Film Review: ‘The Story of Southern Islet’ 《南巫》Awes With Its Intricate Cultural Tapestry6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Cheong, a Chinese man, falls sick after a row with his neighbour. His wife Yan desperately seeks a cure for him. Throughout the journey, Yan endures strange encounters and unearthly experiences. Finally, Yan is convinced that she should seek help from the village shaman. Mysteries, legends, and shamanism surround Yan, with unknowns yet to be solved.
Director: Chong Keat Aun
Cast: Jojo Goh, Season Chee, Pearlly Chua, Ling Tang, Hoon Mei Sim
Language: Hokkien, Mandarin, Malay
Runtime: 106 mins
In 2020, director Chong Keat Aun made headlines for winning Best New Director at the Golden Horse Awards, triumphing over a particularly strong field of contenders. Soon afterwards, he made headlines again when his winning film The Story of Southern Islet 《南巫》was to be censored for its screening at the 4th Malaysian International Film Festival.
The decision, necessitated by authorities for references to traditional folklore which were contrary to Islamic teachings, feels all the more puzzling after watching the film. It seems that, above all else, The Story of Southern Islet looks to celebrate Malaysia’s cultural diversity and cultural roots. Invoking a supernatural world consisting of deities and beings across three cultures, perhaps the film’s greatest triumph — even above its remarkable film language — is in its elegant demonstration of how this plurality can co-exist.
Based on the childhood memories of director Chong, The Story of Southern Islet follows Yan (Jojo Goh) as she searches for a cure for her husband Chang’s (Season Chee) mysterious ailment — bedridden, vomiting nails, and spending all his remaining energy rambling about impending supernatural doom. A devout observer of folklore, Chong suspects that he was cursed by their Thai neighbour, widowed after an altercation between them. The Western-educated out-of-towner Yan has her doubts. However, her journey to find a cure brings her uncomfortably close to the supernatural denizens of the land.
The film’s censure might lead to an unintended Streisand effect. It near effortlessly pulls the audience in with its alluring mystery set amidst the scenic Kedah countryside. Bordering Thailand, the Malaysian state is a cultural cross juncture of Chinese, Malay and Thai. With the care in detailing their folklore and practices, particularly of Wayang Kulit Gedek and Kedah’s Gunung Keriang, the film provokes curiosity for the very culture threatened by erasure.
That said, The Story of Southern Islet is not a horror film. Even when visual references do pop up, the beings peacefully — and even gracefully — manoeuvre with a clear familiarity of the land; they do not come to invade as much as they are already at home.
What is comparatively more menacing are the political spectres. Set in 1987, the film features news reports of the Malaysian government’s policies of the time, made all the more eerie with today’s hindsight. For Malaysian Chinese, the year might spark resentment of the government’s closure of Chinese media outlets, how Chinese schools were sent non-Chinese-educated teachers for senior positions, and Operation Lalang.
These references veer from directly addressing the racial tensions of the time. There is a sense that the film looks to draw parallels between the Malaysian Chinese experience with the film’s supernatural plot. However, these might, unfortunately, be too far-flung for those without prior knowledge of history, leaving the issues to seem more akin to an ominous backdrop appropriate for the time.
What is never lost is the film’s narrative flow. Yan starts out a sceptic, looking to cure her husband’s ailment with Western medicine, before having to visit and try each culture’s pantheon for a solution. All of them centre around Kedah’s Gunung Keriang, an elephant mountain surrounded by paddy fields, with different cultural interpretations of its origins. As her scepticism sheds, so does the audience’s, with mounting visual references of the supernatural to accompany her exhausted mind state.
None of the pantheons emerges over the other; if anything, each complements the other, weaving an intricate tapestry unique to the land. The Story of Southern Islet celebrates the ability for cultures to intermingle while also ensuring that the supernatural space amongst the populace is broad enough for each to co-exist.
Adding to the pace is the film’s cinematography, devoted to bringing out the tale and setting’s naturalism. Camera movements are kept to a minimum with sparse cuts; slight pans are most of what is afforded. The frame only opens up to shrink itself against the towering beauty of Kedah’s natural landscape. It’s a patient pace that adds a near-voyeuristic element to the mix.
Performances, however, fall short of fully capitalizing on the film’s stage; they remain solid but unexceptional. The film’s plot does present a big ask. Characters’ emotions are mainly internalised with little to no room for big emotional moments. However, the resulting performances leave characters to feel too distant. Goh and Chee lack the chemistry of a husband-and-wife duo, leaving Yan’s journey without urgency.
The Story of Southern Islet is a gorgeous film that remains graceful in its pace and presentation of a slice of Malaysian life threatened to be forgotten. No doubt, it’s an important film. But it can’t completely shake off the label of being a curio. Writing, camera work, sound — excellent all around. The folklores brought up, packaged in plenty of memorable moments, are great. But not so much for the film’s execution of an underwise solid narrative, bogged down by less-than-stellar performances.
Nevertheless, the curiosity of the cultures highlighted after watching The Story of Southern Islet bears repeating. Nobody, except a filmmaker with a deep love for his hometown, could make a film like this.
Catch The Story of Southern Islet tomorrow, 8 May 2021, as part of Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2021 (SCFF2021). Visit here for more information on the screenings. Follow the festival’s Facebook page for all the latest updates.
About Singapore Chinese Film Festival 2021
The 9th edition of the Singapore Chinese Film Festival returns with a broad selection of Chinese cinema from across Asia. Held from 30 April to 9 May, SCFF2021 will feature a mix of physical and digital screenings. For tickets and full details on the festival’s lineup, visit its official website https://scff.sg/