Three Adventures of Brooke (China/Malaysia, 2018)

It is not often that one sees a first-time writer/director come up with a film as daring and fresh as Qing Yuan’s Three Adventures of Brooke. Combining both Eastern and Western sensibilities in an unconventional narrative structure, Three Adventures of Brooke is a slice-of-life drama that experiments with form without sacrificing its charm or likeability.

As the title suggests, the film consists of three vignettes, three alternate realities, all of which evolve around the same inciting incident on June 30th, when Brooke (Xu Fangyi) punctures her bicycle tire in the middle of a country road. Each alternative scenario offers Brooke a different way out of her predicament, along with a unique experience of Alor Setar, the Malaysian city which she visits.

In the first part, Brooke has the good fortune to meet Ailing (played by Malaysian actor/singer Ribbon Ooi), a local young woman who helps Brooke fix her tire. Over the next few days, the two women enjoy exploring the countryside together until they come to clashes on a unique piece of crystal that Brooke buys from a gift shop. Brooke thinks it’s worth the outrageous price, while Ailing believes it’s a tourist rip-off, even though both agree that it’s a remarkable item.

In the shorter second part, Brooke encounters local city councilor, Fong (Kam Kia Kee) and his entourage, who agree to give her a ride to the bike-repair shop. Upon finding out she’s an anthropologist, the locals enlist Brooke’s help in a proposed gentrification of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, something that they hope will attract more tourists to the city. Along the way, we find out that Alor Setar means “starry brook,” which is also the translation of Brooke’s Chinese name, Xingxi. However, nobody knows whether this “starry brook” really exists and why the city was given that name. The adventure concludes with a series of back-and-forth exchanges among the group regarding the benefits and drawbacks of modernization.

In the last adventure, Brooke meets a French writer, Pierre (played by veteran actor Pascal Gregory), who’s traveling around the world to rekindle his  inspiration. Both Pierre and Brooke are like fishes out of water, searching for something they think will inject meaning into their lives. Eventually, Brooke feels comfortable enough to open up to Pierre about the real motive for her visit to Alor Setar, something that was masterfully hinted but not revealed in the previous segments. When her search for the “starry brook” (the namesake of the city) ends in disappointment, she joins Pierre in his quest to find something called, “blue tears.” They don’t know if such a thing even exists, but in the search, Brooke is able to make peace with her traumatic past.

While all three segments weave together in an exquisitely harmonious whole, the third part is likely to be the film’s memorable story, thanks in part to Gregory’s charismatic presence. His casual and carefree demeanor is the perfect counterpart for Brooke’s rather detached personality, as though he was tailor made to be her confessor. Despite their age and cultural differences, their quasi-romantic (it’s never made clear) relationship feels grounded and believable. The third part also exhibits a few noticeable changes in tone and style, for example the switch to English dialogue, or the longer takes and meandering camera movements. 

Along the same lines, the third segment is also the most ambitious and intellectually charged of the three. Unlike parts one and two, Brooke undergoes a noticeably transformative character arc as she gets closer to Pierre, leading up to the revelation about her traumatic past. The conversations between Brooke and Pierre constantly hint at something deep and profound, although the English dialogue that accompanies doesn’t quite keep up. Something is lost in translation. Besides a few lines that sound like sophomoric new-age nonsense (“You know that guy Einstein? He said all things are energy….”), a lot of the dialogue feels strangely abstract, more vague than profound. The intention almost always comes through, but the awkward dialogue is enough of a distraction to an English speaker that it’s bound to raise an eyebrow or two.

The film’s cinematography, on the other hand, is nearly flawless, always stunning yet never so flashy as to take the attention away from the actors. This is Brooke’s story, and she aptly remains at the center of it. I always find it refreshing when filmmakers know how to use their location effectively and Qing and her cinematographer certainly do that here.

Three Adventures of Brooke, like any artistic experiment, will falter in some places. Nevertheless, it offers an overall journey that is not only satisfying, but also enlightening provided you allow yourself to be invested in it.