Film Review: Barbarian Invasion | 野蛮人入侵 (2021)


There is a joke, or multiple jokes, lurking out there about writers writing about writing, a perennial format that sprouted “practically like a sub-genre,” as writer David Laskin noted in an essay for Literary Hub. Within the realms of a contemporary (white, male, middle-classed, note these conditions) canon, the solipsistic list goes on from Karl Ove Knausgaard to Stephen King (Who can forget the inimitable Jack Torrance and his axe through the door, much like how any creators working in a commercial capacity imagine burying the hatchet… in a client’s skull.) In the film world it is no different, to Cannibal Holocaust, Ed Wood to The Blair Witch Project, the filmmaker’s neuroses from aspiring to veteran, from the unfortunately deceased to the soon-to-be deceased, is well-documented in multiple sense.


And we have not even started on the documentaries, mini-series, and biopics centred on everyone else who is not the director; not to mention the global fetish for films about old stars by younger, less saggy stars. The thralls of glamour alongside the cultural and actual capital created from creating in a popular form begets a sort of begrudging self-critique that is in reality a veiled praise; in fiction publishing its worth twelve billion dollars (In US currency no less, as things usually are.), in filmmaking, its a hundred-and-twenty billion. Frequently, there is an aspirational trajectory—the struggling creator produces a masterpiece, or dies leaving a classic, or persists through privilege and/or force of will to find longevity as a meme à la “Oh hi Mark.” Occasionally, there is a rumination about the ephemeral nature of art, a Benjaminsque contemplation of art in the age of mechanical, now digital, reproduction. Sporadically, there would be a work that discusses the enormous power and poetry of cinema as an affective gesture, a mood, an unfaithful manipulation of reality that is nonetheless beautiful—these are the film studies classics and also the ones that would be emulated with varying degree of success by students who have made entire personalities out of having the tenacity of finishing an Ingmar Bergman catalogue (replace as need be with Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lav Diaz or a couple other names in contemporary Asia).


Even more rarely, there would be a gem that understands how the cinematic construct can be construed on cinematic term and demonstrate it without reliance on an overt beauty, questioning and muddying without the forced aesthesis of a manufactured transcendental experience. Not to say this work is necessarily perfect, but that this work touches on an assemblage of the elemental truths of filmmaking as not just a purely spiritual act of willing a work into being, but a vastly earthy verb that frequently involves a respectable sum of money and the labour of many human beings, and reconciles it with the fundamental irrationality of the creative impulse. Often, this film is fun. Just watch the sincere gonzo making-of zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead for a case study. 


All this preamble just to make a point, that Barbarian Invasion, the long-awaited third feature from Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui, is such a gem. Much has been written about the meta-narrative of the film, about the honesty of a physical cinema in action movies, about motherhood and womanhood as experienced and then defined, about the craft of cinema-making, or even about the film as a thoughtful critique on the state of contemporary Southeast Asian cinema, in exuberant press with a sort of breathless excitement that belies a desire to stake a claim to an original critical insight, that sometimes the elephant in the room is missed, Occam’s razor goes unshaved: outside its trappings of narrativity and filmcraft, Barbarian Invasion is about the messy nature of creation; cinema is just the most adaptable metaphor.


“When I was young, film is everything,” so says director Roger (Pete Teo) in a pensive chat with faded, jaded actress Moon (Tan Chui Mui). “Now that I am older, everything is film.” He is a filmmaker itching to make a Southeast Asian equivalent of The Bourne Identity, she is his washed-up muse, recently single courtesy of a divorce, and raising a young child with a Houdini sense of mischief, ready to forget reality. Together they are on a beach in a sleepy seaside Malaysian town, where he will sketch out his next steps and she will undergo a gruelling regiment to go from flabby, tired woman to Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde—all killer, no filler, ready to conquer the awards and the box office. They are both consummate artists, though where Moon begrudgingly opens herself to new possibilities, Roger, ever the astute director, places his pieces with clear calculation, and as Moon finally finds a semblance of a new self to immerse herself in, Roger nukes it. What happens is when things go meta, and diegetic realities begin to unravel—eventually, here a spoiler, the film gets made. We end on the film shoot wrapping.


What is incredibly interesting is what happens in between, when established truths begin to slide off each other like water off a lotus leaf. In the initial slippages, halfway through the film, Roger gets a call that says a Chinese actress is willing to bankroll the project provided she gets the role (Lulu Huang, here is definitely less of a nod to Lulu Wang than it is to Huang Lu, the evergreen of tortured tall Chinese woman in Asian independent filmmaking), Moon is incensed and prepares to leave. Roger stops her, things return to normal, and then drops another bombshell, Moon’s ex, the dashing Juilliard (Bront Palarae) will play opposite her. This time she is pissed for real, and she leaves, but not before her child is snatched from the streets in front of her. Armed with new found martial arts prowess, she hunts the abductors down but is then promptly dispatched and chucked into the sea. Cue act two. (There is also act three.)


The act of creation permeates the Barbarian Invasion like water in agar-agar; you have biological creation (a small human running amok), knowledge creation (martial arts training), artistic creation (the film within a film… within a film), the creation of memories, identities, a brand new relationship with an ironic twist… etc. And it is between these different definitions and valencies of where creation finds continuity and where the practice of it is a complicated, seething ball of conflicting impulses that the film finds its elaborate intellectual core a suitably accessible outlet, through the framing of formats, genres, and tropes, both within the interior story and the exterior treatment. Take for example, the arid bitterness that Moon radiates when it is revealed that like it or not, Juilliard is on the project, the of professional cordiality she adopts when working with him, and the tender intimacy they share in-character… the invention of a fiction has never wrecked such confusing damage on the psyche as when they intersect with labour that requires so much emotional and creative labour. But these are the sacrifices you make to create something interesting and new, even when the source is hackneyed and unoriginal, maybe precisely because the source is hackneyed and unoriginal. Tan dwells on neither the sentimentality nor the ethics of such conceptual conceit, instead she just goes and do it, because creating, especially via filmmaking, is a grubby affair—the days are long, and the work is rote. You just go and do it until its done, until its magic speaks for itself like an act of miracle.


Barbarian Invasion is a gem because it knows what it is—independent Malaysian film on a tight budget about a creator finding her feet—and what it is not—interested in philosophising, ponderous of a universal condition, or critiquing local socio-politics. By adopting the specific methodology demanded of the medium, it breathes the sort of vitality suffuse in interesting works of art into itself that treats the doing, not the deed seriously, and so gains a life. Through this self-assured articulation, other layers can thus manifest around it through interpretations, through contextualisation, as we would a living being. Film is life is film, this is Tan’s elegant sleight-of-hand as a filmmaker, as a human with a desire to create, who has adopted this peculiar representational language and industry for her own use. A film like Barbarian Invasion will not come again, not because it is necessarily a work of auteurist genius (Hyperboles are a mark of the hack.), but because it is its own species, a quirk of the era, of the places and faces that Tan has met and conspired with, a quilt stitched together with unfindable fabrics.


One wonders what other invasions are left for Tan Chui Mui to explore, one anticipates; after all, her camera has not stopped rolling yet, as we hear through Roger the words of Tan: when a filmmaker gets older, everything is film. Let’s hope she films everything then.


- Alfonse Chiu


Barbarian Invasion premiered at the 24th Shanghai International Film Festival, where it won the Jury Grand Prix prize at the Golden Goblet Awards. It will be screened at the upcoming Singapore International Film Festival. Tickets are available here.

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