury him. At this point in the narrative – a good 40 or so minutes into the film – the title credits appear, a clever act that divides the film into its two distinct but intertwined halves.
The rest of the film is a tale of a young man’s emotional and physical estrangement from his mother –resulting in his living with an uncle and aunt. At his uncle’s home, Tung gradually works through the demons that haunt him and the pathos that weighs him down. He gets involved in a love triangle with two sisters, strikes up a friendship with his blusteringly masculine uncle, and learns to accept of a degree of genuine warmth and love from his aunt.
Light Bulb Profundity
That plot summary makes Rain Dogs appear to be a simple, if not sad, coming of age story. This is in no way a bad thing: I believe that the surface reading of a quality film will often reveal narrative simplicity. In good movies, it is not so much the tale but the telling of that tale that matters. Profound films need never be weighed down with complex narratives – and Yuhang’s effort is, unquestionably, a profound film.
Film is a visual language. In considering Sanctuary for the online film journal Senses of Cinema, I wrote at length about how a scene concerning the ownership of the tailored suit jacket revealed more about character, history and plot than any well-crafted wordy screenplay could hope to achieve. Yuhang demonstrates his understanding of this with even greater finesse in Rain Dogs.
The scene in which Tung, briefly returned home, changes a light bulb for his mother, is in this director’s hands a moment of raw emotional depth – the viewer understands that a subtle power shift has taken place between mother and son, and the slow, sad process of their estrangement now seems all the more likely. Who knew that a light bulb could communicate so much more than merely light?
There are more: firecrackers set off in the murky gloom of night tell us about the boredom of lives lived in the periphery; a lusty and playful bedroom scene between two characters appears to be entirely here-and-now, but infuses the deep love and resigned sadness that we later discover marks their relationship; a beautifully composed vignette of Tung’s mother, crawling out of bed to hear whether her son in fact hears her through a closed door – with both parties so close, yet so removed; so in need of contact, yet finding it an impossibility – is a magnificent example of the capacity for the visual to concurrently reveal emotional, thematic and narrative exposition. A lesser filmmaker might have needed hours on-screen to fully develop such complex revelations.
Yuhang trusts the visual and avoids wordiness – having said that, Rain Dog‘s screenplay is beautifully structured, gently paced and finely crafted, as far as dialogue is concerned. The film’s marriage between word and image is seamless throughout.
Nearly every scene in Rain Dogs is delicately composed: from rural expanses of misty mountaintops and riverine tranquillity; through to the jarring, half-completed urban project that is contemporary Kuala Lumpur. Images are quite artful, but avoid the pitfall of pretentiousness. One should never tire of the formal simplicity of scenes framed with finesse in spaces such as windows and doors.
Composition is enhanced with the fine cinematography of Teoh Gay Hian; and the talented Yee I-Lann’s production design ably assists in bringing the mise-en-scene onscreen. Rain Dogs looks good – and thankfully, the High Definition Video transfer to 35mm has been done with skill.
Yuhang’s gentle expository style is augmented by the editing of Liao Ching-Sung, who brings a sympathetic aesthetic sensibility to Rain Dogs.
Liao’s presence in this project is a lovely example of the positive benefits of transnational production and cross-cultural exchange; but – synonymous as he is with the editing of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films – points to Yuhang’s aesthetic connection with Taiwanese New Wave cinema: Hou, along with Tsai Ming Liang, are two of Yuhang’s self-confessed influences to whom he has most been likened.
These comparisons are accurate, but in Rain Dogs Yuhang has synthesised such aesthetic and thematic influences and made them his own, subverting that legacy within a Malaysian context. In the process he has truly localised his global understanding of film – and, in doing so, made his total engagement with the medium all the more personal.
Most know Yuhang as an actor, so it should come as no surprise to discover that he is able to harness the creative prowess of his cast. As a director, he eschews the more mannered and virtuoso aspects of the performing arts, seeking a kind of delivery that is pitched between professionalism and inspired amateurism. There is no room in his films for slickness in performance – if that were the case, raw human pathos would be sentimentalised, rather than deeply handled.
