Crossroads: One Two Jaga (Malaysia, 2018) [NYAFF 2018]

Crossroads: One Two Jaga begins with cryptic intensity: in a slightly low-angle close-up, a man with a bruised and beaten face responds to questions posed from off-screen about his gun and an eight-year-old boy. NamRon’s latest film concerns, then, the unraveling of the cryptic nature of this opening scene. In the process of its unraveling, the film portrays a cross-section of experiences of surviving in the big city of Kuala Lumpur. Sugiman (Ario Bayu) is an Indonesian immigrant who works hard in a building site while trying to raise his son Joko (Izuan Fitri). His son, however, rebels against his discipline and instead looks to one of his father’s temperamental co-workers as a substitute male mentor, Adi (Amerful Affendi). Adi also presents a tense father-son relationship, as he is the son of Sugiman’s boss Sarip (Azman Hassan). Showing Joko some of the ropes at the building site unwittingly exposes him to unsavoury realities that this father-son organisation deals with and hides on a regular basis. Sugiman is also in Kuala Lumpur with his sister Sumiati (Asmara Abigail), who has recently escaped her abusive domestic employer and wants nothing more than to return to Indonesia. In order to avoid the police and the certainty of arrest, Sugiman has Sumiati stay in a local motel until her situation can be worked out, with the help of Sarip. Unbeknownst to either of them, Sumiati’s room is right next to that of Rico’s (Timothy Castillo), a Philippine immigrant who with a friend is revealed to be involved in shady dealings when he is accused of stealing from his higher-up and faces the consequences.

Little by little, these individuals are forced to realise that their lives are connected, leading to increasingly intense life-and-death encounters that render irrelevant the lines between legitimate and illegitimate. Principal in connecting the dots is rookie policeman Hussein (Zahiril Azdim), who brings a moral zeal to his job despite his veteran partner Hassan’s (Rosdeen Suboh) casual attitude towards applying the law. As the pair patrols the streets, Hussein quickly realises that Hassan is taking bribes, from store owners to company men, including Sarip. In between stints of duty, they stop by Hassan’s place for rest and/or meals, which plainly expresses to Hussein and the spectator why Hassan is hustling in his own way: to finance his family’s overall comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. As he connects the dots, so Hussein also provokes the violent collision of lives.

On the one hand, the film’s manner of connecting the dots and arriving at the inevitable cut-throat collisions between the different characters is more in the vein of Hassan’s laid-back style than Hussein’s fierce drive. Moreover, while the performances are solid across the board — even memorably explosive in their hushed and loud tones in the case of Bayu and Affendi as Sugiman and Adi, respectively — unfortunately the characters themselves and their relationships to each other hardly, if ever, go beyond their generic types. Sugiman is the hard-working Everyman who has fled his home country for better money-making opportunities but suddenly finds himself in dire straits that tip his status into the illegitimate, while Sumiati has but a few lines and is reduced to just plain suffering and looking sad. Hussein is the novice policeman eager to make good but does nothing in the end but bad; indeed, he comes out as being one of the film’s least sympathetic characters. Sarip and Hassan, though from differing sides of the law and social class, are the middlemen who know their place and try to benefit as much as they can from it, given their connections to those higher-ranked in corrupt dealings and/or social positions. Rico and his friend are drawn even in less detail as pawns in a corrupt network that goes very deep/high into official society. Very little nuance exists here in terms of characterisation and plotting, which makes the film’s concluding emotional peak uninvolving.

Even if its multi-strand narrative has been seen many times before, the film is not above dealing with socially pressing issues regarding immigrant labour transformed into a corrupting capitalist enterprise, given the sector of society in which the film moves. A few scenes/sequences make the film even rise above its generic framework, however briefly. Early scenes of Sugiman and his family speaking Indonesian and eking out their lives and Rico at his place of work but on his cell phone speaking to his mother in Filipino about money characterise the world as one in which official and clandestine movement, struggles of ease and those of hustle, porously live with each other and no one has his/her hands clean as a matter of survival, according to one’s class. Those who fall are easily replaced. In this regard, the connection between Adi and Joko driving out to the remote countryside to bury an immigrant labourer from Myanmar who had an accident at their workplace and died and Sarip later asking a policeman if he could take care of several of his ‘new guys’ who are stuck in immigration illustrate all too clearly the disposability of bodies and minds in this society.

Crossroads: One Two Jaga is showing on July 11 at the New York Asian Film Festival.