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Bold and unsentimental in its portrait of a young man who faces the destruction of the family he struggles to support, Shuttle Life (Fen Bei Ren Sheng) marks a finely crafted feature debut for short-film director Tang Seng Kiat, focusing the spotlight on Malaysian cinema after a very long time in the dark. This hard-hitting social drama features naturalistic performances from pop singer and actor Jack Tan in the main role and Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang as his mentally unstable mother. It swept the top prizes in three categories — best film, best cinematography (for Taiwanese DP Chen Ko-chin) and best actor for Tan — at the hotly contested Asian New Talent Awards, which were announced at the Shanghai Film Festival.
Shot in a linguistic mélange of Malaysian and Mandarin as is typical of local speakers, the film should have some additional chances for screening in China. But beyond Asia, its relentless social theme may have a hard time reaching past festival audiences, who will appreciate the skillful blend of drama and delicacy.
The film is particularly successful in establishing a realistic atmosphere, and the cinematography and production design (by Lim Chik Fong) play their part in creating a go-nowhere setting for the characters. In the opening shot, the camera pans up the ugly skeleton of an unfinished high-rise, where a tiny figure makes his way up concrete stairs like an ant in an Escher drawing. The 19-year-old Qiang (Tan) is indeed going nowhere. When he finally clambers to the roof with an empty water can, he finds barely enough water left in the building’s huge tank to keep a bullfrog alive.
The water crisis is just one problem Qiang faces every day living in a low-income apartment block with his mentally ill mother (Chang) and his beloved little sister Hui Shan (a maturely mischievous Angel Chan). Back home, Mom is obsessing about washing clothes that are not dirty. She’s a seamstress living in a remote world of her own, and the tenderness of Qiang and Hui Shan as they try to coax her into taking her medicine is a touching intro to their extremely difficult but caring family life.
As if things weren’t dramatic enough, on his sister’s sixth birthday, Qiang and his buddies, who live on the edge of the law working at odd jobs and stealing car parts, take her motorcycle riding. After an accident, Qiang wakes up in the hospital. There is no sign of Hui Shan, who seems to have vanished into thin air.
The rest of the film is a merciless trip through hell, and young Tan makes the audience part of his anguished, hopeless odyssey searching for Hui Shan while he tries to control his hair-trigger emotions and keep his mother safely at home. He wages an uphill battle against bureaucracy at the hospital, drug store and police station, where his poverty and lack of influence translate into helplessness. Tan Seng Kiat holds the directing reins rock-steady, never compromising on the stressful horror of the boy’s situation.
Only a few scenes appear tacked on, like the bulldozing of a shanty town that has no narrative connection to the story, and the glaringly obvious class gap when Qiang and his pals are taken to a swanky rich man’s party. For a story that works best when it’s most believable, these late scenes of class resentment feel pushed way too far. But the ending is subtle and controlled; apparently open, but not when you think about it. And you do think about this film.
Production companies: More Entertainment, Golden Wheel Trading, Hershlag, Harmonics
Cast: Jack Tan, Sylvia Chang, Angel Chan
Director: Tan Seng Kiat
Screenwriters: Tan Seng-Kiat, Chris Leong Siew Hong
Producers: Roland Lee, Jin Ong
Director of photography: Chen Ko Chin
Production designer: Lim Chik Fong
Music: Onn San
Editors: Chen Hsiao Tung, Yue Ba Ren Zi
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Asia New Talent competition)
Sales: MM2 Entertainment
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