Kuan Choon Wai, as our protagonist Tung, is a major discovery. Though Rain Dogs is his debut, I kept wondering, throughout the screening, whether I should have seen this young man’s work before. His intelligent command of an awkward and complex young character, so early in a very young film career, needs to be commended. The ensemble nature of the cast’s performances themselves may have assisted him, but Choon Wai still comes across as a strong team player – and his casting for a role crucial to the film is nothing short of inspired.
Rain Dogs utilises seasoned professionals from the film and indie music movements with great aplomb. Singer-songwriter Pete Teo is Fook, a figure of order and authority in constant need of usurping those around him. While Pete does not have much screen time, he is a study in contained rage when he is, one that adds a tangibly bleak and human dimension to our understanding of what our protagonist undergoes in his own troubled engagement with the world.
The revelation in casting must belong, however, to Yasmin Ahmad, who leaves her director’s chair at home and proves to be a fine performer here. As Tung’s aunt Min, Yasmin fuses – thematically and emotionally – the gaping chasm between love and alienation that the film more broadly addresses. Min is a flawed but loving woman, and her love for both her son and Tung proves to be one of the few rays of sunshine amidst the bleakness of the lives lived on screen – a lovely performance.
Hong Kong cinema veteran Lui Wai Hung brings a menacing masculinity to the screen as Tung’s uncle: a man hidden beneath the haze of Tiger-induced inebriation who, during moments of attempted passion and control, is nevertheless revealed to be rigid and weak – he longs to connect with those around him. Similarly, Tung’s mother, played by Lee Yok Lan, is beautifully portrayed in her all her weaknesses and her attempted strengths.
Rain Dogs makes room for degrees of nuance, even for minor characters: the thugs we meet are not just thugs; the young girls who steal, or try to steal, the heart of our protagonist are individuals, not types. Working class Malaysian Chinese life has been brought collectively and intelligently to life by this worthy cast.
Sounds for the Malaysian Soul
We do not get a lot of music in Rain Dogs – but when we do, it matters. Many of the Debussy and Schubert pieces in the soundtrack were actually performed by Yuhang himself; he also composed some of the incidental music. The sparse placement of this very lovely piano music throughout the film is, in itself, an achievement of artistic sensibility.
Indeed, the use of music throughout the film is exquisite, and nothing sonically embodies Rain Dogs better than the song that eventually envelops our entire engagement with the film: Odetta’s haunting rendition of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child’. The strangely muted cry in this song has been worked into the beautiful images of the film itself. ‘Sometime I Feel’ is an inspired catalyst to Rain Dogs‘s bold and cathartic end.
The film’s powerful and emotional resolution might also quieten those detractors of indie film with narrow views of language – commentators who say, as they will, that Rain Dogs is not Malaysian, simply because it is not in the Malay language. The manner in which all the myriad threads are seamlessly tied together in a visually arresting and still inherently Malaysian way, proves perhaps that the power of film language, when utilised with skill, has the capacity to transcend the limitations of the otherwise parochial.
It is perhaps telling that Rain Dogs was made possible not by local funding, but via Hong Kong actor Andy Lau’s company Focus Films, run by Malaysian producer Lorna Tee. This cross-border cooperation is to be encouraged – further, it realises that Malaysian films do not only speak to Malaysian audiences, but are now enjoyed globally.
Rain Dogs was just screened at this year’s Pusan International Film Festival – a festival that recognised fellow compatriot Tan Chui Mui with two awards, for her new film Love Conquers All. This week, nine pieces screen at the Tokyo International Film Festival as part of a Malaysian focus in their Winds of Asia section: a great honour for the local independent scene and further proof of these uniquely Malaysian works’ global attraction.
In a time when the promise of independent Malaysian film appears to be fully blossoming, Rain Dogs stands out as a major cinematic achievement.
First Published: 24.10.2006 on Kakiseni