Hassan Muthalib explores young Malaysian Aaron Chung’s work.
Reviewed by: Hassan Muthalib
“Saying you don’t like violence in movies is like saying you don’t like tap-dancing sequences in movies; it’s just one of the many things you can do in movies. And it’s a very cinematic thing.”
– Quentin Tarantino
You don’t have to sit through a two-hour blood-and-gore Hollywood movie to experience an adrenalin rush. Aaron Chung will do that to you in just a few minutes. And he does not need to take you into dark alleyways or eerie graveyards. He does it all in the most common of places – inside the home.
A Distinctive Style
So far Chung has done only four short films, but he is a filmmaker to watch. With his very first short Working Sunday, a student project while studying film at the Akademi Filem Malaysia, he showed a distinct trademark style which he continued to develop in his next three shorts: Crook, Wicked and Shoot the Malaysian. With the deftness of Jarmusch and the brashness of Tarantino, he grabs you by the collar, punches you in the jaw, and before you know it, you’re sitting in the gutter, wondering what hit you. His scripts are minimalist, focused and totally linear; shots are carefully composed and there is minimum camera movement; acting appears spontaneous but dramatic. His editing style would put mainstream editors to shame.
Fully in control of the grammar and language of film, he communicates and connects with his audience. Chung eschews slow-motion effects or speeded-up scenes, deliberately refraining from doing them. The purity of the filmed image is what he respects and strives for. He is firmly grounded in the genre; Crook and Wicked are treated like horror films — Crook in classic Gothic horror style and Wicked, splatter horror. His shots are exceedingly common: close-ups, over-shoulder shots, mostly eye-level set-ups, avoiding impossible point-of-view shots. Chung’s shots are minimal; before he cuts, he introduces the next element within the shot. He wastes no screen time or space. His editing compresses time, but it feels like it is all happening in real time with an unseen rhythm and pacing building up to the shock climax.
The long, languishing take or the blank look into space is not for Chung; there are no metaphors, subtexts or philosophical concepts, no narrative discontinuity or temporal or spatial fragmentation. He is a man in a hurry; he just wants to show something and then move on. He is not out to make films that are profound. His films are waiting to be found, to quote Ho Yuhang. Chung’s world is a cinematic representation of contemporary Malaysian life and youth. He does not say that the world is mad or that it is unjust. He just shows it for what it is.
In his director’s statement, Chung says that Crook was inspired by an actual event, which happened to him at his brother’s apartment. It was around the time he had to produce a short video as one of his semester requirements, and he basically built up the incident to create something theatrical by the use of dramatic lighting, flesh-ripping, and scenes from Wrestlemania X7 (he’s a pro-wrestling fan).
In Crook, a man appears at the door of a terraced house one dark night. A sweet young thing opens the door. The man hands out pamphlets related to a campaign about cruelty to chickens(!). But seeing that there’s no one else in the house, he decides to leave. It looks innocent enough, even though the bluish lighting on him is an indication that something is not right. However, that indication is a red herring. He is not the “crook” of the title (as we will find out later). He asks for a drink from the girl, who obliges. A couple of tight shots below eye level of the girl preparing a glass of water are visual cues for what is to follow. While she’s in the kitchen, the man quickly enters the living room and steals some valuables. He suddenly faints after drinking what the girl has prepared. The girl goes into the house, picks up a steel chair. And in a very creative manner, Chung shows what the girl is going to do with the chair. The camera moves and dwells on the TV set where a wrestling match is in progress. One of the wrestlers lies on the ground while his opponent slams him repeatedly with a steel chair. We are now outside again. The girl stands over the man, holding the chair – and we are in no doubt as to what she has done with it. She collects all the things he has stolen. The fence behind her has clear Gothic elements. Now a tight low angle shot on the girl shows her exactly like the crook earlier. She even pulls off the ring stuck to his forehead causing the audience to let out a perceptible ouch! The last shot is a repeat of the first shot. The girl drags him outside the confines of the house and leaves him lying on the ground. She calmly takes up the chair and goes back into the house. The song that comes on is appropriate: You’re Gonna Pay: The Undertaker’s Theme by Jim Johnson.
