Review: Lián (2019) @SGIFF




For Lián and her family, daily entertainment is the scratching of chalk against shoddy metal, comfort a flimsy tarp on grimy ground, and home the claustrophobic entrapments of a cargo container. Enduring the exhaustion of the arid environment, they dream of landing on Long Beach, a place where, as Lián explains to her little brother, has no real sand.

 Lián by Darren Teo is a direct criticism of the human trafficking operations in the late 90s to early 2000s, where Chinese immigrants were smuggled in the cargo containers of ships, enticed by false promises of a better life in America. Teo’s own elucidation of the year 1998 harks back to when the first stowaways were discovered, only to escalate in the following years, most strikingly in the three discovered deaths of Chinese nationals aboard the Cape May.

The film is an expose of the ugliness of human greed, the desperation of powerless families at the mercies of the traffickers, and above all, one young girl’s feisty determination.

 For Lian, securing a water source for her family means a risky trip to the galley - dodging and evading crew members, clambering up and down staircases, slipping behind engineering pipes, and the like. The camera work is hasty and erratic as it snakes behind Lian, an ode to the teetering uncertainty of such escapades. As the camera swings frantically in tandem with Lian’s own movements, one understands the risk she takes on behalf of her family, time after time. The motif of being cornered is telling through the environments Lian is placed in – always stifling, cramped, slits of space, or else engulfed by the intersecting metal structures or monstrous mass of cubes. Credit has to be given for the unravelling of circumstance through the exposure of the environment, rather than mere verbal exposition.


Unfortunately, the film suffers from some pacing issues and could have been better served by a tighter and crisper editing deftness. Remaining engaged takes some conscious effort, made especially fatigued by the interview sequences matched with static shots that feel uncomfortably staged. There was indeed potential for the scene to stir a sense of indignation in audiences, given as it were that the presence of a potentially benevolent captain was cruelly outmatched by urgent cries lost in translation. Yet, the scene seemed to miss the opportunity for wordplays and wittier streaks in the conversation, and finding a precarious balance in the chemistry of the actors, fell flat overall in drumming up the intended outrage. 

 Regrettably, it is also difficult to find investment in the narrative of the family, potentially due to the weak establishment of familial relations that deprives one of a sense of endearment toward the trio. While cognitively understanding what is at stake, it is difficult to be emotionally immersed in the ongoing plight. It is relatively easier, however, to quickly take to Lian, for the admirable shouldering of responsibility way beyond her years, and for her shrewd streak that sees her drum up ploys to outwit her circumstances.



It is in the ending picture that the sense of helpless desperation finally suffuses - a myriad of coloured rectangular blocks stacked till the sky, with whirring machinery picking them up like child’s toys, jumbling them up into an unfathomable maze that ultimately foretells a heart-wrenching downfall. The lingering gaze out toward this numberless heap, coupled with Lian's own blank expression, is truly the most potent image that leaves an indent, effectively triggering a recollection to all the stories that came before Lian's, and all that stories that gravely come after. 


Review by Jessica Heng 



Lian will have its world premiere at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival under Singapore Panorama Shorts. 

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