Edmund Yeo’s sophomore feature, Aqerat, had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival 2017 where it scooped him the Best Director Award and earned leading lady Daphne Low the Tokyo Gemstone Award for emerging actors. It is in a similar vein to Yeo’s debut, River of Exploding Durians (2014), in that it uses art-house cinema sensibilities to relay a tale remaining rooted in real world concerns in multi-cultural Malaysia. Here, Yeo takes the persecution of the Rohingya population in Myanmar as a backdrop for a working class woman’s desperate attempt to escape living in limbo.
Low, returning from River of Exploding Durians, plays Hui Ling, an ethnically Chinese woman in a small backwater town somewhere on the Thai-Malaysian border. It is a place on the fringes of a jungle where time moves slowly and people and places fade away in the foliage. Hui Ling resists living in stasis and steadfastly squirrels away money from a variety of small jobs in order to travel to Taiwan to improve her life. With her permafrown and brusque behaviour she isn’t a warm person but audiences will respect her determination to live as they see her shuttling through mind-numbing daily routines captured by Yeo on a handheld camera. We then sympathise when her bar hostess roommate’s boyfriend steals her savings.
Rage emerges before Hui Ling settles into deeper moroseness but that changes into an interesting mixture of curiosity and trepidation as she enters the lucrative world of people trafficking at the suggestion of her boss. Initially wary, we see her blossom into a smuggler.
Hui Ling’s role in handling boatloads of silent and shell-shocked Rohingya refugees fleeing violence in Myanmar is to photograph new arrivals and then demand a ransom fee from relatives already living in the jungle town. Those whose families cannot pay face torture and death.
Low works wonders at modulating her performance perfectly as we see a clear through-line for how Hui Ling goes from a girl desperate to escape limbo to one teetering on the brink of hell as she grows with quiet confidence, practising the motions of dealing with refugees and pilfering from corpses with small moments of pleasure over how much money she is making. We know pride comes before a fall and audience anticipation is stoked up.
As our stoic Hui Ling ploughs deeper into this brutal world, the audience is shown the ruthless people who cruelly and remorselessly police it and Yeo, retaining that handheld camera and natural lighting to generate a documentary-like feel and tension, has the audience and Hui Ling watching torture as she allows herself to be increasingly morally compromised in order to make money. Horror mounts until she finds herself unable to continue and becomes a target of her former gang and is forced to flee into the jungle with the refugees. Yeo then allows his art-house leanings to undercut tension and change the tone that has been built as long lyrical passages which feel inspired by Apichatpong Weerasethakul force the narrative to drift to a halt as time and space begin to get a little disjointed.
The jungle itself becomes something of a liminal space as the living and the dead, tangible ghosts, wondrous sights and Hui Ling’s real-world hardships merge together and the narrative goes off on a tangent when she is rescued by a romantic hospital orderly named Wei (Kahoe Hon), a young man nursing his own painful memories and seeking an uncompromised form of love. The film comes unstuck as it introduces his story and side-lines the present-tense narrative to retell his encounter with two young women from Kuala Lumpur who get stuck in town after one gets into an accident and ends up in hospital. While poetic and beautiful it offers a facile explanation for his attraction to Hui Ling and this extended flashback feels indulgent when it comes at the expense of the Rohingya who are mostly forgotten about.
The film tries to link up Hui Ling’s story with Wei’s as it returns to her escape from her former gang but the stylistic changes kill the thriller aspect of the story as a more poetic atmosphere dominates what had been brutally realistic. A wistful tone examining memories accompanies the way love awakens a vague desire to escape hell for the two lead characters and ends the film in a manner that leaves the narrative feeling unresolved. This sort of ending is a tough balancing act. It’s one that Yeo managed to land with his debut feature but doesn’t quite stick here as the meaning of various things disappears into the jungle with the refugees and memories.