With the Holidays upon us, I present the first of two movies about the children of absent fathers and flawed mothers. Because family.
The movie starts out in 1985. Sze-nga and her son Ah Nin have left Hong Kong for Selangor in Malaysia. Nin is…not exactly happy about this change, but Sze reminds him that he had agreed no more crying. As they walk from the bus stop to their new home, Sze assures Nin that many kids here will play with him. Also, he has a grandfather here, along with an aunt and a…pretty cousin sister…? Yeah, even Nin is surprised at that. But Sze says that she would never lie to him.
Uh…oh…and now we are in the year 2016 and Nin is a teacher in Hong Kong. Apparently, one of the best. Nin is asleep at his work desk. His boss, the school principal, asks why he is still here trying to work when everyone else is at home. But…he is quitting to become a property agent in Guangzhou? As a promise to his wife? The principal wants him to be certain whether this is his decision or his wife’s decision, and to think it over during the school holiday.
Speaking of Nin’s wife, Sau Lan and her superior are trying to convince a woman to buy a house. The woman does not seem to be quite convinced, but she does not outright say no, using a phone call as an excuse to get away. After she is out of sight, Sau Lan’s superior notes that they have not achieved the month’s sales target. He suggests that she try targeting her own relatives. She is…um…full of gusto. She tells him that she can start within two days, but she needs to think of what to cook for her husband and daughter tonight. Still, she will work on her trip home…and she leaves…before her worktime is over. He is…a little surprised.
It is dinner time and…did Sau Lan just get take out? Nin and their daughter Joey are not particularly impressed, but Sau Lan explains that she decided not to waste time cooking. I guess that that it is decided not to antagonize her further, so they all start eating. Except Joey transfers her vegetables to her mother’s takeout box. Sau Lan scolds Joey, but Joey notes that Nin is not eating his either. Sau Lan just grimaces. Nin floats the idea of dining out tomorrow night. He also mentions that the principal has nominated him as an outstanding teacher. Joey seems proud, but Sau Lan kind of smirks. He is about to tell her what else the principal said, but Sau Lan gets a business call…from her uncle…and leaves the dinner table. Joey points out to Nin the no phones during dinner rule, but then Nin also gets a call.
And this is the last that we see the wife and daughter until over halfway through the movies. They will play a major role later on, but I will not be talking about that part. So, say goodbye to Sau Lan and Joey.
Nin traveles back to Malaysia, making his way back to Selangor. He meets his cousin and they go to attend her mother’s funeral. As he pays respects, Cousin tells him that her mother felt unwell one day and then just died in her sleep. She then says that he should spend more time with the family elders as opposed to just sending money to his mother every month, that there is no reason to be mad forever. She is thinking of moving with her husband and daughter to Australia.
Cousin is about to start talking about his mother’s behavior when Sze pops up in the hallway behind them accusing a young man of stealing her purse and then chasing him on a bicycle as he runs away. Nin manages to catch up to her as she is assaulting the guy on the pathway. And…uh…that is their reunion.
Back at the house, Cousin is attending to Sze’s knee. And…punchline, Sze had given Cousin her purse. Cousin mentions that Sze is going to Hong Kong with Nin, but Sze refuses. Nin starts to explain what is going on, but Sze does not want to hear it.
Nin takes his mother to a senior center But as Nin goes to have a discussion with the principal of the place, Sze almost immediately gets antagonistic with another woman who is looking at her Guanyin figurine. We don’t see what she does, but Nin and his mother have to leave quickly. Sze blames the other woman for provoking the beatdown.
Nin flashes back to when the two of them first arrived at the house 30 years earlier. His grandfather is sweeping the grounds outside and is less than pleased to see them. So, Sze tries to help out her father, and Nin realizes that she had lied…again…apparently, she had not informed her family of the move.
From that day forward, Nin held his mother’s hand every day…despite him seeming a little old to be doing that. He worried that one day, she would abandon him. At least once, he asked to hang out with her at her workplace, but she told him that her boss had a disease where he would bite a child’s finger if he was in a bad mood. Nin suspects that she is lying, but how can he know for sure without risking losing a finger?
Young Sze is working at some…food…mart? She is flirting with one of the customers even though there is a line of customers behind him. A couple of older coworkers nearby start talking about her brazenness. Apparently, there is a rumor that she fled Hong Kong due to a gambling debt that almost got her finger cut.
The two continue talking until Sze grabs one of their hands almost CUTS A FINGER OFF! Holy shit. So, was Sze always like that?
Sze meets Nin for lunch at…I guess a park. Nin complains about all the vegetables, but Sze tells him that he will lose his teeth if he hates them. She then says that she has to go work at the laundry shop, meaning that Nin has to stay with fierce unsmiling grandpa. Sze says that Nin should smile and grandpa will give him candy. Nin doesn’t believe her. So, Sze points to what she says is a peeing snake, and tries to run off while Nin is looking away. When Nin complains, Sze says that grandpa has a pink tooth.
