River of Exploding Durians storms Tokyo’s 27th International Film Festival

The World Premiere of The Cast of River of Exploding Durians.
Pictured: the cast at Roppongi Hills Friday 24th October

River of Exploding Durians storms Tokyo’s 27th International Film Festival

Yesterday night saw the world premiere of River of Exploding Durians, a brave Malaysian production  written and directed by young film director Edmund Yeo.

The film is a trilingual wonder that uses English, Cantonese and Malaysian. Last night’s premiere was shown with Japanese and English dual-subtitles for its first showcase at Roppongi Hills, Tokyo’s hub of film and home to TIFF, Tokyo International Film Festival, which celebrates its 27th year this October.

Lead actress Daphne Low of Malaysian debut explains “This film is truly Malaysian…it is the essence of Malaysian culture. You will feel Malaysia.”

The film enraptures the atmosphere of Malaysia rather wonderfully with its beautiful cinematography, the emphasis on the faces and hands of the characters bringing you to a mindful state, reflective of the relaxed Malaysian friendliness, charm and spirit.

The plot is centered around the infamous Lynas, a rare radioactive earth plant, set up by the Australian company in Gebeng, Kuantan, Malaysia just a couple of years ago. The coastal town has since become a storage dump for the Asian Rare Earth Sdn Bhd (ARE)’s  radioactive waste and the results are not good. Today, the plant is still up and running, contrary to the wishes of the locals. Peaceful protests have not rendered results, nor have more forceful ones, as the film suggests. In actual fact, the company Lynas signed a deal with the Malaysian government which is mutually beneficial to both parties. This does not however consider the locals or any radioactive leaks into the ocean affecting the food chain and essentially what the locals are putting into their bodies. The long-term contract is now set in stone and it is therefore difficult for activists to do anything about it without being fined for disrupting corporate activity. Activists are also under threat from the government not to speak out publicly against any corrupt activity going on.

Poignant scenes of fishermen in boats perhaps speak louder than the trilingual chatter throughout the film. The dark ocean scenes, shot at 4am with stunning morning light are however dark and mysterious; not being able to see the depths of the ocean symbolize the unknown depths to the plant’s problem and the growing threat of radioactive leaks into Malaysia’s otherwise clean and pure waters.

The suppression of any freedom of speech on the matter by the courageous lead actress in the film, the respected history teacher, Ms Lim does not go unnoticed, as high-school student Ming joins his teacher on a mission to stop the power plant in its tracks of any further development. “If we don’t do something about this now, we, this community, are finished”, the teacher screams in the film’s central climax. She forms an activist group to protest against the construction, recruiting her favourite student, Hui Ling. Characters are tested, Lim is jailed for her actions and intellectual open-minded opinion on the matter in a closed-minded community, but even upon her death her words remain imprinted in her students minds and hearts.

River of Exploding Durians, which the ambitious screenwriter had given himself the deadline to finish “before turning 30” has done what it came to do: it has got the debate on radiation rolling again in Japan. A script-writer from a tender age, Yeo has been writing since childhood and toyed with the idea of a film for over 25 years.  “I wrote this script from the ashes of previous scripts that I couldn’t finish.” he adds. The realization of this life-long project catapulted into reality upon the acceleration of the project in May 2013 when he decided to realize the dream of River of Exploding Durians, taking it to Tokyo International Film Festival for international debate. Running in this year’s TIFF competition for best film, the work is a strong contender for its bravery on such a politically sensitive subject, with strong parallels to Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster. The deep sighs surrounding me by the Japanese at the premiere upon scenes of the fish not being good for market because of radioactivity were heavy and heart-felt: enough said.

Additionally, a project of self-expression, director Yeo says the film reflects the multi-facets of his own personality, from the laid-back Malaysian in student Ming at the beginning of the film, to the intellectual activist in Ms Lim, fighting for her rights up to her tragic death.

The film is moving on so many of levels and touches upon many themes, from a runaway love story, a couple torn apart by the pressures of an arranged marriage in the face of poverty and adversity, to the unfaltering beauty of Malaysia’s deepest jungles, monsoon rains, the rich colours of the rainforest, the international food, to the mix of cultures and silenced opinions on corporate greed, all in all a bitter sweet scenario. The central theme of corporate incentives conquering the interest of people’s welfare is worrying, raw and very real.

The cinematography itself was spot on and the macro shots of the characters’ faces in moments of reflection and decision captivating. The political message was subtle, but rest-assured: powerful.

Moved by the film too was the director himself, who was also watching the film for the first time at last night’s premiere. I had the opportunity to speak to Edmund Yeo at last night’s premiere, where the film received a standing ovation. Yeo, humbled, in a trembling voice, emotionally turned to me and said “I am moved by the impact this has had on the audience. I am humbled by their reaction”.

So why is the Durian, a Malaysian fruit, featured in the title? “It is the king of fruits”, Yeo explains “and I thought it is like us…durians represent us because they are so thorny and have a strange smell on the outside but on the inside we are so soft and sweet. And the more you eat it the more you like it, just like the film”, he laughs.

“The Malays, the Malaysian Chinese and the Indians are the three main races in the countries as well as some minority races – it was not an intentional thing for me to have a Malaysian play the plant manager, but usually they are the ones holding such a position in the country. “

A third generation Chinese, Yeo explains that he feels Malaysian through and through. However, he explains that Malaysia is nonetheless suffering from an “identity crisis” due to the clash of radically different cultures. “This is relevant to the Chinese title of the version, which is different to its English title. It means “Nostalgia” in Chinese 榴莲忘返

However, Yeo changed it to “durian” for the English title. “It means they are durians floating in the sea not knowing how to go back.” He playfully suggests “that might be…us!”

Regarding the school’s use for the shoot, “the school is actually a Chinese school in a predominantly Chinese town and so I wanted to stay close to reality. We have quite a interesting and sad history between the races. Extremist parties and political parties are quite….how should I say?” he hesitates. Thai Film producer steps in to help and says “aggressive”. “Yes”, Yeo continues, “which is causing racial tension in the country”.

Upon being asked if he is able to speak about the film in his home country, Yeo replied “No. I have in some people’s eyes overstepped the mark and am touching on some very sensitive issues by releasing this.”

Opening Tokyo’s 27th International Film Festival on Thursday night, Prime Minster of Japan, Shinzo Abe said: “Films transcend time and national borders and touch people’s hearts. Japanese films, which are high quakity and the pride of Japan, are important contents that play a part in “Cool Japan” to showcase Japanese culture and charms.” He later went on to say “With an eye to 2020 [when Japan will be hosting the Olympics] I hope excellent films will come together from around the world and the Tokyo International Film Festival rakes a new step forward as a festival that communicates openly with the world.”

Watch the trailer of River of Exploding Durians  here




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