What on the surface is a critique of Malaysian political corruption and societal acquiescence — and it still is that — is a story grounded in one young man’s devastation at losing everyone he cares about.
Cinemas are closed for most of June in Taiwan, where I live, so I’ve been diving into the weeds of streaming. I’m a fan of the early shorts of Malaysian Chinese writer-director-editor Edmund Yeo (楊毅恆), and was delighted to his feature debut, River of Exploding Durians (Liulian Wangfan / 榴槤忘返, 2014). (It and the shorts can be found on MUBI)
Yeo’s shorts are formally experimental explorations of memory and subjectivity, sometimes shot with non-professionals. The Chinese title of Durians is a pun on “durian” and “lingering,” so I expected something similar going in. But I was unprepared for the sheer scale of his experimentation. Whereas the shorts necessarily showcase only one or two limited tricks, the length of a feature allows Yeo to play with the long arc of narrative structure and tone.
The plot, like in some of Wong Kar Wai, is bifurcated, turning on a single character who connects the story’s halves. InDurians, this “hinge” character is the naïve and even oblivious rural high school senior Ming (Koe Shern), who finds everything annoying and boring except his schoolmate and childhood friend, the incredibly beautiful Mei Ann (Joey Leong; Yeo tells me that many viewers were transfixed and even distracted by the beauty of the three leading women). Things aren’t going well in her family life, and he persuades her to elope with him while she still has the chance. Of course, he doesn’t know it, but it’s already too late.
This first half of the film is the least convincing, with the plot and even dialogue veering into cliché. But as we enter the second half, we get the sense that this is an intentional reflection of Ming’s immaturity, and the performance of both leads takes on retrospective nuance.
We learn in the second half that Ming’s charismatic history teacher, Ms. Lim (Zhi-Ying Zhu), is a closet radical organizing protests against the construction of a nearby rare earths plant due to possible pollution(this is based on similar real-life protests in Malaysia).
When her students get bored of Malaysian history, she has them voluntarily reenact atrocities that happened in (and were often instigated by the governments of) other countries. These reenactments are presented at length, and it’s immediately apparent that they are agit-prop. The Brechtian performances, complete with external narration, only add to our horror at the events they reenact.
Lim’s passion draws in class leader Hui Ling (Daphne Low, later to become Yeo’s muse), who leads some classmates to join the environmental protests. As the extent of the government’s collusion dawns on Lim, those protests grow more radical, dangerous, and even violent. Hui Ling starts doubting.
Apparently, Yeo didn’t have the budget for fight choreography and gore effects, so he does what any self-respecting indie filmmaker would do: He pulls a Psycho(1960) and suggests violence with camera tricks and editing. Taken in isolation, these scenes are obviously not as visceral as Hitchcock’s, but because we’ve been primed by the agit-prop classroom reenactments, they strike us as yet another form of reenactment gesturing toward unspeakable trauma.
The film’s greatest virtue is that it teaches us how to watch it. It doesn’t seek its audience — it creates it.
With this Pavlovian response ingrained, we begin to accept the sometimes blatantly unnaturalistic acting, dialogue, and situations as gesturing toward a deeper reality whose truth it is impossible for realism to convey. Take our doubting Thomas. Hui Ling’s dark night of the soul is presented in Tarkovskian shots of slow pans over water (Stalker, 1979), or of her gazing at and embracing her younger self (Mirror, 1975). These few images convey more movingly than any monologue her disorientation at this crossroads of her young life.
In the end, Ms. Lim’s most stalwart supporter is Ming. When Ms. Lim seems to have lost her drive, Ming urges her to keep fighting. And when she finally reaches the end of the line, he is set adrift once more.
What on the surface is a critique of Malaysian political corruption and societal acquiescence — and it still is that — is grounded in one young man’s devastation at losing everyone he cares about. When Ms. Lim asks why he has chosen the story of a woman brutalized by the Malaysian government to reenact in class, he replies, “Because I didn’t want her to be forgotten.”
By hinging the plot on Ming, Durians makes the political personal and the personal, political. And it ties them together in an ending of pure, bittersweet poetry.
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