Flower in the Pocket



Pusan International Film Festival

BUSAN, South Korea -- Liew Seng Tat's "Flower in the Pocket" shares some characteristics with the work of the woman who produced it, Malaysian independent filmmaker Tan Chui Mu ("Love Conquers All," "A Tree in Tanjung Maling"), like authentic-sounding dialogue and emotional understatement. But it also is brimming with Liew's unique brand of mischievous humor and the same twisted imagination evident in his shorts and animations.

In "Flower in the Pocket," the carefree lives of young brothers Li Ohm and Li Ahn are shot with the perspective of an adult who still remembers vividly what it was like to be a child. Their single dad, Sui, is an introverted maker of mannequins who'd rather get tangled up in compromising positions with their lifeless limbs than be set up on dates. He is mildly troubled by an inexplicable malady of water periodically dripping from one nipple -- as if he were a mother with lactating problems.

Father and sons never appear in the same frame until almost two-thirds into the film. They lead separate lives, just as day never meets night. The boys do everything themselves -- go to school, take showers, cook dinner and adopt a stray puppy. They obviously adore their dad, even leaving him a bowl of their gourmet concoction of boiled rice, raw egg and ketchup. Their boyish antics are so amusing to watch that it doesn't dawn on the audience how neglected they've been until a visit to their Malay friend Ayu's home reminds one of what they've been missing. Ayu's mom is also a single parent, but her nurturing and indulgence to Ayu is an important contrast to Sui's indifference.

Liew knows how to make the best of indie director James Lee's poker-face look in real life. Onscreen, it comes across as a hangdog expression more helpless than the homeless puppy, in contrast to the boys' energy and resourcefulness. Liew has made shorts with kids as leads before, and he is excellent at coaxing natural responses from a child cast. The younger of the brothers is especially adorable.

The film has been compared with Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," but whereas the Japanese director shows us an abdication of parental duty so abominable it's tantamount to murder, Liew is neither patronizing to the kids nor judgmental to the adults. He simply shows us just how easy it is to overlook children's needs, especially when the adult is in denial about his own.

His message that the fear of getting hurt will result in the inability to love is expressed in two wonderful scenes. The first is a "home alone" episode, in which Sui and the boys bond over shared injury. The second is a swimming lesson on dry land which, in addition to its slapstick comic effect, symbolizes Sui's realization that you need to take risks in life. It is all the more touching because his transformation is not represented as a giant step, but a little front crawl.

Dahuang Pictures
Director-screenwriter-editor: Liew Seng Tat
Producer: Yen San Michelle Lo
Executive producer: Tan Chui Mui
Director of photography: Albert Hue See Leong
Production designer: Gan Siong King
Cast: Ah Sui: James Lee
Ma Li Ohm: Wong Zi Jiang
Ma Li Ahn: Lim Ming Wei
Ayu: Amira Nasuha Bintin Shahira
Ayu's mother: Mislina Mustaffa
Mamat: Azman Bin Md Hasan

Running time -- 97 minutes
No MPAA rating