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Crossing cultures, languages and ethnicities to achieve broad success upon its release, director Chiu Keng Guan’s The Journey transcends familiarity for a jaunty slice of modern Malaysian life and society in flux. Heavy on hoary sentimental hokum and about as conventional as any comedy-drama about folks from opposite ends or social, economic or intellectual spectrums can be, The Journey is nonetheless a relatively polished and charming entry into the culture/generation clash sub-genre. It’s easy to see why the film is the biggest domestic box office hit in Malaysian film history, even though it does have a tendency toward predictable, old-fashioned cornball comedy (one of the main characters is a white guy from the UK who, naturally, is clueless about proper use of chopsticks, he’s too big, and so on).
That said, The Journey appeals to our collective better human nature and capacity for tolerance and dutifully reinforces ideas of family connection. Even as it flirts with heavy-handed emotionalism it never quit teeters into mawkishness. Given The Journey’s overall tone and the high recognition factor the story can rely on regionally, it should find receptive audiences across Asia-Pacific, where modest success shouldn’t be surprising. Asian-interest festivals overseas will also be drawn to the subject matter that comes wrapped in a light, accessible tone as an alternative to most East-West conflict stories.
The Journey’s story is as old as the hills. Bee (Yew Hong Im) returns to the tiny Malaysian hamlet of her childhood to see her father Chuan (a crankily charming Lee Sai Peng) and drop the news that she’s getting married. The problem with this is that she was banished to the UK when her mother died as a child and her dad didn’t’ feel he could raise her alone, and she’s been there ever since. Naturally the fiancé is a Brit, Benji (Andrew Pfeiffer), and not of Chinese ancestry either. Once the initial village-wide shock subsides (there’s plenty of children running around screaming about ghosts), the extended family and neighbors welcome Benji with fairly open arms—everyone except Chuan. Curmudgeonly in the extreme, Chuan decides to test Benji and demands he help him hand deliver wedding invitations to his various school chums scattered all over the country. After whining to Bee about what he sees as draconian Chinese culture for a bit, Benji agrees to escort the old man around. The mutually unilingual pair then head out on a road trip that, to no one’s surprise, teaches them respect and understanding for the other.
The Journey has its flaws and often relies on contrived coincidences to push the narrative forward, which in fairness is a problem endemic to cinema everywhere. Director Chiu doesn’t get creative with his language and cinematographer Eric Yeong’s images are good, not great, regardless of the occasionally arresting landscape he has to work with. Benji is often drawn as bumbling or clueless to a degree that strains credibility (he’s getting married to a Chinese woman but really has no idea respect for elders is crucial? Really?), often for the express purpose of giving Lee a chance to play the deadpan foil (admittedly to perfection), but those are ultimately minor quibbles. As the story progresses and Chuan and Benji learn to communicate, Chuan’s old school buddies reveal details about his personality and The Journey takes a turn for the more contemplative. It becomes more about Chuan trying desperately to reconnect with his daughter rather than about her marrying a foreigner, about the weight of history and culture on the kind of modern relationship that is increasingly common in every corner of the globe and the inevitable march of time that changes entire societies—for better and for worse. Lee is the star here, his inner turmoil etched delicately on his face, which he moderates deftly depending on which of his colorful old friends he’s interacting with (The Journey has a great roster of supporting characters). Pfeiffer is serviceable as Benji, but Yew also stands out for shading Bee in such a way as to make her struggle to reconcile two equally important identities and people relatable and resonant.
Producer: Heng Yee Jia
Director: Chiu Keng Guan
Cast: Lee Sai Peng, Andre Pfeiffer, Yew Hong Im, Siow Ho Phiew, Lim Yew Beng, Khok Eng Loy, Khong Tuck Khoon
Screenwriter: Ryon Lee, Chan Yoke Yeng
Executive Producer: Choo Chi Han
Director of Photography: Eric Yeong
Production Designer: Soon Yong Chow
Music: Alex San
Editor: Gwyneth Lee
World Sales: mm2 Entertainment
No rating, 102 minutes
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