Edmund Yeo’s feature film debut, River of Exploding Durians, had its world premiere at the 2014 Tokyo International Film Festival. Already an experienced filmmaker after having made numerous shorts in both Japan and his home in Malaysia, this slice of slow-cinema reflects his talent for beautiful visual compositions. His writing has some depth as ideas of the human cost of politics and commerce float on a river of teenage love and self-actualisation.
A picturesque coastal town in Malaysia finds itself in trouble when construction on a rare earth plant begins nearby. Local people fear the plant’s radioactive effects and with good cause because fishermen soon find it difficult to catch fish and what they do catch is contaminated with something that causes food poisoning in customers. High school student Mei Ann (Joey Leong) is the daughter of one fisherman who is struggling to look after her and her two siblings. This isn’t immediately obvious to her middle-class friend, Ming (Shern Koe) who is more concerned with finding out how to signal the love he feels to the girl he has known since childhood. While she exhibits a burgeoning concern for the environment and worries about her family, he basks in her presence during long walks through jungles and along coasts. Paradise does not last as social and money pressures see her face marrying someone else. The two run away from their small town. They share their time together, their thoughts and feelings and family memories as they pass through a massive city and head to the Cameron Highlands but the childishness of their actions dawns on the girl.
The film then sails back into the larger story of the protest against the rare earth factory by returning to their school and the story of classmate Hui Ling (Daphne Low). This young intellectual finds her sense of social justice ignited by history teacher Ms. Lim (Zhu Zhi-Ying), an inspiring and seemingly caring woman who is part of a group of activists protesting the construction of the plant. What starts off as peaceful resistance takes a more violent edge as Lim reveals her commitment to the cause goes to extremes. The torrent of ideas she unleashes sucks everyone in as Lim becomes willing to turn her young students into mini-revolutionaries. Hui Ling soon finds herself struggling amidst the rough currents of a protest movement willing to use dangerous tactics to stop a radioactive plant destroying their community.
The film is effectively split into two parts and the story flows slowly and easily between them. Yeo takes his time to navigate between the micro and macro stories by having a trickle of details about the plant in every scene such as the protests present in the background or the damaging presence of construction and talk of death unpleasantly intruding when Ming wants to move closer to Mei Ann. Ms. Lim and Hui Ling are also present from the start so while Yeo maintains his focus on the emotional eddies and vortices of Ming and Mei Ann’s courtship, the more adult concerns surrounding the plant and economics naturally rise like a tsunami to wash them away as if it were inevitable and the kids have to grow up.
The emotional tone is constant due to performances of the lead actors meshing well although some of the supporting cast are a little wooden. Emotions of the principal characters are earnest as they cling on to something pure in the form of their love or political idealism, the two of equal force for the teens and teacher. This is displayed through long takes which allows the film to become visually poetic as we get drifting scenes of the kids picking their way through various landscapes, narration letting us into the heads of characters who have become lost in thought or there will be wordless sequences where memories and dreams are played out with musical accompaniment. Yeo favours using a camera on a tripod and panning around scenes to gently follow action. While lyricism is nice, Yeo reaches a little too far at times and meaning is obscured.
The film becomes more impactful as Ms. Lim gets the students political to dive back into the history of Asia and give presentations on revolutionary and reactionary movements such as the 1976 Thammasat University Massacre in Thailand and the plight of the Karayuki-san in Malaysia. Archive footage projected on to a wall, photographs of victims give a sense of what Ms Lim hopes to evoke, forgotten stories, places, and people affected by the predations of crooks and dictators being brought back to life as the relentless tides of history threaten to wash them away. One senses that the characters find resonance with stories of other youngsters caught up in the violent eruption of fascism throughout history. Interestingly, Malaysia has its own censorious government and draconian laws so this film could be construed as an act of protest.
When these political issues are poured into the narrative, others, such as the ecological and economic impact of the plant, trickle away. Violence is a natural crescendo and while it is disturbing to see, it is also a little banal in execution. However, the film’s finale affords a strange sense of satisfaction as we realise that time and tide are relentless. All we can do is try to stay afloat.