Where mainstream ends, and head-scratching begins ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Where mainstream ends, and head-scratching begins

At the End of Daybreak
My rating:

A good film review doesn't only tell you whether a film is worth watching - it prepares you for the experience of watching it. A great example is LoveHKFilm's review of At the End of Daybreak. Yeah, "dark", "frustrating" and "unsatisfying" - sounds like a big ball o' fun, duzznit? Still, I went into it knowing that it was going to be all of these things, in the hope that there'd be some redeeming aspects that made it worthwhile.

Redeeming aspects? Yes. Worthwhile? Weeeeeellll...

Tuck (Chui Tien You) is 23, lives with his divorced mother (Wai Ying Hung), helps out at their sundry store, and looks after her during her occasional drinking binges. He is also seeing Ying (Jane Ng Meng Hui), a 16-year-old schoolgirl, more as an escape from his aimless life than out of any real affection; a sentiment shared by Ying, who is unhappy with the pressures of school and her parents' expectations. Trouble arises when Ying's parents (Chew Kin Wah and Mandy Chong) discover birth control pills in her dresser drawer, and threaten to have Tuck arrested for statutory rape. Tuck and his mother are now forced to pay them off to avoid prosecution, a price they can ill afford - but even that may not be enough.

I've been reading a lot of reviews for this film, and it's surprising how different some of their interpretations are from mine; that they actually thought it a tender story of young love (at least at first), or that Tuck is actually content with his life. Such are the vagaries of the arthouse film, which most of those reviews seem to take pains to mention. The story is told in such an ambiguous way that practically challenges the viewer to figure out what director Ho Yuhang is really trying to say. I ain't down with this. Call me an ignorant plebeian, but I'm not a fan of the "art is whatever you see in it" school of thought. To me, a film is a story skilfully told; messages skilfully conveyed, themes skilfully presented. You can be subtle, as long as you actually have something to say that you want people to understand.

The good news is, I did actually see something in this film - although I don't know if it's at all what Ho wanted me to see. Nor is it something I enjoyed seeing. These are some seriously unhappy and unlikable people we're watching here, and all they do is spread their discontent to others. As mentioned, the affair between Tuck and Ying is almost entirely loveless; all they do together is her listlessly asking him about himself, and him giving evasive answers. Ying is a poster girl for teenage ennui; almost understandable, given that her parents are repellent enough to use her chastity as a means to blackmail someone poorer than them. And even when they do, Ying remains as sulky and callous as ever, even to an increasingly desperate Tuck. Here's the best preparation I can give for the experience of watching this movie: it's a noir.

Which means "black" in French, and that's what noir films are all about - the darkness of human nature, and the equally dark consequences that derive from it. Seriously, thinking of it this way helped me understand the film a lot better, and I hope it'll do the same for you too. But two things clash with that interpretation. First is that film noirs are often thrillers, in that there is tension and suspense; two elements of which there is precious little here, even when the plot takes a turn for the tragic. (The film purports to be based on a real-life local murder case.) The second is the mother-son relationship, which is as central to the story as the one between the antihero and the femme fatale. Tuck's mother is the closest thing to a decent person in this film; their relationship is, if not warm, at least comfortably familiar, and the scene where she debases herself asking for a loan from the husband who left her is...

...I wanted to say "heartbreaking", but no, Ho keeps the emotions of his story as cold as possible. Soooo, Daybreak isn't just a noir - it's also a drama then. Does that justify it not being a thriller, or having an ambiguous and unsatisfying ending? Aaaargh, trying to make sense of this film is seriously getting frustrating - which, incidentally, is another one of the words LoveHKFilm's review used to describe it, izznit? (And really, noir isn't a genre I'm very familiar with, so take what I said about it with plenty of salt.) Thing is, I can't just write it off as a film I didn't like, because there's some very confident and assured filmmaking here; the cinematography, editing, and sound design are all polished and precise. It is exactly the film that Ho wanted to make, even if I'm not sure what that is.

And the acting is excellent too. I'll freely admit that part of my reason for watching this is to perv at the lovely Jane Ng, but I confess I didn't like Ying at all - which is a testament to the effectiveness of her performance. She should certainly appear in more films, perhaps even ones in which she gets to smile a bit. The other two principals are equally effective, with Wai Ying Hung being the more impressive; she provides the world-weary depth that the younger characters lack. And Chui Tien You almost - almost - makes Tuck sympathetic. This reviewer finds inexplicable the scene of Tuck's sudden outburst of violence late in the film. My interpretation? It's because he's a feckless coward, and feckless cowards will naturally take their frustrations out on others.

Once, in my wasted youth, some friends and I had pipe dreams of becoming filmmakers. I remember a conversation with one of them in which he said, "I want to make films about life." At the End of Daybreak feels like the kind of movie my friend was talking about; ambitious, vague, and really kinda pretentious. If this is the ethos of the arthouse film - "we're just pointing a camera at life" - then I'll stick to my traditional narratives, thanks. But I'd certainly love to see Ho, his crew and his cast, try one of those. Don't just show me life, Mr. Ho - tell me a story. I have a feeling you're capable of that.

NEXT REVIEW: Clash of the Titans
Expectations: were never really very high


Em said...

i'm gonna watch it tonight, apparently ho yuhang and pete teo are gonna be there for some Q&A afterwards, so hopefully they'll talk more about it, and i'll get to understand it better~

TMBF said...

Would love to know what you thought of it. :)

fadz said...

hey i thought this was better than Yuhang's 1st (Sanctuary), which is painful to watch (much more pretentious).. well, its ur view..

gwailo said...

i wouldn't say this movie is pretentious...

i would say it's just not really very good.

if you can't write logical scripts with interesting dialogue, and you are sloppy in telling your story to an audience, doesn't mean you should write and direct an "arthouse" film.

You should become a producer and hire a good script writer and director. Then maybe it will turn into either a good arthouse film, or a good mainstream film.

So much good work goes into films like this,

acting good
cinematography good
sound good
music good (except for that godawful song with the male vocalist on the radio)

and at the end of the day, the audience goes...


chicnchomel said...

the director of wohoo! told me that it was a good movie and brought many to tears at the cinema. well...i didn't cry at all, and I'm one of those poor suckers who would cry watching yasmin ahmad's earlier petronas ads! Understand that it was an art film, but my god it was draggy. and ying? Was I supposed to feel sorry for her? I would have killed her myself, totally thought she deserved to die that callous bitch. At the end, I was angry. Angry that the movie wasted my time.