Sunday, March 30, 2008

Review – After This Our Exile

March 28, 2008

After This Our Exile – Hong Kong, 2007

It is an average morning in Malaysia. A young woman is in her living room ironing a shirt, presumably for her husband to wear the following day. Her son, like he does every day, awakens and gets ready for school. The woman prepares breakfast for him and scolds him a little for not studying hard enough. After all, he has to get good grades so that he can get a good job, one that is better than the cooking job that his father has. Perhaps the first sign that something is array comes when the woman gives her son money for his birthday – an event that is at least a month away. Even odder is her decision to suddenly run outside in order to take a photo with her son and then to sneak more money into his pocket. A moment later, believing her son is on his way to school, the woman takes out a suitcase and begins the emotional task of packing. However, unknown to her, her son does not go to school. Instead, he runs to the restaurant where his father works and informs him of his mother’s actions. Together, they run back to prevent her from leaving.

At this point, the young woman, Lin, could be seen as irresponsible. However, that perception is quickly destroyed by the violent outburst of Chow Cheon Shing, her “husband.” In rapid succession, he prevents her from leaving, throws her belongings on the curb, hits her, forces her back inside the house, and locks her inside their room. That very same evening, he expects the incident to be magically behind them. When Lin reveals that the incident is still affecting her (which a rational person would expect), Chow’s emotions turn on a dime. First, he is angry and yelling. Then he is hurt, asking what he does to deserve such ill treatment. A moment later, he is abusive, belittling her and threatening her with violence. Finally, he is turned on and perhaps believes that because the two of them make love the problem is therefore solved – even if it appears that she just goes along with the act rather than being interested in it. He is in for a very rude awakening.

In Chow Cheon Shing, viewers can see a powder keg just waiting to explode. He owes a great deal due to his gambling habit, has trouble holding down a job, and has a temper that can be set off with a single word if he perceives it to be a slight. He is a man more willing to engage in illegal, irresponsible activity than look for a steady, nine-to-five job, and it is only a matter of time before the gangsters on his tail will catch up to him. And yet, his son, Chow Lok Yuen, adores him. We’re even told that at one time, his wife saw so much potential in him that she was willing to go against her family’s wishes and be with him. That man, however, has vanished, and his son has not yet realized it. After This Our Exile is the story of how he learns to sees his father for the person he really is - in other words, in the way his mother sees him now.

Working against After This Our Exile are two things. First, within the first forty-five minutes, the audience is pretty clear how they feel about Chow Cheon Shing, and in spite of several short sentimental moments between father and son, waiting another hour and a half for a character to discover something that is already obvious can get tedious. That said, the journey that Chow Lok Yuen is forced to embark on is consistently interesting and turns in unexpected and unnerving ways. The final conversation between father and son is quite powerful and will stay with you for some time. The second difficulty that audiences may have with the film involves its unnerving implication that some people are better off after they abandon the very people they should be taking care of and nurturing. Most movies have at least one loving parent that comes to the child’s defense. Nonetheless, After This Our Exile does not follow this formula. In fact, Chow Lok Yuen’s pained expression in the film’s final moments seems to suggest that he is not better off. Should we be happy that his parents are?

After This Our Exile is a difficult film due to the very fact that it doesn’t adhere to the notion of a happy ending or to the idea that parental love conquers all. Lin’s new life does not involve her son, and Chow Cheon Shing cannot stop himself from turning his child into an equally emotionally unstable being. Pulled between the voices of right and wrong, between the feelings of love and hate, Chow Lok Yuen is a boy worthy of sympathy and compassion. If only there were someone in his life to provide those things to him. (on DVD in Region 3)

3 stars

*After This Our Exile won Best Film at the 26th Hong Kong Film Awards. It is in Cantonese with English subtitles.

*After This Our Exile has been screened at two film festivals in the United States, but it does not currently have a U.S. release date.

No comments: