Film Review: ‘Fundamentally Happy’ Is Storytelling Stripped Down to Its Most Raw and Emotional Form7 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
Twenty years ago, Habiba and Eric were neighbours. When Eric revisits her home to find her still living there with her husband, what seems like a friendly reunion turns into the gradual revelation of a painful secret from the past.
Director: Lei Yuan Bin, Tan Bee Thiam
Cast: Adibah Noor, Joshua Lim
Country: Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia
Language: English, Malay
Runtime: 73 minutes
Fundamentally Happy was first a 2006 stage play by award-winning playwright Haresh Sharma and later in 2015, adapted into a film of the same name. The play won Best Production and Best Original Script at the Life! Theatre Awards in 2007 and was restaged in 2017.
When the film was released, it was banned in Malaysia due to the sensitive nature of its plot. The filmmakers, Tan Bee Thiam and Lei Yuan Bin later appealed against the ban but to no avail. What was so taboo about Fundamentally Happy’s story that resulted in this decision?
Fundamentally Happy is a complicated story told in the most stripped-down way possible. We meet Eric (Joshua Lim), a 30-year-old social worker who has flown back to Singapore because of his father’s death and, in the meantime, decides to visit an old neighbour from his childhood, Habiba (Adibah Noor). The film, like the play, uses just these two characters and takes place entirely within the four walls of Habiba’s house.
What begins as a delightful reunion between Eric and Habiba quickly spirals into something more sinister. Habiba retells the stories of how she used to look after Eric when he was a child and treated him just like a son, leading them to reminisce on these memories together. Habiba’s husband, who is referred to as uncle Ismail, also looked after Eric. But the film wastes no time in revealing that despite all these happy memories, uncle Ismail sexually assaulted Eric when he was a child.
There is more taking place off-screen than the film shows us, but when we see Eric and Habiba in the house, they fill us in on the details. Between scenes, we learn that Eric has gone to the police to file a report against uncle Ismail, an act that ruffles Habiba’s feathers. From the loving caretaker figure we saw just seconds ago, she is now cold and distant. She initially denies that the sexual assault happened, but later seems to go along with Eric’s claims and tries to turn the blame on him.
The film goes beyond its script to demonstrate the rift between our two characters. When we first meet Habiba, she dons a bright lavender headscarf, but when we meet her again after Eric files the police report, she is dressed in black from head to toe.
The use of lighting and space is another device that reflects the evolving relationship between Eric and Habiba throughout the film. We go from the comfort of the spacious living room, flooded by light coming through the windows, to the much more cramped and confined kitchen where our characters are occasionally shown simply from their silhouette.
Colours such as blue and green stand out the most, and the film takes place entirely while the rain is pouring outside, adding to the cold atmosphere of the house. Esteemed cinematographer Christopher Doyle, who has worked on films such as In the Mood For Love and Chungking Express, is also responsible for the cinematography in Fundamentally Happy. Here, Doyle creates an environment that looks familiar but feels almost as though it exists somewhere that is trapped in time.
The performances here by Adibah Noor and Joshua Lim also convey more than words can. From Habiba’s eyes, we can see her conflict and confusion, but her inner turmoil makes it difficult to read how she truly feels. She could be on the brink of tears at any moment, or perhaps she had already been crying off-screen. Meanwhile, Eric initially takes the moral high ground, but slowly we see this strength tear down, revealing that much of what he is showing on the outside is different from what he feels deep inside.
Haresh Sharma, who wrote the original screenplay, is no stranger to discussing societal issues and controversial topics in his plays. He touches on issues that we, as a conservative Asian society, still consider taboo, including HIV/AIDS, suicide, homosexuality, and paedophilia. His scripts centre around imperfect, conflicted, and broken characters that anyone would frown upon. Characters of different races, ages, and backgrounds find themselves connected to each other through their journey in understanding their flaws.
Although films on paedophilia and child sex abuse are not new, Fundamentally Happy brings an aspect that may hit closer to home by involving the discussion on religion, specifically Islam. Habiba wears her headscarf throughout the film and it is also stated that she teaches at a madrasah or an Islamic religious school. While Eric appears to be more secular, he calls out Habiba’s hypocrisy for preaching about religion while also turning a blind eye to things that go against its teachings.
Fundamentally Happy is not an easy watch. Old wounds become raw again for our characters, stinging just as much for the audience. The film recreates the inner conflict of our characters for its audience by being unashamed about their flaws, leaving us no side to take. The audience is also deprived of the real truth of what happened 20 years ago to Eric as both characters spar on whose account is accurate. Perhaps the only real truth to the story is that both Eric and Habiba have made their fair share of mistakes.
At just 73 minutes long, Fundamentally Happy is a wonderful example of storytelling in its simplest yet most direct forms. Two characters, one house, and a story of abuse are conveyed simply through the dialogue between our characters. The film embraces its brevity, leading to a razor-sharp script. What gives Fundamentally Happy its charm is its minimalism and its ability to focus not on flashy visuals, or quick-paced action, but rather on the very story it is trying to convey and how to bring out the most of that with as few distractions as possible.
Fundamentally Happy is now streaming on MUBI.
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