Abang Adik means “elder brother younger sibling” in Malay. The two brothers depicted in the movie are not even related by blood but underscore their symbiotic relationship in ways that can put real brothers to shame.
The movie takes a long, hard look at a pair of undocumented orphans and the disenfranchised in Pudu, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Abang (Wu Kang-ren) is a deaf mute and is resigned to a life of poverty, while Adi (Jack Tan), Abang’s younger sibling, seethes with indignation. Their bond will be tested by a tragedy.
Movies have the inherent power to make one empathise with a fellow human being. I sat in my seat recalling the complaints that bombarded my social media that day: increased food prices, the necessity to change to a new stored-value card for travel, the perpetual rainy weather causing clothes to not dry and so on. We sit in our little cloistered worlds thinking why life is unfair, when there are people in the world who constantly have to look over their shoulder and live in constant fear of being arrested. We take our citizenship and the privileges that come with it as entitlements. Without an identification card, Abang and Adik can’t open a bank account, can’t learn a trade, can’t have a motorcycle license and the list goes on. They have no rights and face exploitation and persecution every day. All of a sudden, our problems become so minuscule and trivial compared to what they have to go through every moment of their lives.
I chanced upon an interview with the writer-director Jin Ong and he was asked where did his inspiration for the story come from. He answered in mandarin that it was the words of a stateless citizen after he was arrested that haunted him: “我在这里活了怎么久，钱包里还是没有一张卡有我的照片” (I have lived in this country for so long and yet I do not have an identification card). The words hit me, hard.
This is Jin Ong’s debut and it is a piece of laudable cinema, shining a light on the marginalised, disenfranchised, transgender people, migrant workers, refugees and stateless citizens. It gives credence to the invisible people floundering at the seams of a modern metropolis which has forgotten them. The system has failed them.
The movie lives and breathes on the chemistry of the two actors who played the brothers and their chemistry is palpable. Wu Kang-ren won the Golden Horse Award for his lead performance as a gentle deaf-mute which is basically an awards bait role. Any excuse that he won because of the role goes out the window when you see him in a scene expounding on the injustice of it all. If your heart doesn’t shatter at that pivotal scene, you are probably not human. Jack Tan who plays the younger sibling is less convincing and vacillates in his reckless behaviour. But together, they feed off each other. How Abang continues to set a good example for Adik is particularly heartwarming, all the more so when he has every reason to hate the system.
I saw the movie on opening night and the stars were there to grace the occasion before the movie. It would have been far better if they had appeared after the screening because Choo and I both had a nagging question on Abang’s character motivation in the final act. Normally, I would hate the attention but for an itch I couldn’t scratch I would have asked the question during the full house screening.
For all it was worth, I didn’t think the movie suffered too much because of it, especially when the performances are so compelling. It is ultimately still a socially conscious work filled with vivid characters. A movie that could make me count my blessings has to have gotten many things right.
4 / 5