Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Call if you need me (2009) (SIFF)

Still life, deep waters

In the digital age of filmmaking, a lone holdout stands firm. In an era where savvy indie filmmakers put out increasingly slick feature productions thanks to cheap DV cameras, Malaysian director James Lee insists on using a single basic video camera to tell his tales on film.

For his latest offering, Lee and his single video camera takes on the gangster film. As an indie director, he has something radically different to say about the genre, something that he has the guts to stick with and develop to its exquisite end. Lee's highly original premise - as a sort of weird counterpart to Ip Man - is that stripped away of the glamour of the big screen, really-existing street gangsters are just about as charming, dangerous, and pathetic as middle-aged chavs in a mid-life crisis.

The action centres on village boy Or Kia (Sunny Pang), newly arrived to the big city lights of Kuala Lumpur and his cousin and gang boss Ah Soon (musician Pete Teo). Presumably Soon runs some sort of a gang, but we're not sure what they do for a living. They're either a loansharks, debt collectors, or outsourced finance officers for a bank. They're good at what they do, without resorting to violence.

In another continent and another age, this would have been the launching point of a good noir or an anti-noir. There are the grey moral zones (the collectors sort of move in between the margins of legality, dealing with legit businessmen, lawyers, and down and out luckers), the cynicism (it is the police who initiate the first on-screen illegal violence), the world weariness (exemplified by the casting of Peter Teo, who looks like everyone's black sheep sad-eyed jailbird uncle), and the romance of it all...

Yet when it comes to the scenes where the middle aged men downs their ecstasy, downers, pills and beers - there is a sense of quiet, existential pathos than glamour. And their uneasy awareness of an asymptomatic rot in their lives. These are basically decent men in what might be a vaguely indecent world, especially Soon, who despite being a good employer and a nice family man (all that's missing is a tender scene where he pets a stray dog...) ends up being the one who stares into the abyss.

If the self-imposed limitations of short films are said to inspire beautiful filmmaking, James Lee's self-imposed limitations for his feature films have helped him to master the aesthetics of film, the strength of storytelling through long takes, and the parsimony of editing and cutting. While camera movements may be inexorably slow, each long shot is paced briskly, telling as much as it can.


Anonymous said...

Erm, good review. Though the guy's name is Pete Teo. Not Peter Teo. :-)

Vernon Chan said...

Thanks, the review's been corrected now =D