Recent Malaysian cinema has become synonymous with long shots and even longer takes, but leave it to a fresh new upstart to inject some genuine warmth and humour into the recipe. First-time feature director Liew Seng Tat hit the ball out of the park with Flower In The Pocket, which joins Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All (Reel Asian ’07) as the rare debut feature to win Best Film at both the prestigious Pusan and Rotterdam Film Festivals. It is no coincidence that Tan is the also executive producer of the film, and James Lee, the director of The Beautiful Washing Machine (Reel Asian ’05), is cast as the father, showing how close-knit the local indie scene really is.
The story starts off amusingly with two Chinese-speaking brothers, Ma Li Ahh and Ma Li Ohm, as they both suffer through the indignity of school. Their daily routine includes taking showers, cooking meals, going to sleep and waking up for school – all seemingly without parental supervision. Meanwhile, a sullen mannequin maker named Sui, who is troubled by a peculiar affliction and prefers the company of lifeless dolls, is gradually revealed to be the boys’ father. But for the most part, father and sons live in different universes, intersecting only when one or the other is sound asleep.
The two kids’ natural light-heartedness and impish charm make them instantly endearing, thus attracting the attention of a spunky tomboyish girl named Ayu, who befriends the initially reluctant boys. But their growing friendship serves to highlight the differences in their family lives: Ayu’s happy rapport with her mother and grandmother is in stark contrast with the boys’ relationship with their father. Soon, both father and sons are forced to re-evaluate their predicaments through a sequence of poignant, near-silent scenes. And even though the story shifts from comedy into more dramatic territory, the director’s non-judgmental and gentle observations make the slow reconciliation a heartwarming treat. Using non-actors, especially children, to great effect, Liew Seng Tat’s wry portrait of loneliness and absurdity within a small family is by far the most accessible feature to come from the country’s indie scene. With a sharp eye for comedic timing and a warm touch of pathos, this is one director whose future works is ripe for crossover potential.