By Benjamin McKay
It takes great skill to make a film about the emotional and material deprivation of young children without resorting to either sentimentality or sermonizing. How, instead, do you make an empathetic, realistic and non-preachy film about the plight of children in need and still manage to fully engage with your audience? Can, or indeed should, such a film be entertaining?
If you are seeking answers to these questions, consider Liew Seng Tat’s debut feature film “Flower in the Pocket”. The young director – who recently won two awards (New Currents Award and KNN Audience Award) for his film at The 12th Pusan International Film Festival – has managed with simple cinematic grace and deft narrative economy to create a non-judgmental, and often surprisingly warm account of the plight of two young boys struggling with day to day life in Kuala Lumpur.
The story gently unfolds through its engagement with the day to day details of the lives of its characters. Liew’s approach is to explore the narrative capacity of muted revelation rather than exposition. Mysterious strands remain mysteries – whatever did happen to the mother of these boys? Her absence is central to our understanding of the predicament of these young boys, but neat narrative closure would perhaps clash unnecessarily with the film’s temper and pace.
Two boys, Mah Li Ohm (Wong Zi Jiang) and Mah Li Ahh (Lim Ming Wei) are left to look after themselves. Their father Ah Sui (James Lee) is at best taciturn, and at worst emotionally detached from the world. Taking refuge in his work in a mannequin factory, he remains remotely unaware of his children’s needs.
The film takes us into the day to day world of the boys – as they get up in the morning, feed themselves, bathe, play, get into fights, get into trouble with teachers, meander through neighborhood streets and make new friends – all the while looking out for each other. They encounter and befriend a young Malay tomboy Ayu/Atan (Amira Nasuha) and observe her loving family. They procure a puppy and we watch them tending to its needs. It is a study in the self reliance of the boys that ultimately drives this film forward. The plot manages its twists and turns languidly.
There is a gentle lyricism at play in this film. Liew harnesses the skills of a cohort of indie talents, including cinematographer Albert Hue who again proves his strong eye for detail, and his mastery of place and space. Liew also wrote and edited the screenplay. The film’s pace and temper is therefore clearly under his command. I was also particularly taken by Arif Rafhan Othman’s musical score – all perfectly in synch with the film.
While Liew negates sentimentality, he still finds it necessary for a series of binaries to drive both his narrative and his overall point. To counter the taciturn father, we are presented with an effusive maternal role in Atan’s mother (Mislina Mustaffa). The emotional and physical shell of Ah Sui is reinforced by his on screen juxtaposition against a zestful Mamat (Ah Sui’s colleague in the mannequin factory, played by Azman Hassan,). Such binaries are however nuanced through performance and it is to Liew’s credit that his film is not diminished by their use.
The old show business adage that one should never work with either children or animals is clearly an adage ignored here. Two fresh young performers are asked to largely sustain our interest in this film as they have considerable time together on screen. The young stars are not without a degree of whimsical charm, even if at times they appear to be a touch too self-conscious of their place in front of the camera. Small moments of awkwardness in their performances do however enhance a kind of cinema verite freshness to the film.
The duality of Atan/Ayu is nicely developed by the young Amira, whose character’s own identity binaries help provide a lovely balancing point for the revelation of the other more concrete binaries at work in this film. Such characterizations helped to push the sense of gentle lyricism.
The temptation in the characterisation of the father Ah Sui would be to have painted him as something of a villain, but this film does not play judge and jury. James Lee, himself an iconic director of Malaysian independent cinema, gives here a magical performance as the barren, wounded and remote father. As unforgivably clichéd as it sounds, one might be tempted to say that this is a “career defining performance”, for it not only reminds us all of Lee’s considerable acting presence but also in an oblique way personifies much of the emotional and psychological terrain that Lee himself explores in his own films.
It takes great skill, both from actor and director, to have the obvious pathos of Ah Sui tempered by lovely moments of humour. The scene in which he visits a doctor to discuss the “leaking water” from his heart was wonderful comedy and the constant tussle with the austere but feminine mannequins both in the workshop, and the van had a wicked lightness that added new dimensions to the unfolding narrative. I would argue that the scenes of the inert, near naked Ah Sui asleep on his couch, themselves had a mannequin air about them, further reinforcing my point about binaries.
Ah Sui eventually realizes the dangers of his emotional estrangement from his children, and actor and director alike are to be congratulated in that rather than a push for a sense of redemption, the performance towards the end of the film instead reflects a rather more mundane reckoning. The swimming lesson scenes were among the most cleverly drawn and humorous elements in this simple but multi-layered film.
The bleak world that these boys apparently inhabit is ultimately a rather hopeful place – they love their remote and distant father despite his obvious flaws, they certainly love each other and their clumsy attempts to make sense of the world are largely optimistic. This is not a bleak and meaningful indictment of bad parenting, but rather a humane and whimsical journey into a place that may well be not very far away from us all.
Last year when I reviewed Tan Chui Mui’s “Love Conquers All”, I mentioned her winning two awards at Pusan for her film. She used the winning prize money to help fund “Flower in the Pocket” and acts as its executive producer. For two years in a row, Dahuang Pictures have won the New Currents Awards and along the way further proved that the Malaysian independent film industry is a dynamic part of world cinema. I only hope that local audiences will find this film as charming as have audiences elsewhere.
First Published: 19.12.2007 on Kakiseni