'Beautiful Pain': Film Review
A drama exploring one family’s experience of autism is Malaysia’s submission to this year’s Academy Awards.
An autistic boy’s parents respond to his condition in markedly different ways in Beautiful Pain, a compassionate drama that uses its Malaysian settings to eloquent effect. Though it occasionally tips into overemphatic melodrama, the first theatrical feature by Tunku Mona Riza is mostly a measured, tender study. Released on home turf earlier this year under the title Redha, the film features an exceptionally good performance by 8-year-old Harith Haziq as Danial, whose autism eventually forces his in-denial father to do some growing up.
Riza, who directed a couple of TV movies before this film, is attuned to the sensory experience of Haziq’s Danial (Izzy Reef plays the character as a teen). That experience ranges from the overload that provokes Danial to cover his ears, screech in discomfort and act out, and the limpid beauty of his surroundings, drawing him into communion with ocean and sky. From the story’s crystalline beaches to its tension-filled interiors, Yudi Datau’s widescreen compositions are a strong narrative component.
Danial lives with his parents in Terengganu, on the northeastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia, but his father, Razlan (Namron), spends a significant amount of time on nearby Redang Island, where he manages a tourist resort. At home he dismisses the growing worries of Danial’s mother, Alina (June Lojong); the boy is just a late bloomer, he insists. As the marital friction grows, Alina finds emotional and practical support from her sister, Sasha (Nadiya Nisaa), who leads a more modern life in Kuala Lumpur, where Alina takes her son for clinical consultations.
The educational aspects of the screenplay by the director and Azril Hamzah might feel rudimentary to Western audiences, but the information delivered by doctors and therapists — portions of the movie were filmed at the facilities of the National Autism Society of Malaysia — is effective in its straightforward, instructional simplicity.
Alina and Razlan’s strained emotional bond, well played by the leads, is counterbalanced by the kindness that greets her as she accepts her son’s diagnosis. For every stranger who regards Danial with judgmental ignorance and intolerance, there are several who extend their sympathy and understanding. “I have one just like him,” a shop clerk tells Alina after Danial wets his pants in the middle of the store. A college friend, Kat (Susan Lankester), arrives from Singapore to lend her help, and between her sister, her friends, and the specialists she meets, Alina discovers a supportive community of women. For his part, the reluctant Razlan will eventually be inspired by the care and attention that a resort guest (Remy Ishak) shows his son.
But Beautiful Pain doesn’t sugarcoat anyone's emotional trajectory. Alina's pain persists, in her misplaced sense of responsibility for Danial’s autism, her self-reproach and the way she ignores her own health needs. Razlan struggles to come to terms with his son’s challenges, urged on by an older woman, Mak Jah (Ruminah Sidek), whose maternal interest in him and his family fills the gap left by the distance of her own grown children. “If all children were born perfect,” she tells him knowingly, “we wouldn’t need homes for old folks.”
Riza’s choices can be unnecessarily insistent or obvious, as when the music swells during intense moments and confrontations. But as she navigates the story's melodramatic events and an eight-year leap, she also quietly builds a portrait of patience, faith and awakening.
Production companies: Current Pictures
Cast: Namron, June Lojong, Harith Haziq, Izzy Reef, Nadiya Nisaa, Remy Ishak, Ruminah Sidek, Susan Lankester
Director: Tunku Mona Riza
Screenwriters: Tunku Mona Riza, Azril Hamzah
Producer: Shaby Maharom
Executive producers: Ku Mohamad Haris, Tunku Mona Riza
Director of photography: Yudi Datau
Art director: Zaini bin Abdul Latif
Editor: Isazaly Isa
Not rated, 114 minutes