I guess that that is enough to get Nin to go to grandpa. And…what the hell, Nin? What are you doing?
Nin finds Sze at a restaurant where her boss is holding a banquet for his daughter’s wedding. Nin demands that she apologize for lying about grandpa having a pink tooth. Instead of apologizing, she scolds her coworkers for staring and lets Nin sit next to her. The conversation then turns to the boss’s daughter marrying into a rich family. Sze and Nin remain silent, but Sze notices Nin balling up his fist in anger, so she puts her hand around it and…I guess that he calms down.
Oh…is that Nin’s cousin singing on the stage? Well, in any case, Sze turns to Nin…who knows what she is thinking and shakes his head.
And we are back in 2016, where that same song is playing a cassette tape. It is night and Sze is by the window keeping an eye out for…ghosts…that are outside the house looking for her. Nin assures her that there are no ghosts in this world, if only because directives from the PRC would not allow for that storyline. He says that she is too superstitious, but Sze insists that she has seen a lot of ghosts lately. She declares that there are many things that she still wants to do and that she doesn’t want to die. So, Nin says that he will take her to a psychiatrist and get some sleeping pills for her before taking her to another old folks’ home. Taking issue at being called insane, Sze yells at her son as he walks away…and then goes back to the window.
Nin goes shopping with his cousin, who tells him that Sze has been like that for months, and has also pasted newspaper over the window in her room.
And like clockwork, that is what Sze is doing when Nin gets back. His annoyance turns to pity, which turns to…sympathy?
Sze burning incense in the house makes Nin flash back to her doing it at a shrine when he was a kid. She makes him act as lookout as she writes a wish on paper, puts it in an envelope, and uses some long rod to position the envelope on a place as close to the ceiling as possible so that Guanyin in heaven will see it before the other wishes.
Back home, Nin suggests that Sze tells him her wishes and he will fulfill them when he grows up. He shows her his…English lesson…? It is mother’s wish list. I am not sure if this his actual homework, but whatever. Sze does not understand English, but Nin says that she can write in Chinese or draw. So, she writes lottery grand prize for the first wish, and Nin immediately crosses that out, saying that he dislikes her gambling. Sze calls him a silly boy and tells him to go to bed. Nin begs his mother to tell him her wishes before she goes to sleep. She eventually gets around to saying that she wants to travel to the Great Wall.
The next day, as Nin pesters his mother for another wish, Sze notes that he is so clingy. She agrees to invite him to any wedding dinner as long as he sings on stage like his cousin did. Nin says that he dares not do that, but Sze demands that he write that down.
Okay, so visit the Great Wall, sing on a stage, get married…wait she gets married or he gets married? Anyways, there is one more wish, but Nin decides to ask his mother some other time. Sze tells him to include the lottery grand prize, but he refuses, and tells her that she wasted a slot.
Then Nin says that the English teach wants to know occupation of every student’s father. Like in Kindergarten Cop. Sze says, as she has before, that his father is a teacher. Nin says that she had also told him that he earns a lot of money in Hong Kong, and Sze says that one could make a lot of money as a teacher. So Nin says that he wants to be a rich teacher like his father. Sze gives that not-really-a-smile and tells him that he will change his mind, but Nin insists that he will be a good teacher and that Sze will have to apologize by then. Sze asks what would be on Nin’s wish list and he says to be with her forever. How the hell old is this kid? Sze gives another not-really-a-smile along with a not-really-a-laugh.
And…just like that, Sze is making arrangements to leave Nin with her sister, promising to send money each month. Nin asks Sze if she doesn’t want him anymore. Sze says that they are in debt from grandpa’s medical fee before he died, so she has to go work in Brunei for a bit. If she lies again, Nin declares, then he will be mad at her forever. She assures him that she will never lie to him.
Nin and Sze sleep in the same bed that night. Nin tries to stay awake by putting tape on his eyelids, but he goes to sleep anyways. When he does wake up, his mother is gone.
Back to 2016 and the Guanyin figurine falls to the ground and breaks into pieces. Sze runs out of the house with a bunch of incense sticks just as it starts to rain. Then she stops in the middle of the road. She totally forgot what she was going to do. Or she just woke from an episode. Either way, she is lost and confused.
When Nin finds his mother, she is coughing and crying by the side of the road. He gives her his jacket while scolding her for being so reckless. She cries that Guanyin Temple was supposed to be here, but is gone. Of course, Nin is annoyed that she would go looking for the temple in the middle of the night. No, she adjusts her statement. A black cat destroyed her Guanyin figurine, and she has taken it as an omen that death messengers are taking her. Only Guanyin can save her now. She is desperate for Nin to believe her, but he gives no indication. She then begs him not to put her in an old folk’s home. So, he says that he won’t.
