Malaysia probably doesn’t top anyone’s list when it comes to countries with prolific film production. However, with a diverse population, varied landscapes, and natural resource wealth, Malaysia doesn’t lack potential stories. One recent film that incorporates all three of those factors is Edmund Yeo’s 2014 River of Exploding Durians, which presents an artistic meditation of Malaysian society from an ethnic Chinese perspective.
Though Muslim ethnic Malays make up a slight majority (~50.8%) of Malaysia’s population, the country is also home to sizeable non-Malay ethnicities. Chief among these are the Chinese, whose ancestors mostly came from southern China during the Qing dynasty back when Malaysia was a British colony. Though ethnic Chinese represent only ~23% of Malaysia’s population, they control an outsize proportion of the nation’s economy (case in point: four of the five richest Malaysians are ethnic Chinese). This has cause resentment amongst the Malay majority, who control the government and have enacted pro-Malay affirmative action policies and instituted a dual legal system of secular and sharia laws. This has caused large numbers of Malaysian Chinese to emigrate in search of better opportunities elsewhere.
You could say River of Exploding Durians is, at multiple levels, an embodiment of this Malaysian Chinese struggle. Director Yeo currently lives in Japan, and much of the film’s cast is either based in or from Taiwan — a trend perhaps set by renowned director Tsai Ming-liang who, despite being a pioneer of Taiwanese New Wave cinema, actually grew up in Malaysia. The film consists of two semi-related stories which each reflect a different flavor of angst amongst their Mandarin-speaking characters.
The first story begins with two high school friends in a small coastal town. Mei Ann is the daughter of an impoverished fisherman, and Ming comes from a middle-class family that wants him to emigrate to Australia after graduation. Their town seems struck with malaise, partially because of a rare earth plant being built nearby that seems to already be polluting the environment. When Ming asks one day if life is better elsewhere, his father replies “do you even need to ask?”
One day, Mei Ann tells Ming that she’s going to be married off to a wealthier older man. This leads Ming to profess his love for Mei Ann and invite her to run away with him — an offer she accepts. The two journey first to the city and then to the countryside beyond, reminiscing about family and past memories in the process. Though this tale of star-crossed lovers has some philosophical moments, we can’t easily tell what message it’s trying to convey. There are numerous scenes — soldiers burning durian by a riverside, Ming having a moment with a karaoke bar waitress — that seem like they’re supposed to achieve some higher purpose but just end up being confusing instead.
The film’s second story, however, offers much meatier food for thought. We return to that same coastal town, where the focus shifts to a set of different characters who were in the background of the first story. We learn that Ms. Lim, Ming’s history teacher, moonlights as an activist against the rare earth plant being built near the town. Her top student Hui Ling becomes involved in this environmental crusade as well, and soon discovers the lengths to which Ms. Lim will go for the cause.
History and activism are particularly fraught topics in Malaysia, which makes this segment particularly intriguing. To this day, Malaysia heavily restricts public demonstrations and regularly censors materials that upset the political or religious (i.e. Islam) order. As a member of Ms. Lim’s merry band of activists reminds us, “this isn’t the United States, you can’t say whatever you want”. Whether it’s social injustice or political corruption, there’s plenty to protest about in Malaysia. However, if River of Exploding Durians directly addressed any of those issues, it’d probably become a target of Malaysia’s authorities. Thus, I suspect the film’s rare earth plant is a plausibly deniable stand-in that allows for a critique about Malaysian civil society.
What’s more is how, in this second story, Ms. Lim commissions her students to perform skits about Southeast Asian human rights incidents such as Thailand’s Thammasat University massacre and the killing of Liliosa Hilao in the Philippines. Besides being highly educational, these scenes create a thinly veiled implicit comparison to Malaysia’s political environment. Ms. Lim implores her students to wonder: “what is history?” Events from the past? Changes? A story, much like a film?
Though it stumbles somewhat in its first portion, River of Exploding Durians offers valuable insight into the complexities of Malaysian society, though obviously with a tilt towards ethnic Chinese. Especially in its second half, the film deploys elements both indigenous to Malaysia and familiar to Western audiences (ex. references to Russian literature) to pose thought-provoking questions of social significance. If you want to learn more about Malaysia, or whet your appetite for a comparison of Southeast Asian societies, River of Exploding Durians is a good place to start.
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River of Exploding Durians (Chinese: 榴梿忘返) — Dialog in Mandarin with occasional Malay. Directed by Edmund Yeo. First released October 24, 2014. Running time 2hr 8min. Starring Daphne Low, Jacqueline Zhu Zhi-ying, Koe Shern, Pearly Chua, and Joey Leong.