Much of this movie happens in a language that will scare a whole lot of good ‘ol Americans. I don’t mean Chinese. It’s the language of silence. The setting takes place in a tiny fishing village in Malaysia. There are smoke stacks beyond the trees and garbage collects on the shore, but the village itself is trapped in time, its residents occupied by the day-to-day tasks of catching, gutting and drying fish.
In this quiet, structured setting, the simplest dialog can cast deep foreboding. In its first scene, a young man, Ah Fei (Ernest Chong), is with his father, Ah Kau (Chung Kok-keong). Ah Fei asks his father if the old man will die soon. Ah Kau’s response is simple: yes, he will die soon.
Director Woo Ming-jin (Monday Morning Glory, The Elephant and the Sea) here deserves credit for giving his characters time to reveal themselves. One of the movie’s funniest scenes comes when Ah Kau visits the woman he has loved for decades, Ai Ling . What starts off as an honest confession of unrequited love turns abruptly when we find out that Ai Ling is still married to another man. The two then turn to discuss whether Ah Kau will outlive Ai Ling’s husband.
Still, for its careful pacing and simple-yet-beautiful style, this movie will not turn a box-office hit. This was never more apparent then when, after watching Woman on Fire at the Los Angeles Film Festival, I walked into my next screening: Cane Toads: The Conquest in 3D. I’m not making a judgement about either movie–simply commenting on the things people tend to spend their money on. On a related note, I’d like to point out that Woman on Fire contains the more graphic depiction of a decapitated frog.
That’s too bad (about the movie’s commercial success, not the dead frog). Woman on Fire Looks for Water can be riveting, especially in its depiction of young love between Ah Fei and Lily (Foo Fei-ling). Their interaction manages to be both charming and uncomfortable, always pure, but with the implication that such love rarely stands still. Woo Ming-jin said in an early interview that his film is primarily about longing. With longing comes regret, and at the core of this movie is the tragedy that Ah Fei might be on his way to becoming just like his father.
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to watch Woman on Fire Looks for Water on Sunday, 1:45pm at the LA Film Festival. I recommend it, but just make sure to go with the right expectations, which can be summed up as such: Jerrica Lai gives a great performance as a character that is the exact opposite of her last major role.
And let us know how you liked it!