The last decade has seen much intellectual teeth-gnashing about the so-call Chinese diaspora in film and much critical ballyhooing in the direction of Southeast Asia, and for good reason. Global film fans and Festival curators alike have made more space for films from Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia with fresh takes on everything from dramas to documentaries. Thailand might be leading the way with such directors as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Wisit Sasanatieng, and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, but Malaysia is not far behind. The past few years has seen a surge of interest in Malaysian film with directors like James Lee, Ho Yuhang, Amir Muhammad, and Tan Chui Mui, reaching a fever pitch at 2006 Pusan Film Festival and 2007 International Film Festival Rotterdam. Ho Yuhang's Rain Dogs seemed to have started the wave last year.
As for Malaysian films that have hit the screens here in the Twin Cities, they have all been in the form of the International Film Festival. In 2005, the Film Festival screened Amir Muhammad's very intimate and more-than-meets-the-eye documentary The Big Durian and hosted the US premiere for Ho Yuhang's subtle Min. The Big Durian had me packing for KL, but Min was slight and ultimately forgettable. As I now try to conjure up more images from the Min, I now blame myself for not locking Min into my movie memory databank, and not the unmemorable characteristics of the film itself. After seeing Ho's remarkable Rain Dogs, I have no doubt that Min contained hints of great things to come.
Tung is a young man on the brink of adulthood. Leaving his quiet hometown to visit his brother in Kuala Lumpur is just his first test. Tung's wish to hide from the world and while away the time fishing is shattered by a series of of irrevocable events. Rain Dogs is a coming of age story that is anything but ordinary. Tung discovers very quickly that his naiveté will not protect him from growing up, and the world is going to be thrust upon him whether he likes it or not. The leisurely but deliberate pace is nonetheless engaging and spotted with forks in the road, not only for Tung, but for the film also. Ho shows admirable restraint in shunning the sensationalism and melodrama hanging around every corner, forsaking blockbuster mentality for a more moving and, dare I say, realistic approach. Ho punctuates his disregard for convention when the title screen shows up 38 minutes into the film, as if a forgotten detail or a reminder of who's in control.
Rain Dogs is one of six Chinese language films in a High Definition project for emerging filmmakers called First Cuts funded by heavenly king himself Andy Lau. The HD video is perfect for the lush images in Rain Dogs. The assured camerawork hardly seems that of an emerging filmmaker though. Still shots have artfully calculated compositions and the pans have a confident grace. It is understandable why critics and film fans (myself included) used this film as a prompt or a push for a building excitement for Malyasian film. Unfortunately, this film only seems available on DVD from Hong Kong, and if it hasn't hit a film fest near you, it probably won't. That being said, it is a region free DVD and most savvy video stores would be able to order it. Or spend the 12 bucks yourself and have a great movie in your collection.