Review: You Mean the World to Me // 海墘新路 (2017)

In Malaysian director Saw Teong Hin’s latest film, You Mean the World to Me 海墘新路, the dramatic look of the ‘home’ set, the robotic walk of Ah Boy, a mentally-ill character in the family, the psychedelic disco-era dresses donned by two sisters in the family, create a world fit for an opera. Not to mention the film has been lensed by Christopher Doyle. This is far removed from the humble tale of love that director Saw was intending to unearth from a very deep cavern in his heart. For what looked a tad melodramatic or even surrealistic in the trailer, the film (as in its story and not its craft) was mostly painful and bittersweet. But there is a payoff at the end.

From directing shows of ‘epic’ proportions like the period fantasy Puteri Gunung Ledang to the recent Southeast Asian Games Opening and Closing ceremonies in Kuala Lumpur, Saw channels all that energy and helicopter vision into the micro setting of a family drama, his own family to be exact. The film is largely based on events that happened in his family (which makes this a rather courageous attempt). Eschewing the need to tell a coherent linear story, Saw’s family story is presented in disjointed episodes and framed into a ‘film within a film’ set up.

Sunny, the film’s incarnation of Saw, is a film director with a relatively good measure of commercial success, one that even makes him a trophy nephew in the eyes of his aunties. He is struggling to insert the final jigsaw piece in his latest film production but has run out of money and has also tripped on his creative train of thought. He is making a film about his family and a brutally honest one. Amidst current day tiffs with his sister, he revisits old times with his mother in his mental space, albeit in intermittent spurts, almost as if to pull the plug in his recollections whenever it got too painful.

Pain, to say the least, was an overhanging cloud in the film. But it took a while to locate the real sources of pain, primarily because the motley ensemble of characters, sometimes too theatrically defined, took attention away from the overall narrative to performance. There was the central story arc of young Sunny’s relationship with his mother, Cheng. There were adult Sunny’s thorny interactions with his sister. There was the arc of Sunny’s two ex-social escort aunties who had one foot on the door to a better life in Queensland, Australia. There was the sidelined narrative of Sunny’s father who ironically had only one moment of clarity - when he was drunk.  Of course, it would be hard to miss the theatrics of Ah Boy, Cheng’s mentally ill and abusive son.

Seemingly, the film had a constant cacophony of characters interjecting one another, perhaps something hard to shake off from the original theatrical form. As a result, mood shifts were aplenty and the main narratives sometimes got sidelined by distractions. Ah Boy’s initial appearances, with his walking caricature of abnormality, had a certain genre-breaking effect on the naturalistic family drama established by the rest of the cast. Half the time, his outbursts drew laughter from the audience, until they got more pointed and menacing later in the film. In a restaurant scene where Mark, the Caucasian boyfriend of Grace, proposes to her, his cultural peeve of the waitress serving him first, not only turns Grace away, but appeared a little too militant and jarring. Another case in point was Cheng’s failed suicide attempt at the staircase. The act lacked build-up and was quickly aborted in a knee-jerk maternal reaction to seeing her children. In a quick cover-up, she said ‘let’s watch TV’, which of course, was a clever sardonic twist to the situation.   

All in all, it seems director Saw has chosen to take his time to offer clarity on the pain this film is built around. This is not forgetting all the current day segments where we follow adult Sunny on his production conundrums. But as the film progresses, the plot tributaries start to converge and lines begin to blur between the family drama that was being created on his set and the one that was gaining clarity in his mind. Perhaps all that confusion in the beginning was a reflection of the rocky journey director Saw took in facing the skeletons in his family’s closet and gradually coming to terms with them.

In the end, all that pain felt during the movie was actually leading to an outlet, to my own surprise. The film ended with Sunny the film director rehearsing a line with the actress who was playing his mother. He asked a simple question about love and received a simple, earnest answer in return. But sitting on the cusp of reality and make-believe, and on the fence between regretting or forgiving the past, the audience was left with an epiphany so willfully withheld from them throughout the film, but now released to an undeniably profound effect.  

The film is blessed with a sterling cast of actors who are not only seasoned in their craft but also invested with director Saw’s vision. Neo Swee Lin, is a tower of strength in the movie, anchored in the lead role of the mother. This is a story that would draw the histrionics out of an actor but she has deftly found a sweet spot between instincts and control. Yeo Yann Yann is the other major force in the film, playing Sunny’s sister with complexity and the occasional appropriate outbursts. Frederick Lee, a dead ringer for Singapore-based actor Christopher Lee (they are in fact brothers), gives his own personal and younger take on the character of a morally-tortured film director, one quite different from director Saw as he appears in interview clips. Gregg Koay, as the young Sunny, slipped into his role effortlessly and provided a fine, natural counterbalance to the adult hysterics that was happening around him.

Finally, it is time to talk about the elephant in the room - the use of Mandarin dubbing over the original Penang Hokkien spoken by the actors. Considering Jack Neo’s Long Long Time Ago was a fully Hokkien feature, the requirement to dub this in Mandarin for Singapore cinemas was truly questionable. If one were to compare excerpts from the original un-dubbed film on YouTube with the altered product that was screening in Singapore, it is easy to tell part of the raw drama expressed in Hokkien had been filtered off. It did not help that the person who dubbed Cheng’s voice sounded rather aristocratic, sort of like a Joan Chen character in a cheongsam. At least they kept the tear-inducing Hokkien song 感謝妳 by Taiwanese veteran singer Zhao Chuan 趙傳 at the end.

You Mean the World to Me 海墘新路 is screening at Golden Village Vivocity. Catch it now!

Review by Jeremy Sing

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