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Depicting some of the most monstrous, cold-blooded criminals outside of Gomorrah, Edmund Yeo’s Aqerat (We the Dead) paints a blood-curdling picture of the human traffickers infesting the border between Thailand and Malaysia. Into their clutches fall boatload after boatload of hapless Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in their native Myanmar. A local girl saving up to make a new life for herself in Taiwan also falls into their hands, becoming one of them, the photographer of their atrocities.
Does it sound edge-of-seat? Not this film; at least, not most of it. Like Yeo’s first feature, River of Exploding Durians, Aqerat is an art film full of ideas, but the director, well known for his short films, seems technically at a loss about to how to put them together in a feature-length format. The intriguing background, sketched with such realistic horror it could be a documentary, melts into a poetic dreamscape in the second part of the movie, where love struggles to bloom like a tropical flower.
Still, Aqerat speaks as clearly about the Rohingya’s plight as any film to date in heart-wrenching scenes of torture, murder and families mutely running for their lives. It brings home the extreme cruelty of this very topical tragedy, which is mentioned in Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow and dealt with specifically in Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W., to mention two documentaries released this fall.
But the pic is hardly “about” the Rohingya crisis. Its shifting focus highlights the silent suffering of its heroine Hui Ling (Daphne Low, who played the schoolgirl-turned-revolutionary in River of Exploding Durians), a sullen, uncommunicative young woman who works in a floating restaurant on a river. Her roommate Qi Qi is a bar hostess with a violent boyfriend, and when they steal the money that Hui Ling has been saving up for Taiwan, she is devastated. Her usual blank face becomes even more dour at this setback.
Her boss suggests a way to make a lot of cash quickly and hooks her up with a small but lethal band of traffickers handling boats coming south from Myanmar. Aboard are Rohingya refugees, the Muslim minority group being forced out of the country by the Buddhist majority. But instead of finding a safe haven, the families are taken hostage and forced to pay their captors exorbitant sums, on pain of torture or worse. Hui Ling’s first job is to take pictures of their faces, presumably for ransom purposes. Later she is upgraded to extorting payment herself. When she’s invited to rob the corpses, after a slight hesitation, she does.
Yeo, who took home the Tokyo International Film Festival’s best director trophy, has a daring vision of what kind of people become torturers for money — the emotionally dead, the zombies. His heroine is certainly hard to warm up to: apathetic, unresponsive to kindness, never a smile. Aqerat means “the afterlife” in Rohingya, and the film can be read as Hui Ling’s journey into the heart of darkness and her return from the dead.
But this is to make a perversely elliptical narrative sound straight-forward. At Hui Ling’s lowest moment, she meets a romantic hospital orderly, Wei (Howard Hon Kahoe), of Buddha-like calm. His instant attraction to her is supposedly explained in a flashback that goes on for almost 20 minutes, in which Wei becomes acquainted with two young women tourists from Kuala Lumpur. One has gotten into an accident and lies in the hospital wrapped up like the English patient, tearfully reciting verses, while her friend hangs out with Wei. So what, one might ask? But Hui Ling gets his drift: “You mean you think I’m her.” Really?
The final scenes return to the present and the urgent problem of saving Hui Ling from her vindictive gang, who now consider her a traitor. But the thriller is gone and a misty, poetic atmosphere swallows up the story. When in doubt, the screenplay leaves it out; and in this case the ending is deliberately missing, leaving a sense of frustration and lost opportunity to say something meaningful about these characters.
While the hand-held camera that follows them around seems artless, Lesly Leon Lee’s cinematography revels in the lush tropical vegetation which in this case seems more of a trap than a paradise.
Production companies: Pocket Music, Greenlight Pictures
Cast: Daphne Low, Howard Hon Kahoe, Ruby Yap, Johnny Goh, Won Jun Yap
Director-screenwriter: Edmund Yeo
Producers: Lim Ying Xian, Edmund Yeo
Executive producers: Woo Ming Jin, Lum Lai Fun
Director of photography: Lesly Leon Lee
Production designer: Thim Kian Cheng
Costume designer: Kay Wong
Music: Wong Woan Foong
Venue: Tokyo Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Good Move Media
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