All the conventions of the classic Gothic horror genre are there – low angles (where appropriate), and Dutch tilts (as signifiers), bluish lighting for exteriors not only to denote night but also as an omen. The first shot establishes the house in bluish light and at a low angle, clearly warning the unwary stranger to enter at his own peril; although the gate is open as if inviting one to enter. The interior shot immediately following the crook at the door is empty, another negative portent. Only the loud, non-diegetic sound of the wrestling match on TV is heard. The girl utters no word to the man’s questions and is perfectly calm. And why should she not be? The fly is about to walk into the parlour! The girl is never shown preparing the drink – only her hand is seen in a close up, with a low angle on the glass strongly reflecting light and casting diagonal lines ominously on the ceiling. As the crook leaves, there is a cut to the girl. Her face now has some bluish light on it. She has a Dracula-like expression on her face, a predator waiting for the inevitable to happen. The sliver of light that was on the crook’s face is now on her.
Chung says that with Wicked, he wanted to push the envelope further, following the success he had with Crook. Wanting to create something of a follow-up without actually making a sequel, his next film needed to be able to stand on its own. He wanted to create the same overall feeling and mood that he had with Crook but turning it around slightly. Crook began with the stranger coming to the house where the occupant is already present and ends with him being dragged outside the compound. Wicked begins with the stranger already inside the house (the same one in Crook), and the occupant entering it from the outside. As opposed to Crook’s Gothic horror treatment, Wicked is in the splatter horror genre, replete with blood and gore.
The film begins with a conventional shot of the front door, but seen from the inside, making it a point-of-view shot – but of whose? Wait for it. We hear sounds of a cartoon TV show. A pretty girl (the occupant), appears at the door, attracted by the sounds. She watches from the door, fascinated. Her face is slightly covered in shadows with a sliver of light on the side of her face. A crucifix with the effigy of the Christ is prominently behind her, a rosary dangling from it. The sequence on TV shows a beaver involved in an accident causing its eyeball to dangle out of its socket – an indication of what is to follow with the human characters. A woodpecker pecks at the eyeball, resulting in the beaver falling out of the tree. Its bloodied lungs and the other eye are pulled out and now dangle out of its body. The girl grimaces and turns the TV off. She turns, looks at the rosary dangling on the crucifix. She looks up. A man is standing over her with a knife in his hand. Quick as a wink, she grabs the rosary and sticks it in his right eye. He reacts but it is too late. The key is embedded in his eye. He screams but no sound emerges.
The girl’s face is now in reddish light. She punches him. His eyeball pops out, and dangles at the end of the rosary in a surreal Salvador Dali angle from the point-of-view of the fallen man. The girl picks up her stiletto shoe and proceeds to hit his other eye with the heel and then struggles to extricate the shoe from his eye. She flings the bloodied shoe away. It hits a chair (the same one used in Crook) and lands on the floor, a bloody mess. She drags him outside and starts digging in the garden (all seen from inside the house). She exits right. The bloodied eyeball on the key falls onto the floor as a finale.
As Bunuel shocked us with the slicing of the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou, Chung shocks us with the eyeball being violently struck with the rosary and stiletto. Bunuel remarks that a film’s object is to “provoke instinctive reactions of revulsion and attraction in the spectator”. Chung does that remarkably well. The sequence of the eye-piercing with the rosary is a piece-de-resistance of editing. As in Crook, Chung wastes no time and goes for the jugular (pun intended.). The scene is revolting, but at the same time, humorous. Utilizing irony, Chung critiques the commodification of our culture. Art has transgressed its boundaries, stepping over into real life. Humans have taken on the roles of characters as in a post-modern text. Young men are killers and crooks and girls are no longer sweet young things. Chairs, rosaries and shoes become deadly weapons. The home is no longer the safe place it once was – not for the occupant but for the transgressor. Chung insists upon the audience’s active participation in various levels of interpellation.