He does. But…it was opened by Sang, who is the husband of Sze’s niece, Choi Fung. So, they would take care of her like she is family. Actually, I am not sure if they are actually family or if they are just family friends, but whatever. Why didn’t Nin go to this place in the first place? Okay, anyways…
Nin goes with Sang to do some paperwork. Choi Fung is nearby, but she is talking with someone. So, Sze watches as her son walks away from her, perhaps for the last time. She runs to the gate to see him getting into the car. He tells her that he will be back after he is done in Hong Kong. She has to believe that. She has to.
That night, an ambulance arrives at the old folk’s home and the workers remove someone who had died. Sze sees them loading up the body from her window. That will be her fate soon.
Ah Nin may be the main character of the movie, but it is obvious that Sze-nga, also known as Lei Hou, is the center of the story, even when she is not around. Whether young or old, Sze is a force of nature.
One might get a little hint that young Sze is a little off in the first sequence when she is making some dubious statements to Nin about his new life in Malaysia, along with telling him no more crying. That said, what parent does not occasionally tell fibs to keep the kids calm, especially during times of possible upheaval? And while her moments of violence (played for laughs) may be red flags…she never seems to target them at Nin or other kids. Her supposed penchant for gambling is also played for laughs, as is her religious fervor…except when it isn’t.
There is a sense that young Nin was already kind of messed up before the story even starts. Sze tries, it is never quite enough, and she cannot really appreciate the damage that was already done, let alone prevent it from getting worse. That said, it is not completely her fault. Nin’s father is…well…gone. Sze may tell her son that his father is a rich teacher, but it is implied that neither is true. And that story still does not explain why they are not with him. Why is he not with them? And if he is so rich, why are they not?
That absence must have eaten at Nin, which may be why young Nin may act so clingy towards his mother. Either that or the actor is playing the role notably younger than he is. In any case, young Nin clings to his mother out of fear that she would abandon him like his father did. And perhaps she did leave him for a long period before. Some kids would become jaded and independent out of spite. That does not happen to Nin until much later, but it eventually does happen. He does learn to live without his mother, and he hates her for it. His decision to become a teacher…which is not really part of the plot, seems to originally have been made to honor his father, but it is later revealed that he did it to spite his mother.
Nin went back to Hong Kong the first chance that he got and did not go back to Malaysia until his aunt died and his cousin basically made him come. Perhaps his time away from his mother did him some good. He seems to have grown up to live better and more comfortably than his mother ever did. But his demeanor towards his mother could be described as grudging obligation. He wants to make sure that she is taken care of so that he is not seen as a bad son, but he refuses to put up with any of her nonsense anymore. Of course, that will have to change at some point, right? Right?
Nin’s resentment at having to take care of his mother beyond sending money also means that he is away from his own family. Sau Lan and Joey are…kind of more symbolic than actual characters, but they do their part. Sau Lan is an eager employee of what might very well be a scam company. That said, she is not overwhelmingly aggressive when it comes to roping in her relatives and she does kind of put in effort to be there for her husband and daughter, though it is not clear whether they appreciate it. As for Joey…she is a kid…she goes along with whatever and is mostly obedient. She is not on screen as much as young Nin is, so I cannot say much about whether her character is weird or not. In any case, adult Nin does not want to do to her what his parents did to him. But with both he and his wife being work work work, are they doomed to repeat the cycle?
Many of the actors in this movie come from Hong Kong, but the director, Ryon Lee, is from Malaysia. I am not sure if that affects the presentation of the two places. Overall, Hong Kong seems like a cold sterile place full of busy business, but Malaysia is lively and familial and friendly and all that good stuff. Oddly, the Malaysia that we see seems to be populated mostly by Chinese Malaysians. Few Indians or Malays to be seen. There is one scene where Malaysians from other ethnicities are featured and…um…they are the butt of a joke. I guess that it was meant to puncture what was an otherwise touching scene, but I cannot say whether that was appreciated, especially given some of the less-than harmonious race relations there…not that I can throw stones from America. Anyways, there is a contrast of sorts.
This movie had a bit of an interesting tone to it. It constantly switched between relatively grounded realism to wistful sentimentality to plain-old goofiness. I am not sure if it always worked, such as with the scene that I just mentioned, but it kept me interested, especially when the otherwise rather straightforward story suddenly takes a short detour.
Is this a good movie? Eh…I like it for the season that we are in. I get that some may take issue with its themes or find the characters grating, but I found it quite entertaining and moving. And sometimes, that is plenty.
WTF ASIA 192: How to Steal a Dog (South Korea: 2014, approx. 110 minutes)
WTF ASIA 193: Vinci Da (India: 2019, approx. 113 minutes)