This is a movie review of ‘Abang Adik’, a recently released Malaysian film produced by MM2 entertainment.
First off, let me start with what it isn’t. Jin Ong’s film, Abang Adik is not a “Chinese” movie.
Nor is it your local gangster flick about KL’s gritty underworld, although the film’s promotional posters and initial scenes gave me that vibe.
It also isn’t a tear-jerker for the sake of it, nor is it a film centred around advocacy for the differently-abled, or stateless and undocumented people of Malaysia.
That said, all these elements are contained in the film’s narrative and so carefully woven into the portrayal, that it would be hard for anyone not to think about those things after watching the movie.
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What Abang Adik is, many times over, is an award-winning Malaysian film. One that is worthy of global attention and deserving of all the merits it has picked up since its initial release on 19 March 2023 and premieres in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Malaysia on December 1, December 7 and December 14 respectively.
It comes as no surprise that in its very first weekend, Abang Adik quickly took charge of Taiwan’s box office, earning NTD15 million (RM2.2 million) in just three days. This achievement made it the first Malaysian film to lead the rankings in Taiwan’s box office history.
Despite this news, I hadn’t made any serious plans to watch this film, but the ensuing positive reactions by friends on social media sparked my interest.
Still, when I stepped into the cinema, I had kept my expectations low. I never expected to step out of it, as an immediate and ardent fan.
I believe this masterpiece of audio-visual storytelling must have been the result of a harmonious collaboration between the diverse creators of the film.
I am particularly mesmerized by writer and director, Jin Ong’s use of simple and repetitive devices that add layers of colour and tone to each of the characters in focus.
What started as an unusual way to de-shell a hard-boiled egg, became a private joke between brothers, which turns out to be a bonding ritual and eventually, a final parting act of love.
A shirt, a scarf, and passport photos slit into a mirror on the wall, all became vessels of love between Abang Adik.
Every scene held deep meaning and relevance to move the plot along, and each of them was magically brought to life by the cinematography of Mumbai-born, Kartik Vijay.
Kartik deserves special credit for showing us the rawness of Kuala Lumpur without taking away its charm. It was a surreal experience to see the familiar alleyways and buildings of the Malaysian capital magnified on the silver screen.
When I say that Abang Adik isn’t a “Chinese” movie, it is because so many poignant parts of the film were conveyed without the need for spoken words.
While we might need to read the subtitles to decipher the sign-language portions of the film, there was plenty of thoughtful imagery that strengthened the film; the view of the Pudu market against a backdrop of skyscrapers, flowers laid atop blood on the floor, lights out as the call of the azan reverberates, and a scarf that flies off into the wind.
The pathos of all these wordless scenes became even more palpable, through the simplicity and elegance of the music score by Malaysian-Japanese composer, Ryota Katayama.
Ultimately, Abang Adik is a love story, between the protagonist, Abang and the antagonist and foil, Adi or Adik. Note that Adi is a term of endearment in Mandarin that affectionately refers to a younger brother.
Taiwanese actor, Kang Ren Wu delivers a powerful performance as Abang, the hero who upholds his moral code until the end, while Jack Tan’s Adi is the narcissist, who could only ever experience love through Abang.
It is a love story of a motherly transgender, who looked out for two young ones not of her kin, despite the hardships all of them were in. Tan Kim Wang’s portrayal in the supporting role as Miss Money wasn’t merely a superficial inclusion; instead, it significantly contributed to enriching and fortifying the overall narrative.
The women in the film, portrayed by Serene Lim as the social worker Jia En and April Chan as Abang’s love interest from Myanmar, (denoted from the Thanaka paste on her cheeks) played pivotal roles in the storyline. However, the movie didn’t primarily revolve around their characters, despite their intriguing portrayal with better prospects than the male characters.
The contrast between the two female roles was in their social standing; Jia En, originating from a privileged background, had the liberty to choose her career path but tragically met an untimely end. Conversely, April Chan’s character had no control over her living situation or romantic decisions, becoming a victim of circumstances beyond her influence.
Therefore, the primary antagonist that prominently surfaces in the film is the unjust system of oppression, manifested through economic disparity, legislative shortcomings, and bureaucratic failures.
To me, it was rather ingenious of Jin Ong, in his directorial debut, to have successfully subverted the narrative against the prevalent myth of the “all rich and privileged Chinese” without provoking the capricious whims of Malaysia’s censorship board.
This is why, it matters who watches this film. And why I believe, it’s an important film that all Malaysians must watch to see for themselves, to know, and feel and empathise.
Cover image sourced from abangadikthemovie.