Calling THE SHOTS
L'OFFICIEL Malaysia|November 2021
True masters of their own craft, these haute auteurs bring a refreshed outlook on Malaysian cinema with their latest works.
NIKITA NAWAWI

MALU BY EDMUND YEO

A galvanic work of stark chiaroscuro and muffled rage, Malu probes into the complexities of the family dynamics, intergenerational grief and the constant search for identity with care and utmost empathy. Edmund Yeo—coming off the success story of Aqerat (We, The Dead), in which he shone a light on the Rohingya migrant crisis—looks inwards with a diegesis rooted in unsettling familiarity as he unfolds a narrative centred on a long-lasting discord between two estranged sisters.

In Malu, Hong and Lan are kept apart for 20 years before the passing of their mercurial mother brings them back together. But what should be an emotional reunion turns into an icy and withdrawn one as they learn the very dissimilar trajectories of each other’s lives. Unspoken guilt and resentment pile on when they’re compelled to relive the lingering childhood trauma and lead to a series of unfortunate decisions, leaving the siblings feeling more isolated than ever.

Slicing through timelines with flashbacks, sometimes without clear distinction, Malu gives offthe sense that the past is, in a way, the present. To this, Yeo reflects that we are unwittingly the shadows of our parents. The dreadful conception that we don’t really move on if we don’t let go of the past is a tragedy of the worst kind. It is a plague that haunts the central characters of the film if the atmospheric sound of crashing waves interspersed throughout the scenes is any indication.

Let me start by saying that in a world where many male filmmakers seem to struggle to come up with one good female role, you have created three in one film and it’s becoming a theme in your filmography. How do you do it?

I think one of my intentions back then was to create some distance between the characters and myself so that there’s more space for me to imagine and create. I try to avoid selfprojection upon the characters, preferring to explore them with more curiosity and empathy. I think it’s more fun this way. That said, I will admit that there are, of course, elements of myself in these (female) characters, especially Hong and Lan.

Lan is especially an enigma. The way she lives with childhood trauma only to grow into sibling resentment is heartbreaking. What can you tell us about the character?

In the second half of the film, you can see Lan starting to adopt different personas when she’s in Japan. It is her intention to remove all traces of sad memories she carries with her. She’s a representation of many Malaysians who leave the country in search of a better life, transforming themselves completely in the process of doing so. She even finds a surrogate sister in her flatmate. Her feelings towards Hong, on the other hand, are complicated. There’s definitely resentment there but perhaps by adopting Hong as one of her personas, she too is trying to understand her sister.

I notice a theme of abandonment at play. The mother is depicted in hijab but lives in isolation. She’s left struggling with mental illness on her own. Is it offbase to see it as a commentary on the struggles faced by Chinese Muslim converts in Malaysia?

The backstory you pieced together is indeed my intention— the contrasting backgrounds and personalities between the mother and the grandmother, and the abandonment by her husband. I kept it ambiguous about whether she’s a Chinese Muslim but for me, I decided to adopt the look after going on location scouting on the island. There, I noticed many women were wearing turbans or head cloths to shield themselves from the sun while they were working.

Japan has been an integral part in your creative work. Malu itself is a Japan-Malaysia co-production and a good portion of it was shot there. What about it that draws you in?

I grew up reading anime and manga. As I grew older, I started exploring Japanese films and literature. I’m especially fascinated by the way they are able to articulate intimate feelings and emotions that I myself am unable to describe with words. Many of their films are modest or intimate in scale but the emotions are deep and they linger long after viewing. I always want to know more of, or rather, immerse myself completely in the culture.

Malu seems “accessible” enough to screen here. Are you looking at the possibility of a domestic release for it, whether it is limited or wide?

I would love to have Malu on the big screen for the audiences. Perhaps a limited release would be good. Let’s see how it goes. My hope for those who will go see this movie, aside from wanting them to empathise and identify with the plights of the main characters, is that they will remember to appreciate and try to love those around them especially after our lives have been altered so completely by the pandemic.

You once mentioned that part of the reason why your films have never been shown here is due to censorship and the nature of their arthouse genre. Do you think that it is something that’s holding back our film industry?

Our upbringing in Malaysia and our education do not really prioritise the arts and culture. In other countries, it is very normal for teachers to bring school children to festival screenings. Therefore, most of them have a vast exposure to films of different genres, from different countries of the world. There are also independent cinemas that play classic films or have special retrospectives of particular directors, and discussions held to let one understand films even further.

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