Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Love, Malaysian Style

Love Conquers All (Mo shi mo wang). 2006. Written, directed and edited by Tan Chui Mui. Produced by Amir Muhammad. Cinematography by James Lee. Art direction by Eleanor Low Chia Yee. Sound design by Steven Leong.

Cast: Carol Ong Li Whei (Ah Ping), Leong Jiun Jiun (Mei), Stephen Chua Jyh Shyan (John), Ho Chi Lai (Hong Jie), Ramanamohan (Gary), Chong Shun Yuan (The Guy on TV), Ng Meng Hui (The Girl on TV), Gandii Nathen (Old man on the bus), Tham Siew Kai (Man in the hotel room), Gan Hui Yee (Ah Ti the hawker), Yap Siou You (Gary's Girlfriend).

Tan Chui Mui’s remarkable debut feature Love Conquers All is a beautiful, unsettling, baffling, and subtly surreal work that confirms the considerable talent to be found in contemporary Malaysian cinema. Just like her fellow Malaysian filmmaker (and frequent collaborator) James Lee’s film Before We Fall in Love Again, Tan’s film also contains “love” in the title, and this concept is used in fascinating and multifaceted ways.

The film introduces its protagonist Ah Ping (Carol Ong) in a typically odd and funny scene on a train in which she gives up her seat to an old man (Gandii Nathen) with a mess of carry-on baggage who complains of a headache. She is traveling a long way from home, for reasons we can’t quite discern, to work in a restaurant run by her aunt Hong Jie (Ho Chi Lai). Ah Ping rooms with her grade-school aged niece Mei (Leong Jiun Jiun), who has been carrying on a pen-pal correspondence with someone she calls “Mystery Man,” and this long-distance relationship parallels the equally mysterious and unsettling relationship Ah Ping later has with John (Stephen Chua), a gangster whose vaguely shady activities are kept mostly off-screen. Ah Ping has a boyfriend back home that she calls often at a red pay phone, a recurring setting in the film. This is where she meets John, who doggedly stalks her and more or less kidnaps her, driving her to his grandmother’s house, introducing her as his wife. Ah Ping resists at first but passively and cheerfully (as indicated by the word “cheerful” on a T-shirt she often wears) goes along with her abduction. John introduces her to his cousin Gary (Ramanamohan), who he says is a pimp and often scams women he meets, forcing them into prostitution, and eventually selling them to human traffickers. “They think their love can conquer all,” is John’s cynical evaluation of Gary’s victims. As things progress, we feel a sense of dread and inevitability as Ah Ping seems to be headed inexorably toward the same fate.

But how much of this is really happening? And if it is happening, what is the order of events? These are the ambiguous questions raised by the film’s narrative, which as it progresses, more and more seems like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing. After the scenes of Ah Ping’s abduction, where she seems resigned to her fate as John’s unwilling paramour, there is a cut to Ah Ping in front of a fan at the restaurant, seeming to be awakening from a dream. She meets John again, and the dynamic between them has changed subtly. She begins an affair with John, who accompanies her as she continues to call her boyfriend, continuing to tell him she loves him, while John kisses her.

So what is really happening? And how much of what we see can we really believe? Tan’s intriguing and elliptical scenario ultimately raises more questions than it answers, which is what makes Love Conquers All such a memorable work. The film’s visuals encourage us to approach it as a tone poem more than anything else, its narrative and visual rhyming patterns echoing in all directions. In one particularly beautiful shot, Ah Ping looks upward as we hear the loud sound of rain and the see the light changing on her face. In another scene late in the film, she stands still with her back to us, staring out at the vast ocean in front of her. There are also many odd scenes peppered through out the film: Ah Ping staring at and then flushing away a cockroach; scenes from a romantic soap opera; Mei playing with Ah Ping’s sanitary pads. These mysterious and unexplainable insertions lend a comic surrealism that transforms what at first seems to be a formulaic, predictable scenario (the innocent girl seduced by the magnetic bad boy) into something much more wonderfully strange. “You have no choice. Unless you jump,” John tells Ah Ping twice in the film. And Ah Ping’s uneasy state of paradox, simultaneously following her predetermined fate and throwing herself headlong into the unknown, reason be damned, is as good a definition of love as any I’ve seen.

Love Conquers All has received awards at numerous film festivals, including the New Currents Award at the 2006 Pusan International Film Festival, the VRPO Tiger Award at the 2007 International Film Festival Rotterdam, and the Golden Digital Award at the 2007 Hong Kong International Film Festival.

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