*Now showing in Malaysian cinemas.
The hype for Saw Teong Hin’s You Mean the World to Me built up a great deal of anticipation and anxiety within Penangites, and to an extent Malaysians as a whole. Dozens of local publications and broadcast agencies touted the film as the first-ever feature length motion picture to be filmed in the Penang Hokkien language; while gushing at the thought of the gifted, globally acclaimed cinematographer (and Wong Kar-Wai regular) Christopher Doyle in charge of lensing the film. I had expected the film to be a well-shot, well-direct family drama with a high dose of sweetness and nostalgic sentimentality, like most good South East Asian films do.
I stand wonderfully corrected. I was not prepared for the gut punch that belied me beyond the opening logos.
Never mind the hype. Saw’s film is an extraordinarily raw human drama about estrangement and letting go that cuts deep in the most scab-pulling fashion imaginable. It’s a film that evokes a strong sense of nostalgic sentimentality without ever allowing itself to turn mawkish. It’s a family drama that hurts because there are brutal truths to its pain. This isn’t a family you’d see in a Christmas-themed or a Chinese New Year-tinged film. This family is real.
Real enough, as the film’s plot directly reflects both Saw’s real-life efforts to get this film off the ground, as well as his childhood experiences leading up to a grim event that shapes him up for the rest of his life. Saw envisions himself as Sunny (Frederick Lee), an established filmmaker who is struggling to find investors for his film, which is based upon his own life experiences, particularly involving his mother Cheng (Neo Swee Lin) and mentally-challenged eldest brother Ah Boy (John Tan). As a child, Sunny (Gregg Koay) faced a hardened life, involving a drunkard of a father (Steve Yap), an overburdened Cheng, and an aggressive Boy pushing him further towards his love for cinema, an escape from reality. As an adult, Sunny faces financial issues and writer’s/director’s block, and elder sister Hoon (Yeo Yann Yann) whose concerns about her kid brother’s behavior turns into anger following her discovery of the real plot of Sunny’s project.
Saw juggles this act in a virtuoso balance of Yasujiro Ozu’s straightforward study of family ties with the self-indulgent deprecation of Bob Fosse ala All That Jazz. I commend his bravery for revealing himself in ways most filmmakers, or even storytellers, wouldn’t even dare to. I am also reminded of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, where Truffaut expresses his own memories with the character of Antoine Doinel; often misunderstood, and yearning for affection. Saw, too, has his protagonist face similar obstacles, but intriguingly subverts the trope by making Sunny not want to have his voice heard until the very end. I have no right to fathom how everyone’s letting go process works, as everyone has their own methods to expel their demons.
Indeed, Saw was having troubles backing this film up, as his prospectors wanted the film to be shot in Mandarin, instead of his native Hokkien. Saw subsequently released his screenplay as a stage play before releasing this film version, and its stage roots are obvious in all of the film’s interior sequences; heavy on dialogue, rife with subtle emotion. An extraordinary performance by Neo as the mother anchors the film in tender care and sorrow, setting up a net of sadness that encapsulates all within its grasp, including its interesting side characters, two aunts who were escorts during Sunny’s childhood; who are now old aunties with could-have-been memories. A virtuoso shot, involving the premature dismantling of a set during filming, brings all of Sunny’s conflicts to a head, both in front of and behind the camera; it is great filmmaking.
DP Christopher Doyle, who brings out all sorts of colors that paints different characters for each scene, evokes the pain and nostalgia magnificently in broad cinematic strokes, capturing all moments, as well as the featured Penang locations, exquisitely. With tact, subtle direction from Saw and his keen eye for detail, Doyle transforms Penang into a character of its own, a backdrop for the tragedy and drama to unfold, all while inviting each characters to come to terms with their past and move on. Penang’s capital of George Town is a city that was once colonized by the British and badly damaged during the Japanese Invasion of World War II. The city has since moved on to become a potpourri of South East Asian and British Colonial sensibilities, becoming one of the more renowned global tourist destinations over the past decade. It has come to terms with its own dark past, and has moved on tremendously, sharing with Saw a lot more in common than previously expected.
More importantly, Saw’s craft made me forget that I was watching a movie, which is crucial to its quality. Get me hyped throughout the film with the whole “it’s set in Penang”/“it’s filmed in Hokkien” mentality, and the film would have lost me while drowning in its own hype and pride. Not here. Saw’s work is surprisingly darker and far more mature than the marketing material have made it out to be. In a way, it’s like the anti-Chinese-New-Year-movie, atypically solemn yet always hopeful, while never allowing false comfort.
This is one of the year’s best films, from any language or country, period. It’s the work of a true filmmaker and storyteller, but more importantly the work of a man who has come home to directly confront and destroy his demons in order to let go and move forward with his own life, and does so with extraordinary pain and grace in his effort.
Rating: [★★★★½] out of [★★★★★]