Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Snow in Midsummer gets critical acclaim and screened outside of Malaysia -- but will it get what it deserves in its home country? (Film review)

Poster for Snow in Midsummer on display
at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre during
the 48th Hong Kong International Film Festival
Snow in Midsummer (Malaysia-Singapore-Taiwan, 2023)
- Chong Keat Aun, director, scriptwriter and co-music composer (with Yii Kah Hoe)
- Starring: Wan Fang, Pearlly Chua, Pauline Tan, Lim Koet Yenn
- Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Firebird Awards: Young Cinema Competition (Chinese Language) program
In my previous blog post (and review of Hollywoodgate), I mentioned there being a number of Hong Kong films that cannot be screened in national security law era Hong Kong -- yet my (still) being able to view many works from elsewhere that are banned in their home territories.  Snow in Midsummer may be one more such cinematic effort.  At the post screening Q&A I attended, its director-scriptwriter, Chong Keat Aun, said that he had submitted his drama about what he's called "a hidden wound in Malaysian history" to the Malaysian film censorship board -- but, as yet, had not heard back from them.
The same day that it screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, Snow in Midsummer was named as the winner of the Firebird Award in the Young Cinema Competition (Chinese language) section of the fest.  And it is set to begin its Hong Kong theatrical run tomorrow -- four days before the 55th anniversary of what's now known as the May 13th Incident (which I used to remember hearing about as the May 13th race riots -- since, in the Malaysian worldview, Malays, Chinese and Indians are different "races" (as opposed to ethnic groups) -- for what seemed like the longest time).   
Snow in Midsummer begins on May 13th, 1969. Ah Eng (played by Lim Koet Yenn) is a young girl of ethnic Chinese parentage who's a bullying victim at her Malay language (and presumably majority ethnic Malay) Kuala Lumpur primary school.  Her Nyonya mother, Su Mei (portrayed by Pauline Tan), wants her husband Kooi (essayed by Peter Yu) to get Ah Eng blessed by a medium of Datuk Kong -- but he chose to have a ritual performed on their son Yeow (played by Teoh Wei Hern) instead.
The relationship between Su Mei and Kooi appears on the strained side. So it came as no surprise that when Kooi gets two tickets to go watch a movie at the Majestic cinema that evening, he elects to take Yeow with him. The snub ends up saving Su Mei and Ah Eng's lives. Because, the Majestic cinema ends up becoming a massacre site that night -- while Su Mei and Ah Eng, who had contented themselves with going and watching an open air Cantonese opera performance by the temple where the medium of Datuk Kong had effectively held court, were saved by members of the Cantonese opera troupe (whose leader is played by Pearlly Chua) who let them hide backstage with them while others ran riot and murdered or were murdered.
Fast forward 49 years and Ah Eng (now portrayed by Wan Fang) is now a middle-aged woman living in Penang. After she learns about a soon-to-be demolished "513 cemetery" on the Kuala Lumpur outskirts, she decides -- over the objections of her husband (who comes across as rude and domineering as her father) to go there on the anniversary of the riots -- to see whether she can find the graves of her father and brother; something her grieving mother had been unable to do all these years. 
Snow in Midsummer's director, Chong Keat Aun, spoke about the difficulties of finding Malaysian actresses for his film on account of the continued sensitivites over the May 13th Incident.  And I can't help wondering if the character of Ah Eng would have been more loquacious  if she had been played by a Malaysian actress as an adult rather than a Taiwanese whose lines were largely in Mandarin (despite the film being multi-lingual -- using Hokkien, Cantonese and Malay (as well as English? I forget!) dialogue (whose English subtitles don't quite do them justice).
Alternatively, it might have been Chong Keat Aun's intention all along to get the audience figuring a lot of things out for themselves via visual and other cues.  Frankly, I think this is a big ask of Snow in Midsummer's audience since there really are a lot of things that require prior knowledge: of not only Malaysian history but Malaysian ethnic relations, local ethnic traditions and Cantonese opera.  
As an example: The movie's title refers to the Cantonese opera performed in the film whose theme concerns a grave miscarriage of justice -- something that Chong Keat Aun clearly believes has taken place not only with regards to what happened on May 13th, 1969, itself but, also, the neglect of its victims over the years. (On a perhaps related note: I also felt that Ah Eng and Su Mei were women who their husbands sought to control -- even oppress -- them, yet were actually strong characters in their own way, even while being much put upon!)
In any case, the work does appear to have struck a chord with film festival programmers and audience members at such as Venice (where it had its world premiere), Taiwan (where it was nominated for 9 Golden Horse Awards) and now also Hong Kong.  Still, I do believe that it's in Malaysia where Snow in Midsummer would most resonate.  We can but hope that it will be allowed to be screened there at some point in time -- and without the damaging cuts that removed its essence, the way that has happened to Cannes award winner Tiger Stripes!  

My rating for this film: 8.0

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