“Shuttle Life 《分贝人生》”: Grief and Powerlessness in Modern Malaysia

Bold and unrelenting, Shuttle Life 《分贝人生》is an emotionally-charged social drama about Malaysia’s urban poor, offering a poignant insight into privilege and powerlessness in modern Kuala Lumpur. Featuring strong performances and gritty cinematography, the film marks an award-winning feature debut for director Tang Seng Kiat, clinching Best Film, Best Actor and Best Cinematography in the Asian New Talent Award 2017 at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Shuttle Life follows a family’s journey in the wake of tragedy and loss, when Hui Shan is killed in a hit-and-run accident on her sixth birthday. After the accident, Qiang, her 19-year-old brother, wakes up in the hospital, dazed, before realising Hui Shan did not make it. Unable to claim her body from the morgue as she was never registered at birth, Qiang desperately seeks (often illegal) means to accumulate money to make a fake birth certificate, while fighting an uphill battle against bureaucracy and struggling to support his mentally unstable mother.

The film features naturalistic performances from its stellar cast comprising pop singer and actor Jack Tan as Qiang, Taiwanese actress-director Sylvia Chang as his mentally unstable mother, and an endearing Angel Chan as Hui Shan. Jack’s and Angel’s natural on-screen chemistry creates a heart-warming relationship between Qiang and Hui Shan. It is one that is innocent yet incredibly mature –  from silently camping out in a toilet cubicle until the coast is clear so they can steal water from the communal tub, to picking out a cake for Hui Shan’s birthday together with Qiang’s friends. Angel’s mischievousness and ability to evoke laughter in both the film’s characters and the audience makes Hui Shan’s eventual absence and Qiang’s grief felt more strongly.

Sylvia Chang

Sylvia’s wrenching portrayal of mental illness, particularly of a mother coping with the trauma of losing her daughter, is also commendable. Her varied emotional responses tug on the audience’s heartstrings: from her initial denial of Hui Shan’s death, to irrationally stealing water from her neighbours instead of getting it from the water truck downstairs, and using it to frantically scrub her daughter’s clothing.

Meanwhile, Qiang grapples with anger, guilt and an inability to shake off the events leading up to the accident, going to the extent of retracing his steps and recreating the day of the accident. He ricochets between lashing out at his mother when she lapses into an episode, and softening, caring for her with tenderness. In one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes, his mother goes into a frenzy, throwing objects and hurling abuses at him, and he responds by tying her up and leaving her restrained at home to keep her safe while he leaves to buy medicine. He returns later with her favourite noodles, unties her, and gently pops the pills into her mouth, before they both break down and mourn for Hui Shan. Jack’s interpretation and presentation of Qiang’s difficult situation is thoroughly engaging, and his emotions come across as powerful and genuine throughout the film as he interacts with the various characters.

Jack Tan and Sylvia Chang

Ko-Chin Chen’s gritty cinematography and Lim Chik Fong’s production design, which create a realistic atmosphere, and effectively set the characters against the backdrop of a harsh, unforgiving environment both stand out. In the film’s memorable opening sequence, the camera pans up the metal structures of a half-constructed high-rise building, as Qiang makes his way up gradually, climbing onto the roof with a bunch of empty water bottles and containers, only to find the building’s tank devoid of water. He stands alone in the huge, dry room, surrounded by the croaking of frogs, before the camera cuts to the next scene.

The opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the film, where the feeling of helplessness and desperation only intensifies as the story progresses. A lot of this is conveyed through the juxtaposition between the lives of Malaysia’s rich and poor, from the lengths Qiang goes to to collect water, to navigating his motorbike through a sea of cars. This juxtaposition is most effective when implied; there are some scenes where it comes across as a little forced, such as when Qiang’s friend, Xiao Chuan, takes him and his friends to an obnoxiously opulent birthday party, and the seemingly random demolition of a few shanty dwellings with little context provided.

Jack Tan (right)

The cinematography and production design are especially effective in communicating Hui Shan’s absence, making loss deeply felt among both the characters and audience. Through a series of well-framed close-up shots, for example, the film features a poignant sequence focusing on the items that remind Qiang of Hui Shan. In one scene, he hops onto his motorbike and picks up the yellow helmet Hui Shan drew on, stares at it for a moment before putting it away. He then drives to the morgue as the camera lingers on Hui Shan’s doll sitting snugly in a bag slung across his back, referencing how his sister used to ride behind him previously. Later, he takes the elevator up while the camera focuses on the plastic bag containing a box of cake, which he’d just bought from the shop he took Hui Shan to the night she died.

Meanwhile, back at home, his mother sits in the living room alone in the dark (the electricity was cut because they haven’t paid their bills), staring into space. This particular shot also captures several items of clothing hanging loosely from a pole near the ceiling, devoid of the bodies that inhabit them, their hollowness reminiscent of Hui Shan’s departure.

Often, I caught myself having to remember that I was watching a film, because Shuttle Life does such an excellent job of plunging the audience into the lives of the characters, from the cinematography and direction to the scripting and delivery. Although shot from a third-person point-of-view, the film captures the perspectives and emotions of the different characters so well, evoking empathy and sympathy in the audience, while simultaneously highlighting the vulnerability and resilience of human nature.

The subtle, open-ended final scene depicts Qiang and his mother sitting in a car he stole, as rain beats down around them. With furrowed brows, Qiang drives on, to nowhere in particular, while his mother munches on chicken wings he took away from the party buffet. The Malay folk song Hui Shan sang earlier in the film “Gelang Sipaku Gelang” plays in the background, a befitting way to wrap up the film. “Mari pulang, marilah pulang bersama-sama (let’s go home together)”, she sings, but all we’re left with is her haunting voice, and the knowledge that home will never be the same again for Qiang and his mother.

Shuttle Life 《分贝人生》 (Malaysia, 2017) is the first feature film from Malaysian filmmaker Tan Seng Kiat. It has won accolades at Shanghai International Film & TV Festival 2017 and the Malaysian Film Festival 2017. It was screened at the Singapore International Film Festival 2017 on 28 November and 1 December. All images within this article are courtesy of Singapore International Film Festival.

About the author(s)

Sherlyn Goh is a communications consultant and content creator by day. Outside of work, she performs at literary events and has launched exhibitions that marry non-fiction writing with curation and interactive digital storytelling. Her work has been published in literary journals and anthologies including This Is Not A Safety Barrier and OF ZOOs, and she has showcased at the Singapore Writers Festival and ArtScience Museum, among others. Sherlyn has a keen appreciation for Southeast Asian heritage, and is currently working on an interdisciplinary art project exploring the heritage of Haw Par Villa.

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