I'm sure many of us around the region will know the kind of buzz that Malaysian independent cinema had created around the world, and Woo Ming Jin is yet another promise of great films to come. A Focus on Malaysian Cinema had intended to spotlight two of his films in today's session, but unfortunately due to another film festival wanting to secure the Singapore Premiere, The Tiger Factory can only be seen in April, so there.
But back to Woo Ming Jin's third feature Woman on Fire Looks For Water, what I thought to be a romantic tale once you get past the idyllic, picturesque cinematography capturing the beautiful chaos of a quaint fishing village in Malaysia, so much so that for the first few minutes, one can be forgiven if one thinks this film is a documentary, sans voiceovers or any form of commentary, allowing the striking images to bury deep into your thoughts. For those unacquainted with the sights and sounds commonly seen in a fishing village, then this will be its selling point, as you see how everyone goes about their daily economic chores along various stretches of the supply chain with the kind of routine and precision that makes it all seem rather mundane.
At its core is a romantic tale about the dilemma of choice, where simply put, Frog Boy becomes Cockle Boy which puts his relationship with Fish Girl under stress when See-Hum Girl enters the picture to complicate the matters of the heart. We're introduced to Ah Fei (Ernest Chong), who earns a living catching and selling frogs, and we learn is in a long term relationship of sorts with Lily (Foo Fei Ling), who works in a fish farm. Clearly the guy is infatuated with her, but Lily would only consider to further their relationship only if he has some economic might, to the tune of an arbitrary RM50,000. An opportunity comes for regular income when Ah Fei works for a cockle harvesting outfit run by a rich businessman, who is adamant that he dates his daughter (played by Jerrica Lai who made famous the Rafflesia Pong role in Yeo Joon Han's Sell Out!) so here comes the dilemma.
What makes the story a lot more poignant, is the subplot of Ah Fei's fisherman father, who is nearing the end of his days, and reminisces about the woman he let go many years ago with great regret, before deciding to take some action now before it's too late. It rings of a sense of deja-vu happening all over again with the next generation, since his son is also now caught with choosing either to follow his heart, or his head, where would you choose to marry the one you love, or for that greater economic and material comfort, be quite the cad and go after someone else proposing a stronger value proposition? And the two girls cannot be more contrasting as well, one being wistful yet annoyingly whiny when a challenge is being presented (who set the RM50K condition?) and the other being quite the seasoned hunter with steely determination with the wrong that she commits.
Ah choices, and to some when presented with one, tend to drag it out for as long as possible to avoid the pain of choosing. Such is the pace of the film, as it moves with meditation with the characters, interspersed with the sights seldom seen. With the bales of fresh deep sea fish and various other seafood on display, you can imagine the kind of strong smells available, tricked by the sense of sight of seldom seen images from a two-dimensional screen. Be warned though, those who are squeamish about things, as there are scenes here that will make you gawk - I know I certainly did when a pair of scissors decapitates the head off a frog with so much ease! I was OK with the fish being descaled, cut up and guts being thrown aside as part and parcel of that salted/dried fish process, but the frog, now that really made me sit up!
Filled with contemplative characters who seldom speak too much, a camera that gazes longingly at the idyllic life and landscapes on display, possessing some educational value through seldom seen behind the scenes in an industry, and that requisite finale open to interpretation, Woman on Fire Looks For Water becomes the gem that stands out, and shows the abundance of film talent that is available right across the Causeway. Recommended stuff, and if you'd like to see this on the big screen, take note of another screening in April at the Singapore Art Musuem where the Southeast Asian Film Festival will take place.