Can one consider a film made by a Malaysian director based in Japan as Japanese cinema? Yes and No. One would answer no if one believes that only people born and raised in the Japanese Other can make ‘Japanese’ cinema. Other people, like us, would answer yes because each subject living in Japan must make some elements of this Japanese Other his own. Their cinema, by virtue of implicitly celebrating the minimal multiculturalism that marks Japanese society, must, in this view, also welcomed as a form of Japanese cinema.
Two decades after the grandmother (Seck Fookyee) of Hong (MayJune Tan) and Lan (Sherlyn Seo) kidnapped Hong from their mentally unstable mother, the two sisters are reunited for one day when their mother (Lynn Lim) dies. Now strangers, they spend the day together, trying to reconnect.
At night, Lan runs away from her sister’s apartment to seek her happiness in Japan. A few years later, Hong receives a devastating call – her sister has died. She decides to go to Japan to see her sister’s body.
Edmund Yeo’s Malu is a narrative that explores how the past can problematize the ability for subjects to meet each other at the level of their subject as well as how the failure to deal with one’s past and unconscious desires can be a sustained obstacle for attaining some form of subjective happiness.
As the past plays a very important thematical role in Malu, it is not surprising that the narrative is structured around flashbacks – flashbacks that do not only offer a view in the past, but also evoke how the past still clings to the subject. These flashbacks do not only explore the problematic childhood Lan and Hong shared – a childhood with an alcoholic and mentally unstable mother who, at one point, tries to force her children to commit suicide with her, but also to show that the two decades they have been separated made them strangers to one another and turned them, by being surrounded by vastly different familial contexts, into radically different subjects (Narra-note 1). They only thing they, in fact, share is a painful past, but this past, unresolved for both subjects, is not something they can readily utilize to re-establish or re-vitalize the relationship they have lost.
How should we understand the flight of Lan to Japan after her mother died? To be able to answer this question, we first need to underline that Lan’s relation to her mother was conflictual. While Lan remained loyal and devoted to her mother – partially out of love, partially out of obligation – the narrative implies that behind Lan’s loyalty and devotion an unresolved and unassumed hate towards her mother was present.
This unassumed conflictual position towards her mother is tightly connected to the difficulty she feels to attain some happiness. While one can rightly assume that the violent act she commits towards her mother is aimed at erasing her as obstacle to her attaining any form of happiness, this act does not change anything at the subjective level and – to no one’s surprise – does not bring any form of happiness as such. The difficulty that marks Lan’s subjectivity is, in our view, one of the prime elements that problematizes the re-establishment of her relationship with Hong. Does being introduced to the well-to-do life of Hong not confront her with the difficulty that she experiences in creating some happiness for herself? Does this subtle confrontation not lie at the basis of Lan’s decision to leave Hong and her perceived ‘happiness’ to create a form of happiness for herself in Japan (Narra-note 2)? While we should think of Lan’s flight of Japan as an attempt to establish some happiness for herself, we need to ask ourselves if Lan, who is unable to work through the obstacle she herself has become for her happiness, is able to attain any true form of happiness (Narra-note 3 (Minor spoiler))?
The reason why Hong travels to Japan is not only to visit her younger sister’s body, but also to discover who her sister, as subject, was. Before her death, she could only speak to her sister as if she were the child from before, but such dynamic made it impossible to talk to Lan from her own subjective position – a position marked by its own sadness – as well as to talk to Lan as subject. She hopes, by talking to Jun (Kiko Mizuhara) and later to a mysterious man (Masatoshi Nagase), to learn something of her sister’s subjectivity and about her trajectory in Japan up until her death.
What makes the cinematographical composition of Malu so aesthetically pleasing is Yeo’s natural but subtly artistically composed shot compositions (Cine-note 1). Another element, an element that supports the composition of shots and strengthens the visual pleasure as such, is the natural lightning design. What also strengthens the visual power of the imagery is the temperate tempo of his composition and the thoughtful use Yeo makes of diegetic silence. By utilizing silence, Yeo often ‘forces’ the spectator to consume the visual elements of the picture and to concentrate on the signification these elements as veritable signifiers evoke.
In fact, Edmund Yeo’s composition proves that he is a master poet of the mundane and of the ‘cruel’. With his talent and his cinematographical skill, he succeeds in giving any kind of comportment, be it mundane or ‘cruel’, a natural and touching poetic elegance. Furthermore, through its refined visual cinematographical poetry, Yeo’s narrative does not only attain a subtle desolate atmosphere but also ‘confronts’, the spectator time and time again with powerful and touching imagery (Music-note 1).
Edmund Yeo’s Malu is a wonderful narrative, but what makes the narrative so satisfying is not the narrative and its themes as such – i.e. the inability of two subjects to meet each other as the (broken) subjects they are, the impossibility to outrun one’s past and one’s unconscious feelings/desires, as well as the need to work through one’s past in order to establish any kind of subjective happiness – but the very poetic way Yeo stages his narrative and its themes for the spectator. With Malu, Edmund Yeo proves that he is a master visual poet of the mundane and of the ‘cruel’.
Narra-note 1: Another function of the flashbacks is to explore the life that Lan lived in Japan to secure some happiness for herself and the relation she had with Jun.
Narra-note 2: In our view, it is not disappearance of the obligation to care for her mother as such that enables her to search for her happiness in Japan, but the lack of this obligation does allow Lan, when confronted with Hong’s happiness and her radical different subjective position, to take the subjective decision to go Japan.
Narra-note 3: One can also read Ran’s flight to Japan as an attempt to escape the problematic aspect that marks her subjective position. What the narrative shows, in multiple ways in fact, is that one cannot outrun the past and the defining influence it has – especially when this past is left untouched – on one’s present position.
Cine-note 1: The composition of Malu consists out of a mix between fixed shots and fluid moving shots and shaky moving shots.
Music-note 1: The atmosphere of the narrative is, on one side, strengthened by the Minimalistic musical accompaniment and, on the other side, the poetic use of the sound of waves.