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Lushly photographed, maddeningly repetitive and defiantly distant, Woo Ming-jin’s “Woman on Fire Looks for Water” mixes a realistic documentary style with a painfully thin narration. The result is a film that should divide audiences between those appreciative of its quiet rural rhythms and subtle charms and those gazing at watches. The Malay film has no commercial audience aside from festival play.
Two seemingly doomed love affairs play out along a Malaysian river’s fishing villages. Ah Fin (Ernest Chong), who sells frogs for a living, aches for Lily (Foo Fei-ling), a slip of a girl who lives downriver. But he doesn’t make enough money for them to wed.
From a financial standpoint, he would be better off marrying Su Lin (Jerrica Lai), whose father aggressively campaigns for their nuptials, which would include a new house and the managership of his cockles factory.
Meanwhile, Ah Fin’s fisherman father (Chung Ah-nga), feeling the cool breath of death on his neck, finally resolves to declare his love for the woman he should have married 30 years before.
The writer-director backgrounds all of this with what feels like an hour’s worth of close and medium-close shots of river fishing and the whole process of preparing fish, frogs and cockles for sale. Enough so that you feel like billing the filmmaker for your labor.
The theme of repressed longings virtually gets lost amid the endless river life. It’s telling that when the boy seems to lose interest in the girl, an audience must work out the reason why. Or that the father’s apparent death is handled in so off-handed a manner you’re not entirely certain it actually happened. The characters are kept at such a distance, you know little about them other than the drudgery of their daily chores.
Tech credits are the best thing here since cinematographer Chun Hung Wan and art director Hui Yee Gan superbly convey the lyricism of backwater life. The acting by amateurs is hit or miss.
Venue: Los Angeles Film Festival
Production companies: Greenlight Pictures
Cast: Ernest Chong, Chung Kok-keong, Foo Fei-ling, Jerrica Lai, Chung Ah-nga
Director/screenwriter: Woo Ming-jin
Producers: Woo Ming-jin, Edmund Yeo
Director of photography: Chun Hung Wan
Production designer: Hui Yee Gan
Music: Isabel Lam
Editor: Edmund Yeo
No rating, 101 minutes
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