July 27, 2017
At the End of Daybreak – Malaysia, 2009
It is tempting to read Yuhang Ho’s 2009 film At the End of Daybreak as an indictment of society as a whole, one so distracted and self-obsessed that tragedies that are playing out in plain sight are completely missed. The film weaves a tale of young love gone astray, one in which young people seek to grow up too early and some of those that are supposed to have entered adulthood lapse into immaturity and dependence with such regularity that it is only time before something disastrous occurs.
The film centers on a relationship that develops between Ying (Meng Hui Ng), an inexperienced fifteen-year-old high school student, and Tuck (Tien You Chui), an experienced twenty-three-year-old man who works at a small supermarket owned and run by his mother. The relationship is in its infancy, and, therefore, both of them keep it a secret. Tuck goes so far as to hide from his mother when Ying calls, just as a young boy is apt to do. As the relationship progresses, we watch as Ying becomes distracted, begins cutting class to be with her guy, and experiments with both cigarettes and alcohol. In short, it’s every parent’s nightmare, and as a parent, it gave me a lot to think about. Perhaps that’s why I feel slightly guilty for not liking the film a bit more.
The film follows the relationship as if evolves, grow more adult in nature, and then is discovered through one of those lapses in memory that often leave easily hidden secrets out there for all to see. From then on, the film is something different, something that gives evidence of people’s baser instincts. The relationship is not merely morally wrong; it is also a crime. And that fact gives Ying’s family a great deal of leverage over Tuck and his mother, leverage that Ying’s parents use, not for the protection of their daughter, but to enrich themselves.
On paper, a set-up like this must has looked tantalizingly juicy. However, as both writer and director, Ho struggles to find a pacing that fits the story. A number of scenes that are intended to give viewers a glimpse into Ying’s mindset just sit there, revealing nothing and grinding the film to a halt. There’s a subplot involving a group of girls that aggressively bully Ying that doesn’t go anywhere, and Ying’s parents are not given the time needed to fully flush out their characters and their motivation. There’s also the matter of likability. For the first forty minutes of the film, I found both Ying and Tuck hard to get behind. They never came across as in love, and because of their childlike demeanors, it seemed clear that neither one should have been in a relationship - with anyone. I doubt this impression was intended.
Fairing better are two of the supporting characters. While Ying remains cold throughout the film, her best friend, Wan, is bubbly, cheerful, and supportive, and this enables the audience to see Ying in a more positive light. On the other side of the coin is Tung’s mother, played by Kara Hui. In her scenes, we get a good understanding of just why Tuck is the way he is. After all, it isn’t always easy to grow up when your mother fluctuates between needing you to be mature and pandering to your every need. In fact, I don’t remember her ever chastising her son for putting himself in such a compromising situation. Instead, she relies on the numbing effects that way too much alcohol can have on the senses.
At the End of Daybreak get off to a slow pace and then picks up the pace in the second half, yet the film never truly soars. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the film goes where so many others have gone before. Savvy viewers – even ones who do not know the true story behind the film - will spot the its obvious forecasting of Tuck’s tendency toward violence, and that diminishes the effect of his eventual actions. That said, what follows the tragedy at the heart of the film is somewhat eye-opening, especially for those not familiar with some of the beliefs that exist in parts of Asia. In the end, At the End of Daybreak is mildly interesting. It contains one truly stellar performance, Hui’s, and does just enough towards the end for the film to stand out slightly from other films with similar stories. However, with such an interesting case at its heart, just being watchable is a bit of a letdown. (on Blu-ray in Region 3)
*At the End of Daybreak is in Mandarin with English subtitles.
* Karen Hui won numerous awards for her performance as Tuck’s mother, including Best Supporting Actress as the 46th Golden Horse Awards and Best Actress at the 16th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards.