Melancholic and Powerful, ‘Buluomi’ Is an Ambitious Take on the Portrayal of Migrant Workers’ Alienation in Taiwan
For several decades, the Malayan Communist Party had fought a guerrilla war for independence in the jungles of Malaysia. Whilst this war lasted, they sent babies out of the jungle to ensure their survival. Boluomi is one of them. The past remains unknown until today. Yifan is a young Malaysian who left his country due to racial discrimination, and slowly he discovers his connection with Boluomi.
Directors: Vera Chen, Lau Kek Huat
Cast: Wu Nien-Hsuan, Laila Ulao, Vera Chen, Hsu Nai-han
Country: Taiwan, Malaysia
Language: Mandarin, Malay, English, Taiwanese Hokkien
Runtime: 108 minutes
Be it feature length or short films, stories about Southeast Asian migrant workers have been a popular theme in Taiwanese cinema. It’s understandably an enticing subject for filmmakers. On one hand, Taiwan prides itself as a bastion of democracy and human rights. On the other, there has been news aplenty of the mistreatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan.
With their narrative debut Buluomi 《菠蘿蜜》, Malaysian-born Taiwanese filmmaker Lau Kek Huat and Taiwanese director-actress Vera Chen interconnect the lives of three individuals stuck at the fringes of their societies across nationalities and time. The film may not present an exceedingly original take or perspective on the subject, but it does stand out for its ambition in storytelling methods.
Buluomi mainly centres on Yi-Fan (Wu Nien-Hsuan), a Malaysian youth studying in Taiwan disillusioned by his home country. His experience in Taiwan, it seems, is no better than the discrimination back home, frequently butting heads with the locals and having to take up odd jobs to stay afloat. He soon forms a close relationship with Laila (Laila Ulao), an illegal immigrant from the Philippines, with both looking to navigate life together despite their language barrier.
Where the film makes a bold leap is with how it looks to relate Yi-Fan’s experience with his estranged father’s childhood, who was born out of the Malayan Communist Party’s guerrilla war against the British in 1950s Malaysia. Taken on its own, the father’s experience is a sobering and rarely talked about look at the legacy left behind by the Malayan Communist Party’s struggle. Having been orphaned due to the conflict, his pain of having to bounce between different sets of parents and even religions is sharply felt.
Together with their links to the jackfruit (the film’s namesake), the goal seems clear: despite their various differences, they reach out to a similar longing which altogether grasps at some form of cosmic significance. It’s a demanding balancing act that slightly falters due to its execution.
Its faults mainly lie with how the memories of Yi-Fan’s father are presented. Transitioning through daydreams and awakenings, there is a strong visual impression that those memories belong to Yi-Fan and not his father. Frankly, it wasn’t until I tallied up the timeline when I realised that the flashbacks weren’t of Yi-Fan’s own – yet even then Even with a few visual motifs that look to solidify the link, the lack of clarity muddles the film’s attempt at an overarching message – which is already vague in it of itself.
The budding relationship between Yi-Fan and Laila is the heart of the film, especially with strong performances from both leads. They share a tried and true story of kindred spirits in a foreign land albeit here painted with a thick brush of gloom. While overpowering, the film’s melancholy does heighten the rare and brief glimpses of genuine happiness that the two foreigners share. Another clear highlight is the friendship forged between Laila and fellow illegal immigrant Vietnamese Shue-Er (Hsu Nai-han) which details their invisible stories in Taiwan before their relationship culminates in an absolutely heartbreaking scene of despair.
Film language wise, Boluomi moves and frames itself like an outsider, with the camera uneasily swaying back and forth peering into these hidden lives. Meanwhile, the film’s colour palette, glowing in light pastels in the present and sepia tones in the past, furthers the dreamlike tone Buluomi strives towards. The film is a calculated mix of techniques that does well in complementing its heavy tale.
Buluomi is an impressive and bold directorial debut that continues the necessary conversation of the ill-treatment of Southeast Asian migrant workers in Taiwan. Dedicating the film to his grandparents, it is crystal clear that Lau’s heart is in the right place particularly with the heartfelt and heartrending portrayal of Malaysia’s hidden past. However, the film’s three stories more often than not feels too separate to tie together into a neat knot. But perhaps that is the intention.
The film does suffer from a general lack of clarity and a barrage of melancholy which would require a bit of patience to reach the payoffs. Buluomi superbly executes its high points, yet it feels like the film was based around those beats instead of having its narrative organically reach those moments. Still, when these stories connect, the effect is magical.
Watch the film’s trailer here:
Catch Buluomi at this year’s Singapore Chinese Film Festival on Sunday, 4 October, 1pm at Filmgarde Cineplex – Bugis.
About the Singapore Chinese Film Festival
Running from 2 to 11 October, the eighth edition of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival will be showcasing 33 films through a mix of physical and online screenings. For the festival’s full schedule and purchase of tickets, visit its official website at scff.sg and follow the festival’s Facebook page for the latest updates, including details of post-screening Q&As.
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