While watching his pupil spar, the martial arts master instructs, “Trust your instinct, feel your own body. Only then you can express yourself…” “Sifu,” the pupil replies, “What is myself?”
The scene above captures the premise of Barbarian Invasion, a film written and directed by Tan Chui Mui, who also plays its lead role. The film follows the comeback of the critically acclaimed actress, Moon Lee, whose career has been on hiatus since the birth of her son and an acrimonious divorce with her husband. With her son in tow, Moon sets off to meet the film director and erstwhile collaborator, Roger Woo, at a seaside location, where his next production will be shot. Roger persuades Moon to star in his action movie, which subjects her to a gruelling physical training with a martial arts practitioner. Her preparation for the role serves as a vehicle for exploring questions about the self and the relationship between mind and body. As the sifu’s startling response to his pupil’s question suggests, the answer arrives via a force beyond the self that is perhaps unnecessarily violent.
Explored through the figure of a single mother working in the all-consuming world of movie making, the film turns the well-worn metaphysical mind-body question inside out, foregoing an inward, navel-gazing search for identity to observe instead how gender inflects social, power relations. Moon’s return to work may in part be an act of resistance against societal pressures on mothers to define their sense of self entirely through their children. However, rather than providing a counterbalance to her personal life, her professional work is yet another realm where her desires give way to the gentle coercions of a director determined to get his way. The film thus depicts the conundrum of defining what makes the “I” if one’s autonomy is always already compromised by forces external to the self. In this regard, it revisits a theme addressed in Tan’s first feature film, Love Conquers All (2006), that of how a female protagonist’s efforts to live life on her own terms eventually comply with a script that has already been written out for her.
Barbarian Invasion ingeniously uses the vehicle of the action movie genre not only to explore the existential queries it poses, but to reflect on the cinematic medium itself. Roger’s film is a Southeast Asian version of the Hollywood commercial hit, The Bourne Identity, a spy thriller about a CIA assassin suffering from amnesia in search of his identity. Whereas Moon’s preparation for the film’s lead role is the means for re-discovering herself after the life-altering experiences of motherhood and a failed marriage, the part she plays also surfaces questions about the nature of the acting profession. Like the action hero whose self, being vacated of memory, is sheer physicality, is the work of an actor to empty one’s self, even if it involves compromising one’s needs and desires, to serve the greater goal of art?
The film’s most stimulating aspect, for me, is how it weaves ruminations of the self with reflections on the history of independent cinema in Malaysia without offering any pat insights. Tan is often one of the few women directors named amongst the male-dominated cohort of Malaysian New Wave filmmakers—key figures include Amir Muhammad, Deepak Kumaran Menon, Ho Yuhang, James Lee, Liew Seng Tat, Woo Ming Jin, and Yasmin Ahmad—that emerged in the early 2000s. Loosely defined by its low-budget, formally experimental nature, Malaysian New Wave cinema was made possible by the advent of digital technologies that made filmmaking more widely accessible, thereby allowing filmmakers to work outside the constraints of state-supported institutions and commercially driven production houses. The work of these directors garnered international attention, particularly in the arthouse international film festival circuit and became the face of Malaysian cinema abroad even as their works mostly had a limited reach at home.
Barbarian Invasion’s film-within-a-film structure occasions a self-reflexive look at the current state of independent cinema two decades after it arrived on the scene. The choices and challenges that Roger faces in making his movie capture those experienced by filmmakers in the region. His copying a Hollywood franchise movie might be read as a capitulation to market pressures to reproduce formulas that sell, a decision that invites the criticism that Southeast Asian filmmakers lack originality. The film also alludes to how transnational funding might create opportunities but also lead the director to betray his local artistic commitments.
Hollywood hits and Chinese wuxia pian (martial arts films) feature prominently as major influences in the region’s film culture, as evident by the numerous references sprinkled throughout the movie. The character Moon Lee, for example, is named after the Hong Kong actress renowned for performing her own stunts in action movies during the 1980s and 1990s.
While purists might see these popular global film cultures as diluting the distinctiveness of Southeast Asian cinema, however it might be defined, the film embraces them wholeheartedly as if to assert that the region thrives by absorbing and remixing influences from all over the world. This point is further emphasised by the dizzying array of languages spoken in the film as well as eclectic blend of cultures, most delightfully exemplified in the periodic appearance of a Tamil-speaking Buddhist monk who beatifically quips from the Wachowskis’ The Matrix.
Though cultural hybridity and diversity are definitive characteristics of Southeast Asia, arguably the most meaningful sense of the region’s cinema that Barbarian Invasion offers is its tribute to place and the meanings, stories, and histories it holds. Shot on location along the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, the South China Sea is a poetic visual presence in the film, as was the case in Tan’s previous feature film, Year Without A Summer (2010). A brief sequence featuring the arrival of refugees by boat gestures towards how the sea entwines histories separated by man-made borders of the nation-state. Throughout the film, the more-than-human life force that is the sea appears in pivotal moments of change, play, danger, death, and rebirth.
Barbarian Invasion effectively challenges the idea that arthouse and action cinemas don’t sit well together, and marks yet another effort by Malaysian New Wave filmmakers in experimenting with more commercially viable genres. The movie’s success in presenting a coherent vision with a myriad of generic elements is the result of an intricately layered, intellectually sophisticated script that does not take its philosophical queries too seriously.
With this film along with the rest of her oeuvre, Tan has undoubtedly established herself as an auteur. Film making, however, is rarely a solo endeavour. The involvement of Malaysian New Wave veterans in the production alongside emerging production talents underscore the team-oriented nature of movie making. The film’s producer Woo Ming Jin, who most recently directed the horror flick, Zombitopia (2021), makes a cameo appearance in the concluding scenes of film crew working behind the scenes. Pete Teo, a familiar onscreen presence in Malaysian arthouse films, offers a subtle performance as the single-minded director, Roger. As the film’s action director, James Lee—who recently directed his own action thriller, Kill-Fist (2018)—delivers tightly choreographed fight sequences that showcase the body’s physical prowess and inherent vulnerability. His casting as Moon’s enigmatic trainer, Master Loh, and the mainstream actor Bront Palarae in the role of Moon’s box-office magnet co-star are astute choices that enhance the film’s metacinematic quality. The fine editing work by Wong Kai Yun is augmented by the suspenseful musical score composed by Kamal Sabran using a blend of Malay, Chinese, and Indian instruments with electronic sound.
Barbarian Invasion is an ode to cinema. Yet, in exploring how the process of filmmaking—not just its end product–reflects life itself, the film is also a quiet acknowledgment of the demanding sacrifices that the craft demands from its practitioners. Films like this, which are the culmination of years of grit and dedication and signal much promise for the future of Southeast Asia cinema, ought to prompt greater efforts in producing a more nurturing, supportive environment for film talents in the region.
Barbarian Invasion by Tan Chui Mui will screen at the Singapore International Film Festival 2021 on 29 November and 1 December. Tickets to catch the film are still available.