Reviewed by: Khoo Gaik Cheng
“Ho’s debut feature is a strikingly confident, elliptical drama that dares to use silences and spaces to tell its story,
right up to its surprise ending.”
“Resolutely minimalist and oblique, it pieces together unemphatic fragments of everyday life in a way that encourages us to intuit unspoken thoughts and feelings, make connections and draw conclusions. Its overt subject is motherhood and mother-daughter relations, but the enigmatic
ending (and the presence of a very large butterfly) hints at something more. Much more.”
–Vancouver International Film Festival 2004
With the current release of indie Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad’s interracial sequel Gubra in Singapore making the headlines, I think it is pertinent to take a closer look at one out of the earlier batch of Malaysian indie films that might and could have touched on issues of race relations, but did so quite differently – Ho Yuhang’s Min. The same batch of films that year includes Yasmin’s Rabun [see review on Criticine] and several other made-for-television dramas that were made or planned as part of the Odisi series in 2003 for NTV7 . Helmed by indie Malaysian filmmaker Osman Ali, the Odisi series was intended to provide an avenue for new, independent filmmakers to showcase their talents in a 50 minute-long teledrama. Several episodes were produced and shown but due to difficulties of securing weekly sponsorships (among other things), not all episodes were made. However, I believe there is talk of reviving Odisi this year and a line-up of directors’ scripts has already been selected.
Malaysian filmmaker Ho Yuhang’s telemovie, Min (2003), according to its synopsis, is about a young married woman, Min, raised by a Malay couple, who discovers she was adopted as a baby, and who subsequently goes in search of her Chinese birth mother. While the possibilities for high dramatic action and race critique are salient, they are deliberately underplayed as the filmmaker eschews drama for documentation of the more mundane details of everyday life in Malaysia. The name “Min” itself is ethnically ambiguous: it could be Chinese but as it turns out, is actually short for “Yasmin”. Film festival write-ups refer to the film’s minimalism, its “oblique” and “elliptical” nature and calm melancholy. The Singapore Film Society hails it as “the purest art cinema” and the 2005 Fribourg International Film Festival speaks of “the purity of [Ho’s] images” with regard to Min and his later film, Sanctuary. Yet such critical turns to visual style tell us nothing about what the critics really get out of the film. What does it all mean? What are their interpretations of life and subjectivity in the film?
Even though the write-ups may be trying to avoid revealing the ending, the surprise comes as no major surprise: when Min finally meets her birth mother, she strikes up a conversation with her as a stranger would at the bus-stop, helping her to carry a bag and accompanying her home. Unknown to the mother, Min has come to locate her at the factory where she works as a supervisor and after work, trails her home. Yet by the end of the conversation when her mother reveals that she has an only son, she keeps her identity secret. Min does not show much emotion after this momentous encounter. Later, back in the hotel, she throws up. This could be read as a culmination of stress from the meeting, but it turns out that Min is pregnant, as we soon discover after her doctor’s appointment the next day. In the end, the moth (not butterfly) on the kitchen wall is a metaphorical representation of this soon-to-be visitor—the baby—foreshadowed earlier when it makes its first appearance in the apartment one night (and hinted by Min’s headache in the film’s opening scene).
The film diffuses any narrative expectations, so what exactly are the critics grasping at when they decide to focus on the visual aesthetics – “the silences and spaces” – to tell the story of Min’s “literal and metaphorical journey” to discover her roots? Eschewing close-ups, the film instead resorts to the surrounding spaces to reveal something about the internal lives of the characters. I would like to offer my interpretation by attempting to “make connections” between form and narrative and to draw some conclusions about this story by using Henri Lefebvre’s ideas of space and critique of everyday life as well as Edward Soja’s theory of Thirdspace.
Ho’s film reels away from the culture industry catered to separate leisure activities (escapist entertainment offered by the TV drama, the format intended of Min) from work and everyday life. Instead, it returns the viewer to the everyday by focusing on everyday spaces which are pointedly marked by class and race. When Min goes to the electronics factory, the camera assumes an observational distance rather than her point-of-view shot and focuses on the Indian workers working on the assembly line. Meanwhile, Min is busy talking to an office worker. Acting like a documentary eye, the camera stays on the workers until the buzzer that signals the end of shift rings and they stop work and file out. Later her birth mother tells her casually during their walk home that her colleague had just been retrenched that day. Then when asked why she does not stay at home and let her children support her, she admits (in Malay), “I have to work. It’s like that. Life is tough”. This is delivered in a matter-of-fact manner, without much fuss or expectation of sympathy, displaying the resilience of the working class who are all-too-conscious of the necessity for work and the reality of retrenchment in the free market economy.
