Saw Teong Hin’s latest, Hai-Kinn Sin-Loo 海墘新路, is Malaysia’s first Hokkien movie. It goes by the English title of You Mean the World to Me, although the Hokkien title actually refers to Penang’s Victoria Street. (I prefer the Hokkien title.) HKSL is the story about Sunny, a director who returns to his hometown, Penang, to make a movie about his family in an attempt to find some redemption and some closure about a traumatic family secret.
I tried to write a proper review but got stuck so back to my usual spoiler-y list-form it is.
- The movie is semi-autobiographical, and it shows – in a good way. Characters react and speak in ways that feel genuine, which is something that recent Malaysian movies (indie and mainstream alike) tend to struggle with although some – like Sepet and Jagat – have managed to pull it off. In HKSL, there is an authenticity of feeling that gives weight to the story.
- HKSL was shot in Penang and it gives Penangites like myself something extra to appreciate. Some very recognisable places show up – Komtar, Majestic Theatre, Pykett Methodist School, the Eden restaurant interior (I remember those lights in Eden! Do you mean they had those lights from way back in the ’70s?), and I’m fairly sure one scene took place in the coffee shop at Burmah Road across the street from APT Salon because the temple gate where Sunny parks his car looks an awful lot like the one next to APT. (I could be wrong though.)
- Many of the scenes were designed, lit, and shot beautifully. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s involvement meant that I expected HKSL to at least look pretty and emotive – and it did. (Doyle is most famous for his work with Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai). I believe the production designer is local (can’t remember the name right now, though I saw it in the credits) – job well done there! Sourcing the props and furniture for the scenes set in the past can’t have been easy. The layout of Sunny’s family home is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s spent sufficient time in Georgetown’s old houses. And the furniture – I swear, my grandparents had wooden chairs exactly like those…
- The awful family secret that seems to hang over the story was pretty easy to guess. But I have to say that the scene was handled really well. The choice to reveal then that it wasn’t just a flashback scene, but that it was Sunny and crew working on his film shoot was an effective way to snap the audience out of the horror of the event and back to the reality of the current story without losing the gravity. Had it been just a flashback, it might have dragged the movie down even further – it didn’t need more angsty reactions. We know Sunny’s reaction to the event because we’ve seen it all through the movie until that point.
- That opening scene that pulls out to reveal Majestic Theatre. That was kinda bad. There was something really fake about it. I suspect it’s because they had to remove the modern buildings from the surroundings in order to keep it “in the past” and that wasn’t done well enough to prevent the impression of unreality.
- Anytime anyone in this movie spoke English it was grating. Even when the one Caucasian guy (supposedly an Australian in the story) spoke it was bad – but for different reasons. The first time Sunny spoke English in the movie, he was on the phone with someone whom I assume is his girlfriend. And it was so stilted that it really threw me. His final phone conversation in the movie was an improvement though.
This is another problem with Malaysian movies. It’s somehow incredibly difficult for the writers and actors to come up with and deliver English lines that sound natural. I put this down largely to how most local actors end up doing predominantly Malay or Mandarin works, so when they’re called upon to produce English lines it ends up sounding artificial. (It was this that drove me nuts in The Journey. The girl in that movie spoke such poor English for a character that supposedly spent more than ten years in the UK. >_< )
But I can’t understand why the Australian guy in the movie was so stiff?? It just seemed like he was a really bad actor. Good thing he had only three scenes in the movie and he didn’t talk in the last one.
- Not all the cast were Penangites, which probably made the dialogue a bit tricky. The scene near the beginning where Sunny has an awkward Chinese New Year dinner with his sister and aunts was an example of that. I’m not fluent in Hokkien myself, but I think I heard the accents slip into not-Penang Hokkien here and there. haha However… As that scene was clearly supposed to be an uneasy one, the awkwardness sort of worked in its favour? They seemed to improve later though. Perhaps that was a scene they shot early on and the cast hadn’t quite accustomed themselves to the specific Penang Hokkien dialect.
Still better than me speaking Hokkien anyway.
- Hoon is shown to be a Catholic as an adult, and the few lines she speaks relating to her faith were not over done. Sunny says he left Penang because he couldn’t face the awful truth about their family; he isn’t strong like her. And she replies that she isn’t strong – it’s God that gave her strength to endure it all. It makes me think that the director must have known someone who is a Christian – possibly one of his siblings really is a Christian, given the semi-autobiographical nature of the story. Given how movies like to mock Christians, I appreciated the low-key nature of those lines.
- The story is very, very serious in tone. Even though the movie ends on a positive (not upbeat, but positive) note, I felt very weighed down by the solemnity of the emotions in it. It is far more sad than it is happy. There are barely any laughs in the whole thing, although there are a few comical notes, mostly with Sunny’s younger aunt and also with Sunny’s friend, Chye. This gravity of feeling makes it difficult for me to decide whether I like the movie or not. It’s good, but do I like it? Hmmm. Would I recommend it to others? Depends on who the “others” are – some people I know would appreciate the movie despite the downbeat feel. Others would not like it because it is so much more on the depressing side.
It ends “well” but overall the story is really a sad one. Sure, Sunny gets his closure. But his mentally-disabled brother kills himself after his siblings send him to an asylum (after their parents pass away), and both Sunny and his sister, Hoon, feel guilty about this years later. Hoon gives up her dream to work (or study?) in Singapore after catching her mother attempting suicide. The aunts, Grace and Vivian, worked as prostitutes in the past, and never married – they now work at a coffee shop and are short on funds. Grace had the chance to leave and lead a better life in Australia when she receives an offer of marriage, but as she cannot bring Vivian along and cannot bring herself to leave her sister behind, she apparently turns it down. Sunny’s father was an alcoholic, his addiction apparently brought on by the distress of being cheated by his younger brother.
- In a very circular “meta” way, with HKSL, Saw is a man telling a story about his past by making a movie where a man tells a story about his past by making a movie about it.