A Malaysian action film on a mother and lifelong cinephile
by INTAN BAHA
AWARD-WINNING local director Tan Chui Mui underwent a journey of self-discovery when filming her third feature film, “Barbarian Invasion” (Belenggu).
Her metanoia began when the actor/director had to undergo extensive training in martial arts and perform all of her stunts herself.
Asked on why Tan chose to name the film “Barbarian Invasion”, she referred to Hannah Arendt’s quote: “Every generation, civilisation is invaded by barbarians — we call them ‘children’.”
“When a kid is born, they come with new eyes, perspectives, everything fresh and we sort of corrupt them.
“The title is to emphasise on how having a kid is stopping the protagonist from doing anything, that her whole life is controlled by her kid,” Tan added.
In order to perform the martial arts scenes, Tan went to the Philippines and Phuket, Thailand, to learn martial arts. She learned the stick-fighting style Eskrima in the Philippines, a style greatly practiced by Bruce Lee before he created his own signature, Jeet Kune Do.
It is worth mentioning that all the martial arts scenes in the film were done by Tan, without any stunt double. The film also features grappling scenes with Sabahan Cassandra J Poyong, a world champion in Brazilian JiuJitsu, and sparring scenes with Wai Hoong, a Malaysia Book of Records holder, among others.
According to Tan, the team’s martial arts design research started with “The Bourne Identity”.
“Apparently, Matt Damon trained for three months in Kali (a Filipino martial art) and Krav Maga. So, that was the choreographic style we want to copy.
“In January 2020, I flew to Cebu for an intensive 10-day training course for Kali,” Tan shared. Da Huang Pictures announced the theatrical release of the Malaysian action film in local cinemas from Nov 24, 2022. Tickets went on sale from Nov 17 and can be purchased in advance from the participating cinemas’ websites.
Mandatory Screening Scheme
Without the National Film Development Corp Malaysia’s Mandatory Screening Scheme safety net for local films, the first four days at the box office will be the most crucial for “Barbarian Invasion”. The scheme was formed to accept and consider any local or joint venture films for compulsory screening at cinemas by distributors in the largest cinema for 14 consecutive days.
However, “Barbarian Invasion” was disqualified because it held a special screening in Kuala Lumpur last year and did not meet Malaysia’s premiere condition under the scheme.
“It’s a pity that this film cannot be protected by the Mandatory Screening Scheme. So, it can only be released in a limited number of cinemas, only around 20 screens nationwide.
“This film project has not only survived lockdowns, as I myself have also survived the intensive training and mental anguish of balancing reality from film. I hope Malaysians will come and support the film,” said Tan.
‘Who Am I?’
In the spirit of Malaysia’s multiculturalism, the film was shot in picturesque Kemaman, Terengganu, and also stars local stalwarts Pete Teo, Bront Palarae, James Lee, Mano Maniam and Zhiny Ooi.
In the movie, Tan plays Moon Lee, a celebrated award-winning actress, who has become a fulltime mom and divorcée since retiring. Desperate to regain her sense of self, she jumps at the chance to work with her longtime collaborator, director Roger Woo (Teo), again.
Only this time, he casts her as the lead in a do-your-own stunts martial arts film, à la South-East Asian “Bourne Identity”. The role requires extensive training and though Moon is at first uncertain, she leaves her young son You Zhou (played by Nik Hadiff Dani) in the care of Woo’s assistant and commits herself to back-breaking training.
However, as soon as she starts to gain some confidence, Woo breaks the news to her: The only way the film can move ahead is to cast her ex-husband, Julliard, as the male lead.
“Barbarian Invasion” has been selected for screening at prestigious international film festivals in Rotterdam, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Japan, Beijing and Poland.
It won the Jury Grand Prix at the 2021 Shanghai International Film Festival and has also had its theatrical release in Taiwan in July.
In the movie, Tan tried to portray the realities of being a filmmaker and the industry. “Barbarian Invasion” is deemed to be an honest portrayal of a personal journey
of self-discovery and all its various aspects. It also offers a unique insight into how the indie scene works in SouthEast Asia, while also being a touching account of a lifelong cinephile.
As the movie starts, Tan leaves no question about the burden of motherhood brings, with Yu Zhou being difficult and demanding for a set of Hot Wheels. He almost becomes a ball and chain that constantly interrupts, whether it’s charging headfirst into the arena or running off on his own and almost getting lost, to the exasperation of his exhausted mother.
For me, it was an exciting movie and I cheered on as I saw Moon’s determination to succeed at landing the role. Despite the hard and “bloody” training session with Master Loh (Lee), Moon definitely did her best to complete the training and eventually emerged physically and mentally stronger.
I could not help but squirm in my seat whenever Moon took the punches from Master Loh and when she was ganged up by other students while Master Loh sipped a cuppa and barely batted an eye.
Fast for ward, Yu Zhou was kidnapped and Moon was able to trace him with a smartwatch that she bought for him after he went missing in the earlier part of the movie. Now, remember that it was the day that Moon “graduated” from her Kungfu class and one of the reminders from Master Loh was “do not use kung fu to fight on the street”.
Here, we saw Moon using her knowledge of the martial arts in desperation to defend herself in the quest to find her son. I winced every time the bad guy hit her and I can say that the fighting choreography blew my mind. Not to mention that Tan cleverly used bigger-sized antagonists and let them defeat Moon.
Adnan (Bront Palarae) was depicted as a mobile phone shop owner who came to Moon’s rescue after she was chased by the police. His business, aptly named “Ubik” is a homage from Tan for Phillip K Dick. Tan is a big fan of the latter.
“Ubik” is about the afterlife world that is sort of half-life, you’re not really sure if you’re dead or alive; or things are real. It was kind of self-explanatory as the scene followed Moon, now known as Mai, after she had lost her memory.
Adnan offered a place for Moon/Mai while trying to find out who is she. There was laughter when Adnan asked Moon/Mai in different languages – Chinese, Cantonese, Siamese — as well as in Terengganu dialect, to which Moon replied with her name.
Oh, spoiler alert. Bront nailed the Ganu dialect script! He also received a crash “self-defence” course from Moon.
Did Moon regain her memory? Did they manage to find Yu Zhou? To find out, you’ll have to watch at the cinemas.
A Good Confusing Movie
Although the storyline was a little all over the place and mind-boggling, it is a good movie. The casting of all three major races in Malaysia also helps promote unity and puts the Malaysian essence to it.
Another plus point, the Terengganu dialect, since this is considered as a Chinese indie movie. The entire movie used English as the main language, Mano’s Tamil and Adnan’s Terengganu dialect when they interacted with Moon showed that Moon was a master of other languages although she doesn’t speak them.
As for the title, one wonders how it relates to motherhood? In the movie, Yu Zhou turned Moon’s world upside down, but it does not mean that she ceased to be herself after becoming a mother.
One’s individual identity is threatened by this new situation and there is a confusing blur between the self and the different social roles. Moon struggled to maintain her career after having her son and a divorce proved to us that women do have to “earn” their place in the society. However, it was not well portrayed in the movie and kind of lost between the action scenes.
This was my first-time watching Tan’s work and as I have not watched “Bourne Identity” yet, I am unable to make a direct comparison. For me, Tan made the training and fighting scenes believable and took us through the painful journey by her expressions, body language and eye contact.
It got me thinking on taking up a martial art class. On second thought, maybe not!
- This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition