'River of Exploding Durians': Tokyo Review

Courtesy of Tokyo International Film Festival
Ideas abound but the direction still has a long way to go

Personal and political issues explode in a first film from Malaysia

Despite its catchy title, River of Exploding Durians (Liu lian wang fan) doesn’t pack much of a wallop in its exploration of the different types of malaise affecting young Malaysian students in and out of political activism. Though confronting these issues at all is quite courageous in censor-happy Malaysia, writer-director Edmund Yeo is still reaching for the cinematic vocabulary to express his ideas. Bowing in competition at Tokyo, its curiosity value may help it to circulate at fests before heading for video.

The story is divided into two parts connected by a single character, that of Ming (Shern Koe). He's a strapping middle class boy with no liking for school but a big crush on a poor fisherman’s daughter, Mei Ann (Joey Leong). She is obviously much brighter than Ming but though she dreams of eloping with him, she’s under pressure to marry an older man she barely knows. Then there's another problem, signaled in classic film fashion by having her throw up not once, but twice. Whose baby it is remains undisclosed.

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In the second part, the spotlight shifts away from the personal to Ming’s fiery history teacher, Miss Lim. Played by Taiwanese actress Zhu Zhi-ying (Lust, Caution), Lim is an inspiring teacher for her students, especially for her pet, the bright, hands-up class leader Hui Ling (Daphne Low). It becomes increasingly obvious that Lim is a closet revolutionary when she leads her students in a protest against an Australian-financed rare earth refinery being constructed near their seaside town, opposed by the whole town due to concerns over radioactivity. It’s certainly a topical angle but handled in the most banal fashion, as Lim turns from peaceful protests to suddenly and absurdly deciding the class should blow up the plant. "Revolution is a poem written in blood!" is a typical line.

Apart from the experienced Zhu, the self-conscious cast strains to breath life into their characters.  On the scripting front, too, plot points like loud off-screen explosions that send students running to the windows, or poisoned fish that threaten to ruin Mei Ann’s family livelihood, are cast out like nets at sea and then never hauled in. Some of this can be put down to a misguided attempt at subtlety, but what about the uniformed soldiers silently burning pigs and smoking piles of durian fruits? What might that mean?

Perhaps the best part of the film are brief class presentations of shameful moments in Asian history. One regards the teenage Japanese girls sold as prostitutes to Malaysia between 1860 and 1920; another is the Thammasat University massacre in Bangkok in 1976.  But this strong criticism is all targeted offshore. When the headmistress calls for a return to Malaysian history, students get out their textbooks and prepare to study the standard curriculum.

Production companies: Greenlight Pictures, Indie Works
Cast: Zhu Zhi-ying, Shern Koe, Daphne Low, Joey Leong
Director-screenwriter: Edmund Yeo
Producer: Ming Jin Woo
Executive producer: Eric Yeo
Director of photography: Kong Pahurak
Production designer: Edward Yu Chee Boon
Editor: Edmund Yeo
Music: Woan Foong Wong

No rating, 128 minutes