Telltale Lovebites

It has been an important year for independent Malaysian cinema. Triumph on the international festival circuit, success with releases on the screens of major cinemas, both here and overseas – it is cause for celebration that we end the year with another landmark feature.

You’ve heard this by now: made with the assistance of a script development grant from the Hubert Bals Fund of Rotterdam, Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All screened at the 19th Tokyo International Film Festival and the 11th Pusan International Film Festival – the latter at which it won two major awards, claiming the FIPRESCI Award (a prize awarded by international film critics) and the New Currents Award for Best New Asian Filmmaker of the Year.

I have mentioned the supportive nature of the Malaysian independent film community before, but Love Conquers All is a particularly good example of this sort of collaboration – produced by Amir Muhammad, edited by Ho Yuhang, with James Lee as director of photography. Such able talents have supported Tan Chui Mui in making a feature that more than meets the promise of her distinctive and poetic short films, such as last year’s sublime A Tree In Tanjung Malim.

Hallmark Loneliness

Love Conquers All tells the story of Ah Peng (Coral Ong Li Whei), a young woman from Penang, who arrives on the outer fringes of Kuala Lumpur to stay with her hawker-stall-running aunt. She shares a room with young Mei (Leong Jiun Jiun) and tries to keep in contact with her boyfriend in Penang. The two tales that chart the emotional terrain of Ah Peng and the young Mei, as they deal with the relationships that shape their lives, are delicately woven throughout the film, and reach a languid denouement by the time we reach the end.

The sisterly relationship that develops onscreen between Ah Peng and Mei is one of Love Conquers All‘s great strengths – and we witness the capacity of Mei to slowly build a bond with her mother (Ho Chi Lai) that will give her the love she seems to crave. But the exuberant title, ‘Love Conquers All’ – replete with allusions to pulp romance and Hallmark greeting cards – is a multi-layered irony. While love, indeed, may conquer all, it can be a Pyrrhic victory, leading those who find it to new lows, causing them to dwell in newfound despair. A corrosive loneliness and boredom permeates Ah Peng’s life, a state of affairs that ultimately leads her into a mostly doomed relationship with the sleazy but beguiling John (Stephen Chua). The film treats emotional growth and emotional scars with equal sensitivity.

With a developed and well-mapped screenplay, Chui Mui reveals her narrative and her characters gradually:  revelation is slowly built and accumulative. This gently paced film provides a nuanced slice-of-life look at a Kuala Lumpur of the early 1980s. It is full of shots of people at public payphones, and a delightful subplot concerning Mei’s burgeoning pen-pal love has us regularly seeing a letterbox and much-anticipated mail. Today, SMSes and email have largely replaced those forms of communication, and it is nice to see them being celebrated again – if only in onscreen nostalgia.

Looking Good

For a film paced and told like Love Conquers All, the strength of the cast in building character is paramount – and here Chui Mui has, at her disposal, an excellent pool of talent. Coral Ong Li Whei makes an impressive debut: it is no small achievement to capture the sense of loneliness that haunts Ah Peng without resorting to heavy-handed emotionalism – loneliness as a banal state rather than a tragic fate. Local indie musician Stephen Chua, as John, brings to his character just enough charm to make us understand the way in which Ah Peng throws in her lot with him, even though he is clearly a dangerous man to love.

Playing Mei is the 10-year-old Leong Jiun Jiun, a really exciting discovery. Her presence lights up all the scenes she is in, and her lively spirit is a lovely foil to Coral’s rather more sedate and reserved performance. There is nothing precociously grating about this youngsters’ acting; it is honest and fresh as the mise en scene she has to inhabit.

Love Conquers All looks good, with some clever use of art direction to convey interestingly rendered, albeit prosaic, spaces. James Lee’s photography helps to match Chui Mui’s pace with an aesthetically strong sense of framed clarity – her languid style takes advantage of Lee’s hand held edginess but similar sense of pacing. The sound impressed me less, with its few inconsistencies – but this was not so jarringly hideous as to render the film inaudible; it is, ultimately, a minor technical flaw in a much better picture.

I Love You

There is no music in Love Conquers All until the end, where the film’s ambiguous sense of closure is hammered away to the accompaniment of a rather novel and intriguing military band rendition of ‘Wellington’s March’ – a peculiar and whimsical musical closure.

If I have to make one criticism of this film I would point to the ending. It is not that I seek a sense of concrete resolution – neither do I demand the tying up of loose ends. I rather like the realist manner in which Chui Mui avoids the certainties of constructed narrative, preferring to roam about in the glow and gloom of the everyday. But Love Conquers All‘s catharsis could have been stronger, even if it was vague – we journey so far with the characters, only to have their stories dissipate.

That said, I have no hesitation in heralding Love Conquers All as another worthy addition to the growing body of work from Malaysia’s independent filmmakers – with the creativity and raw edge they bring to representing Malaysian lives. It is an impressive note to finish 2006 on – a year that saw impressive debuts. Only 28, Tan Chui Mui seems destined for a long – and, I am certain, interesting – career ahead of her.

But I Can’t Say Hello

Unfortunately, a less positive circumstance of Love Conquers All is also representative to our year of Malaysian film: its treatment at the hands of censors.

At one point in Love Conquers All, the camera travels out of Kuala Lumpur to a seaside kampung. Here, we follow John around – he stops in front of a house and calls out: “Beep!”

It was an intentionally obvious censor’s bleep, and it made me wonder about what had actually been cut. Later, at the preview screening’s press conference, I asked Chui Mui what her character had actually said. ‘” Assalammualaikum,”‘ she replied.

Apparently, Malaysian filmmakers are not allowed to have non-Muslims uttering Arabic lines. Like the contention surrounding Amir Muhammad’s Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, this decision by the authorities is remarkably callous and bizarre – but all the more outrageous, considering that the greeting is an equivalent of ‘Hello’ or ‘Apa khabar’.

While the phrase is asserted to be religious in connotation, and it is apparently forbidden for a Muslim person to return the salam to non-Muslims – this stipulation only applies to the traditional ‘Waalaikumsalam’ reply; it says nothing of people of other religious creeds using the salam itself.

The act of censorship exacted on Love Conquers All is nothing other than an appropriation of a particular language to reassert a racial and religious identity – an ironic one, since Arabic isn’t very Malaysian. As someone remarked at the press conference: “If this was enforced in Cairo, few people would be allowed to talk.”

What kind of signals are censors sending Malaysians, if we are not allowed to even be courteous to each other? Integration, indeed.

First Published: 20.12.2006 on Kakiseni

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