Director: Saw Teong Hin
Cast: Frederick Lee, Yeo Yann Yann, Neo Swee Lin, Steve Yap, Sue Tan, Chelsia Ng, John Tan, Gregg Koay
Runtime: 1 hr 36 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Sexual References)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment & Golden Village Pictures
Opening Day: 5 October 2017
Synopsis: Sunny (Frederick Lee), a film director, returns to his hometown of Penang to shoot a new film, an autobiographical story about his family, all without his family’s knowledge or approval. It has been years since he was last home, and his family members – especially his older sister Hoon (Yeo Yann Yann), his aunts Grace (Sue Tan) and Vivian (Tan Ai Suan) – and his old schoolmates are excited to see him, thinking that he’s been living a rich and successful life in Kuala Lumpur. But the reality is that Sunny drives a beat-up car, has relationship problems, and is running out of money for his new film. The reason Sunny is making this film is linked to a shocking incident that he had witnessed as a boy. It has haunted him and caused resentment towards his mother (Neo Swee Lin) and his older, mentally disabled brother, Boy (John Tan). In trying to tell his family’s story, Sunny is forced to confront and relive the past, taking him back to his childhood and the family that tried their best not to fall apart in the face of adversity. In the end, the filmmaking, for Sunny, becomes a cathartic exercise, inadvertently opening old wounds, exorcising anger and guilt, and most of all, showing him that true love is about sacrifice.
If the majority of your childhood isn’t filled with fond memories, it must be difficult telling your friends about it. One can only imagine the conflicting thoughts that went through Malaysian director Saw Teong Hin’s mind when he made a film about his family history and the estranged relationship with his mother.
The semi autobiographical film is based on a stage play which debuted in 2014 during the George Town Festival. The script was originally written for a feature film, but the lack of resources prohibited Saw to do so. After the play’s five day run (every session was sold out), the filmmaker had an easier time getting funds to adapt the story into this feature film.
Besides being a personal project for Saw, this production is also an important film for Malaysia because it is the first project to be filmed entirely in Penang Hokkien. The Chinese title “Hái Kînn Sin-Lōo” is a Hokkien nickname for Victoria Streetin Penang’s George Town.
And that is why it is a pity that local audiences will only get to watch this film in dubbed Mandarin – you can imagine how the original flavour is largely lost through translation.
However, the story is enough a reason for you to support this sincere production. The raw emotions of the Saw’s past are masterfully captured in the script. The 96 minute movie’s protagonist is Sunny (Frederick Lee, who is Singaporean actor Christopher Lee’s brother), a film director who is making a movie about his childhood. Through flashbacks, we see how his mother (Neo Swee Lin, a veteran actress Singaporeans are familiar with) has to deal with a mentally challenged son (Malaysian actor and model John Tan), a crushed husband (Steve Yap) and a fearful daughter (Chelsia Ng) while trying to keep the family together. Things take a turn when the young Sunny (Gregg Koay) witnesses an incident between his mother and his elder brother.
The cast delivers heartfelt performances – it helps that most of them also appeared in the stage play. Lee injects the right amount of feelings without being melodramatic, Tan leaves an impression with his limited screen time (he received the Best New Actor award at the 29th Malaysia Film Festival), while supporting actors are commendable as well.
Malaysiaborn actress Yeo Yann Yann (881, 12 Lotus) takes on the role of the daughter in her adult years, and proves that her Golden Horse Best Actress win for Ilo Ilo (2013) is well deserved. The versatile actress, who has dabbled in drama (Singapore Dreaming) and comedy (Rubbers), is an engaging performer. Neo, who also starred in 1999's The Blue Mansion shot in Penang, is perfect as the self sacrificing mother, and it is impossible not to be moved by her heartrending performance.
It is clear that production team has paid a large amount of detail on the locations, props and costumes, and their hard work shows on screen. Another highlight of the movie is Christopher Doyle’s involvement (thanks to a networking dinner). The award winning director of photography, who is known for his work on Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wais’ films (2046, In the Mood for Love), gives a touch of romance and lush to the sights of Penang. The cinematographer, whose recent works include Port of Call (2015) and American Dreams in China (2013), has beautifully translated the Saw’s visions.
The film is probably Saw’s way of seeking closure to a tortured past, and it shows in the authenticity of the script which was recognised with the Best Screenplay prize at the 29th Malaysia Film Festival. It has a universal message, and will leave you reflecting how memories, whether good or bad, ultimately depend on what we choose to remember.
(A universal story about resentment, regret and redemption)
Review by John Li