Edmund Yeo’s ‘Malu’ weaves haunting narrative of secrets and regret

Sherlyn Seo plays Lan, a character who everyone else seems to know while yet remaining unknowable. — Picture courtesy of Kuan Pictures
Sherlyn Seo plays Lan, a character who everyone else seems to know while yet remaining unknowable. — Picture courtesy of Kuan Pictures

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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 10 — After winning best director for his last Tokyo Film Festival entry, Aqerat, Edmund Yeo returned to the festival with Malu.

A hallmark of Yeo’s films is the cinematography, often dreamlike as though seen through the lens of memories coloured by emotions.

Quiet, barely or unexpressed yearning seems to be a particularly common thread in much of Yeo’s work but in Malu, what is more amplified is a feeling of quiet drudgery as the characters go through their daily lives.

Not that it makes Malu unwatchable.

The story that centres around two sisters separated, reunited, then separated again incorporates various elements — family secrets, betrayal and a hint of whodunit — that somehow gel together without seeming too disparate.

Undercurrents left unspoken

Sherlyn Seo as the younger sister Lan and MayJune Tan as the elder sibling Hong, as the sisters torn apart by circumstance acquit themselves well.

Seo manages to flit between her character’s many facets which are notable in how she comes across as a different person to the different people in her life, including her own sister.

The weight of Tan’s guilt about her sister hangs over her and much of the film but it is not histrionic; it is always under control and very much restrained. That in itself is one of the saddest parts of the film.

The central tragedy in the story is that the gulf between the two is not so much time or location but all the things unsaid between them.

In a way it encapsulates what all the characters seem to share, including the ones played by Masatoshi Nagase as the mysterious presence in Lan’s life and Kiko Mizuhara, Lan’s roommate, who also has left too much unsaid.

The way the camera follows each of the characters makes you realise, that like in real life, you need to watch what they do and not what they say.

What the characters do not say, but we, as the omniscient observers, can guess at is “spoken” through their gestures and shown via flashbacks. The film is not linear in nature, instead shifting from past to present to past again but edited well enough so the shifts are not jarring.

Special mention must go to child actress Debbie Loo who plays a younger Hong in childhood flashbacks whose performance was very nuanced for an actor so young.

Lynn Lim as Hong and Lan’s mother, struggling with her mental health demons, is also memorable in her portrayal of perhaps the only character honest about what she feels.

My only quibble about the film is that certain scenes might benefit from trimming, particularly an over-long sequence in a Japanese establishment and another one at a noodle stall.

The pacing of the film being already slow, having scenes where nothing happens for long periods are a little hard to sit through. Thankfully these scenes are few.

Artistically and narratively, Malu is a step forward for Yeo and I look forward to his next upcoming feature (currently in production).

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