Chung says that he does not have a style, a way of thinking about what he’s going to do. He does plan using storyboards, but panels are sometimes left undrawn with a few words written to give an indication of what he wants. It is only when he arrives at the location and sees the props does he knows how it’s all going to come together. He could have fooled me!
Chung’s Shoot the Malaysian
Which country would you prefer to live in – Malaysia or Singapore? What’s the difference between a Malaysian and Singaporean? Chung does a take on the strict laws of Singapore in a film that was one of six projects commissioned by The Substation Singapore for the Malaysia-Singapore Film Exchange Project 2004, part of their annual Asian Film Symposium (another well-made film is Khoo Eng Yow’s Job Interview, shot in Singapore and also under the Project, which critiques Singapore’s clean and squeaky image).
Half-documentary, half-narrative, the film seeks the opinions of locals and foreigners about both countries. A newspaper report speaks of a “Shoot the Malaysian Campaign” whereby Premier Lee has given orders to shoot any Malaysian who breaks the laws of Singapore. Chung plays himself as the Malaysian who is on a visit to Singapore. Every time he breaks one of the laws, a shot comes from nowhere and “kills” him: when he washes his hands at a fountain, chews gum, jumps queues, and brings his mobile phone to church. Chung has remarked that the presentation style of the film was inspired by the comedy skits he saw on The Late Show with David Letterman. I think the humour is reminiscent of the style of Mr. Bean, but Chung has made it political. While the situations set up for Mr. Bean in the TV series are highly unlikely to happen in real life, Chung goes a step further by wryly asking, what if?
What is interesting is Chung’s use of visual cues scattered throughout the film which are like punctuation marks that make statements as to why Singapore is what it is. The name Singapore comes from the Sanskrit: Singa – lion, pura – city. The shot of the question by a foreigner, “What’s the difference between a Singaporean and a Malaysian?” is immediately followed by an image of a lion on a banner (as if in reply). The lion is king of the jungle and brooks no insubordination. The presence of the lion is seen all over the film in the form of the well-known Merlion statue spouting water; another stands guard by the side of a road. The lion continues to exert its power through various signages, among them: In Queue by Law. Obey or else – as Chung (the character) finds to his detriment.
The interviews in the film of locals and foreigners are for and against both countries, but it is not difficult to see on whose side Chung (the filmmaker) is on. This is clearly seen in the final sequence. The camera focuses on a church roof with a cross. There is the non-diegetic sound of the choir singing – a negative omen. The scene cuts to a long take of a crucifix with the image of the Christ in Gothic lighting (a signifier of the fate of Singaporeans, perhaps?). We continue hearing the choir. A mobile phone rings, gunshots ring out. Cut to the exterior of the church. A big Samsung sign is in the background, a garish contrast (another signifier?), to the sedate church with its tall columns. Chung rolls down the steps of the church. Again, there is the sound of the mobile phone ringing. Chung tries to get up. The mobile phone is thrown out and hits him. There is another shot and he falls over, this time permanently killed. Love thy enemy has gone out the window (or literally out the church door) in Shoot the Malaysian, as another one of Chung’s hit-‘em-in-the-guts post-modern texts.
Chung is an unambiguous filmmaker. He plays with iconic characters and situations, making understanding easy. It is a post-modern scenario that he presents, but I suspect it is also a reaction to the existing scenario regarding the Little Cinema of Malaysia (the DV filmmakers), of whom the majority tend to be somewhat inscrutable with their works. Chung films are proof that a simple, straight narrative is possible. Everyday things can take on unexpected turns. He presents them as spectacles, ironically parodying the carnage usually seen in the Hollywood gangster film. His references to TV culture — wrestling and cartoons – show that beneath the violence lie powerful fields of signification, especially in the playfulness and apparent innocence of cartoons.
Chung is a filmmaker who obviously prefers to see himself as an adventurer and an action artist. But he is more than that. He is a filmmaker who thinks in cinematic terms – and is definitely one to watch.