These everyday spaces are also racialised. The Chinese working-class mother contrasts against Min’s more leisurely, adopted Malay parents (who both seem either to be retired or not working outside the home). Subtly, it reverses the stereotypical linkage of class and race: this time, it is the Malays who are wealthier than the Chinese. Yet, it portrays the reality of the Tamil underclass within the racialised structure of the factory and more generally, in Malaysian society as a whole.
According to Michael E. Gardiner, Lefebvre maintains that leisure, work and other practices in modern society be examined dialectically, “as a complex of activities and passivities that are partially illusory, but which simultaneously ‘contain within themselves their own spontaneous critique of the everyday’” (Gardiner 85). Min reflects this dialectical relationship between film-as-leisure-space (supposedly a consumer product meant to entertain) and reality-as-work. In other words, Ho returns his audiences to the reality of banal everyday life in his fictional film. The filmmaker once explained to me (interview, 3 Oct 2003) how the butterfly/moth imagery was originally based on a Chinese philosophical question posed by Chuang Tzu. Upon waking, the philosopher asked, did I just dream about a butterfly or did the butterfly dream me? The relativity of two worlds, the dream world seeming as real as the waking world for Chuang Tzu, reflects the blurring of object-subject relations, between film and reality.
Min’s reality spills out of its fictional boundaries into real-life or, arguably, its cinematic boundaries are not impermeable to the quirks and quotidian-ness of reality. For example, in a light-hearted moment, Min’s father discovers that his shirt is torn under his armpit, or after the “climactic” meeting with her birth mother and on the train back to the city, the camera returns to the rooming house where the cleaner/manager is mopping the hallway and then trying to extricate the tape when it gets stuck in the cassette player. We also see the manager entering Min’s room to make the bed and close the windows before she shuts the door behind her. Life goes on for the minor characters, even as major or not-so-major events occur in the lives of the main characters.
This film reflects both everyday life and unending history in a way that does not privilege, like most narrative films, the account of a central character. Ho explains that he was fascinated with the idea of the Malay parents who “were perfectly fine with the daughter looking for her birth mother” when he wrote the script. He had learnt, after the fact, that according to Islam, parents of adopted children are obligated to tell their child about the adoption . Thus, the film focuses as much on the parents as it does on Min. Life also continues for Min’s birth mother in the same general direction, as it does for the rooming lady and Min, who after learning about her roots, in turn becomes the root of another life history when she discovers she is pregnant.
Apart from the minimalist dialogue, the difficulty of penetrating the psychology of the protagonist stems from the lack of close-up shots, the flat acting and the filmmaker’s refusal to allow Min to display any overt emotion. Instead, when Min learns of her pregnancy, it is her mother’s excited reaction we see, not Min’s as she reports this over the phone. Moreover, subsequent shots of her are again not emotive. She is back teaching in school the next day and is staring out of the classroom while children are passing by. The film ends with a static real-time shot of Min walking through an underpass and emerging at the other end with continuous traffic humming alongside, perhaps suggesting that life goes on and she will overcome what travails she faces in her usual calm but determined manner. As if supporting this idea, the hum of traffic continues even after the screen fades to black. The film turns an extraordinary event—discovering one’s birth mother—into an everyday event for the birth mother, who experiences this as an enigmatic encounter and conversation with a young stranger on the street.
Ho’s portrayal of everyday life is one where enigmatic circumstantial parallels exist (played up visually and thematically), yet do not go anywhere or offer any decisive lessons in life. Min’s niece, Lisa, is clearly her doppelganger in the way she looks (they dress alike and even their hair is similar) and in their shared recalcitrance. But this resemblance is not carried any further. Moreover, Min receives an “unexpected visit”  from Lisa and the moth just as Min visits her birth mother or her ailing friend in hospital; and the rambutan tree is ailing just like the friend in the hospital. Only some things come full circle—Min goes to find a mother but instead of getting one, becomes one—though this connection of motherhood can only be drawn metaphorically and indirectly.
According to Ho, the texts, books he himself was reading at the time, have to do with environment and were selected for mood. In a quiet film with spare dialogue and no music soundtrack except for in-synch sound, the passages from the books Min reads appear on the screen and contribute sensory images commensurate with the mood of the film and the personality of the protagonist. Two deal with quiet sound: listening to silk worms eating and dropping on the leaves in the first book Min is reading when she falls asleep at the hospital bedside of a friend she is visiting; and someone hearing “his sister’s low breathing [as she sleeps]” in the second passage when Min wakes up in the middle of the night during her niece Lisa’s sleepover. The last, which she reads on her way home after visiting her birth mother, is about space—taking a photograph:
The two of us stood there facing the camera … we reflected the light, … and what we reflected went through the black hole into the dark box.
It’ll be of us, she said, and we waited expectantly.