Abang Adik


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Abang Adik
"There are no weak links in this film, but Kang Ren Wu’s performance is extraordinary." | Photo: Queer East

A country with a booming economy in close proximity to some of the poorest nations in Asia, and to several regimes known to persecute minorities, Malaysia is a magnet for migrants in spite of harsh prison sentences and whipping for those who are caught. its undocumented migrant population is estimated to be as high as 3.5 million (a tenth of the overall population), and forms the bedrock of a shadow economy. Unable to access state services, undocumented people support, trade with and sometimes exploit one another. Orphans Abang and Adi look after each other, but now that they’re grown to adulthood, they’re facing different pressures.

Despite offers of help from NGO worker Jia En (Serene Lim), Abang (Kang Ren Wu) doesn’t hold out much hope for himself. He gets by, working on a market stall, and has managed to afford a flat to live in. His driving hope is that life can offer something better for Adi (Jack Tan). This is complicated, however, because Adi persistently refuses help, and persistently gets in trouble. Right at the start, during a police raid, he’s caught up in an incident which sees a man fall to his death. He’s angry about the circumstances in which he finds himself, and always seems to be on the edge of doing something drastic. When his impulsive aggressive behaviour finally spills over, it will transform both their lives.

Why does Abang, focused and determined and hard working, go to the extremes that he does to help his brother, in spite of everything? There are deep secrets between the two of them which, as they gradually emerge, challenge viewers’ assumptions and inspire sympathy which might have seemed impossible. The bright colours and warm tones of the first half of the film abruptly give way to cool tones in the second half as the pace slows down and the story enters a more contemplative phase. Busy visuals give way to close-ups and mid-shots of the characters in large empty spaces. In early scenes, the brutality of life is made clear by violent incidents and a scene in which a live chicken has its head cut off. Later we encounter kindness, consideration and sacrifice, with even the volatile Adi beginning to change, but also elements of bleakness and despair.

Screened as part of Queer East 2024, this is in part a film about queer family: about the way that people squeezed out of mainstream society come together to form their own tight-knit social bonds. Abang and Adi have a neighbour, Mrs. Money, rendered an outsider because she’s trans, who acts as a sort of aunt. They eat together sometimes and the brothers look after her; her insights , obliquely delivered, help us to understand more about their predicament. This kind of connection is particularly important for Abang, whose independence and assumption of responsibility conceal the extent to which he is frustrated by being deaf mute and therefore experiencing a social disadvantage which even citizenship would not resolve. Such is his protectiveness of others that we don’t see how deep this runs until late in the day, when it has contributed to placing him on a path from which he will not turn back.

There are no weak links in this film, but Kang Ren Wu’s performance is extraordinary. This isn’t simply a case of exploring disability issues in a way that impresses an unfamiliar audience. He builds up his character layer by layer in a way that blends into the story so smoothly that you won’t notice the power of it until it hits you. A scene near the end where he and Adi sit in silence and look at each other is among the finest moments in Malaysian cinema to date. Adi will take that silence and find in it a power that none of his shouting could avail.

Heavy with social import but first and foremost a character piece, this is a superb piece of work and marks the arrival of major new talents in director Lay Jin Ong and its two leads.

Reviewed on: 11 May 2024
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Abang and Adi are undocumented orphans in Malaysia. While the older brother, who is deaf mute, has resigned himself to a life of poverty, his younger sibling burns with indignation. A brutal accident upsets their relationship's fragile balance.

Director: Lay Jin Ong

Writer: Lay Jin Ong

Starring: Kang Ren Wu, Jack Tan, Kim Wang Tan, Serene Lim, April Chan, Bront Palarae

Year: 2023

Runtime: 115 minutes

Country: Malaysia, Taiwan


QueerEast 2024

Streaming on: Netflix

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