By contrast with the title, which might evoke fast-flowing cascades and fruit-based fireworks, Edmund Yeo’s debut feature, “River of Exploding Durians,” is a film of much stiller waters. But they run deep, with ideas heady and peculiar enough that, if you have the patience, you could well identify in the Malaysian Yeo a promising new auteurist voice in the Slow Cinema movement. Playing in competition at the Tokyo International Film Festival, ‘Durians’ is marred by stylistic issues characteristic of an inexperienced filmmaker with perhaps only faltering visual confidence (far too many tortuous pans across empty spaces between actual points of interest). But the fundamentals of performance and scripting are solid, occasionally exceptional.
In fact, one lofty comparison point that occurred to us was with Andrei Konchalovsky’s Venice winner “The Postman’s White Nights,” which is also a slow-moving drama undercut by weirder and more uncanny goings-on beneath the surface. Like the Russian film, Yeo’s feature is concerned with the relationship of people to place, albeit with a more overtly lyrical than social realist bent. Also like in the Konchalovsky film, there is a certain cool distance maintained as we observe his characters’ behavior from a kind of alien’s-eye point of view, drawing odd parallels between details that on a logical, left-brain level, bear little apparent connection.
The film is unusually, intuitively structured to feature three different protagonists over its 128-minute run time. While all three are female, the thread that links them is a high school-age boy, Ming (Shern Koe)—they are his sometime girlfriend, his classmate, and his schoolteacher, respectively. Initially, it seems to be a tale of young love, as Ming spends time mooning over the childhood friend he now loves, Mei Ann (Joey Leong). But sinister notes are introduced early: an adventurous ramble ends in the discovery of a rotting boar corpse; the peculiarly wise-before-her-years Mei Ann has bouts of nausea; her father, barely managing to provide for her and her two younger siblings as a fisherman, is worried that the fish are no longer biting, and the ones he does catch have been making his customers ill. Nearby a rare earth plant is under construction and there is a low-level paranoia about what it might be doing to the local area. After an abortive lovers-on-the-run moment when Mei Ann threatens to marry someone else and Ming confesses his real feelings, the narrative shifts to focus on a schoolmate of the pair, Hui Ling (Daphne Low), an issues-engaged teacher’s pet-type who is organizing a student petition against the plant. A lot of Hui Ling’s fervor is derived from the commitment of her favorite teacher, Teacher Lim (Zhu-Zhi-ying), an idealistic and inspiring young woman whose own opposition to the plant takes a darker and violent turn as the film shifts again to focus on her.
Apparently Yeo based the screenplay on the true story of a Malaysian seaside town’s protest against a potentially radioactive plant nearby. But rather than documenting the events from a realist point of view, the film incorporates strange textures and deliberately off-key notes to create a sense of general unease, one that perhaps owes more of a debt to post-MH370 Malaysian paranoia and suspicion than it does to the pages of any newspaper. Not only is authority fundamentally untrustworthy, but there is always more going on than we know, the film suggests, and an evocation of that ignorance contributes an enigmatic air to the film that verges on the mystical.
It unfolds so slowly, and weaves its tapestry with such minute incremental adjustments, that the violent action, when it occurs, is jarring. But this considered pacing also serves to magnify the performances, especially of the female protagonists, who have the tricky job of negotiating Yeo’s balance of real-world commentary and otherworldly lyricism. All three are extremely strong and believable in their highly individualized, idiosyncratic roles, with Yeo to be commended on eliciting performances of such maturity and poise. If that balance does sometimes wobble as the film consistently favors poetry over drama, it’s probably again just a factor of his neophyte nerves, nothing that a bit more practice and a more judicious editing process can’t fix.
Finally, Yeo’s insider’s perspective on modern Chinese-speaking Malaysia (there are small moments of social observation when we notice the class distinction between those who speak Bahasa Malaysia and those who converse in Mandarin) would be a valuable one even without the flourishes that his approach brings. A volatile mixture of cultures, religions, and languages, it is not a society that is particularly open to critique (a permit is required for gatherings of five people or more, which is why Teacher Lim’s anti-plant pressure group has to meet in secret), so even embarking on this film required a certain amount of bravery. But mostly, Yeo is one to watch for his developing cinematic voice—the filmmaking technique is not quite there yet, but “River of Exploding Durians” displays remarkable assurance when it comes to character building and storytelling, amounting to a clear-headed yet evocative essay on how the strictures of that particular society and culture can act as a mask, beneath which a person’s real intent and real feelings remain fundamentally unknowable. [B]