Review: Shuttle Life // 分貝人生 (2017)


There is something skeletal about Shuttle Life, the Malaysian short film director Tan Seng Kiat’s debut feature. 

In the very first shot, we witness a figure winding its way up the reedy spine of an unfinished high-rise, inching towards a ladder just a hair’s breadth away from the edge. That figure is Qiang (Jack Tan), the 19-year old protagonist of the realist drama, and he is here to collect water from the water tower because the water where he lives does not run from the tap anymore, or indeed, ever. We watch as he climbs into the concrete cavern, only to find—to his resigned dismay—that there is barely enough water to sustain a bullfrog, which croaks at him disapprovingly. 

He has a sister, named Shan, and a mother, a past seamstress whose name the audience never learns. Shan, played to a cognizant, mischievous, and short-lived, perfection by Angel Chan, is Qiang’s sole bright spot in a life marred by the ugliness of toiling for survival at an age when the plight of his more privileged brethren might just be girl trouble. Whatever Shan says, goes; and she inspires in people the sort of casual grace that only a true and tried innocence can manage. 

Also in the scene is the nameless mother, whose mental illness lingers in the frame like a specter, and haunts the family coffer. When Qiang digs through the content of her meager drawers for an important document, she flings herself at him with a guttural cry against the desecration of some private memories of the man who left her—and the kids too, though she seldom remembers.

For the optimistically inclined, and those very removed from societal grit, Qiang is what they might have called a survivalist. For everyone else, Qiang is, for lack of a better word, a petty criminal. He steals motorcycle parts from his previous work place, is always planning to steal and sell a car with the other ne’er-do-wells of his minuscule gang, and steals water from the neighbors when he could no longer manage to get his own.

Not that he is without sweetness: in between petty schemes, we watch the mature tenderness between Qiang and Shan as they work to coax their mother into taking her medicine, as they wait it out before a hustle, as they celebrate her birthday. All these in the first act, before the two are unceremoniously hit by a driver while riding home on Qiang’s ramshackle motorcycle; Qiang wakes up in the hospital, Shan does not. What follows is a tragi-comic look at Qiang’s quest to secure a birth certificate for his illegitimate sister, without which she could not be identified, let alone brought out of the hospital mortuary.

Whatever happens after tragedies occur in the lives of the urban poor? Shuttle Life doesn’t profess to have an answer—Qiang shuttles between tempering his unbridled anger and resisting the languid pull of resignation as he desperately tries something, anything to take one last look at his sister. His mother, a wreck on her own, lapses into further deterioration as grief takes its toll, and washes Shan’s clothes with a rising fervor even though she knows that her little girl is never coming home.

Maintaining an unflinching gaze as Qiang’s family dissolves around him despite his best efforts to keep everything in their precarious balance, the film is a measured one two punch at the guts as Tan depicts the life of the Malaysian underclass in all its desperate glories.





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