Review: Liew Seng Tat’s “Flower in the Pocket”

(A Chinese translation of this review was published in 文艺生活周刊No111 on May 7, 2014.)

Think of it as a Malaysian 400 Blows. Liew Seng Tat’s debut feature Flower in the Pocket, which screened at the 2008 Asian-American International Film Festival, is yet another great example of the fecundity of cinematic talent currently coming out of Malaysia. Some of the most impressive films from this nation have emerged from the Da Huang Pictures production stable, which, besides Liew, also includes fellow directors and collaborators James Lee (director of Before We Fall in Love Again, and who plays the father of the two young boys the film follows), Tan Chui Mui (director of Love Conquers All, and who used her festival prize money to help fund this film), and Amir Muhammad (The Big Durian, The Last Communist, Tokyo Magic Hour). Flower in the Pocket shares many affinities with this production house’s other films: digitally shot, elliptical in its structure, littered with curious and seemingly inexplicable scenes, and suffused with a weird sense of humor that clashes with more somber elements. But Liew injects a wilder, more rambunctious sensibility, embodied by his two young protagonists, Chinese brothers Ma Li Ahh (Lim Ming Wei) and Ma Li Ohm (Wong Zi Jiang). They live with their single father Ah Sui (James Lee), who designs and repairs mannequins. Ah Sui, depressed and bitter over his failed relationship with the boys’ mother, has mostly abdicated his role as father, leaving his sons more or less to their own devices. The absence of the boys’ mother is very subtly referenced in the film’s title. As Liew explained in an interview he gave to the film site Twitch, the title is inspired by a Japanese Mother’s Day tradition, in which people wear flowers that represent one’s mother. A red flower means one’s mother is still living; a white flower means one’s mother is deceased. For the two brothers, Liew says: “That is why it’s ‘Flower in the Pocket,’ because … the mother character doesn’t appear at all… That’s why their flower is pretty much in their pocket. It’s unseen, you don’t know what color it is. You don’t even know whether there IS a flower.” The brothers live very much in isolation; we don’t see them together with their father until relatively late in the film and they seem to live completely separate lives from their father. Also isolating them is their poor understanding of the Malay language; at school, they must have their Mandarin speech translated for them into Malay, usually by a rather bratty and haughty girl schoolmate. The film opens with Ma Li Ahh, the younger and more mischievous brother, being berated by his teacher for not doing his homework. This scene also makes use of a verbal pun concerning his name and its mispronounced similarity to “Maria.” “That’s a girl’s name!” his teacher (Farah Binti Abdul Rani) says. “What kind of name is that for a boy?”

The boys are befriended by Atan, aka Ayu (Amira Nasuha Binti Shahiran), a tomboyish girl who, when she first meets them, renames them for her own convenience. Her home life is in sharp contrast to boys’; even though Atan’s father isn’t in the picture, she is doted on by both her mother (Mislina Mustaffa) and grandmother (Mak Inom), even though Atan often regards their close attention as a nuisance. Much like Abbas Kiarostami’s films which focus on children such as Where is the Friend’s House?, Flower in the Pocket derives much of its considerable charm and warmth from its close, humorous observation of these kids’ activities, such as an early scene with the brothers savoring KFC ketchup packets, which pays off in a later scene when they use these packets to cook up a unique culinary concoction of ketchup, boiled rice, raw eggs, and hot water.

The film’s first half is freewheeling and nearly plot-free, following its characters in a laconic fashion. In contrast to the generally cheerful boys, their father Ah Sui walks around in a distracted daze, engrossed in working on his mannequins, seemingly more comfortable around these lifeless, disembodied figures than actual human beings. He has some odd exchanges with the Indian man he sells the mannequins to; at one point he admonishes Ah Sui for making the breasts on the female mannequins too realistic. This connects to a strange medical condition he suffers from: he complains to his doctor that his heart literally hurts, and water mysteriously leaks from his nipple. This mixture of minimalist aesthetics and broad, almost slapstick humor (much of which, I suspect, would resonate more with a local audience) is what makes Flower in the Pocket a singular, and faintly unsettling, work. More somber elements are introduced in the film’s latter half, as the father’s benign neglect of his sons very nearly leads to tragedy. However, things end on a more optimistic note, revolving around a unique approach to learning to swim, which provides a way for Ah Sui to bond at long last with his sons.

Flower in the Pocket won the Tiger Award at the 2008 Rotterdam International Film Festival and the New Currents Award at the 2007 Pusan International Film Festival. Despite its often naughty sense of humor, its minimal digital aesthetics and its unusual approach to storytelling may make this film a bit too rarified for general audiences. Still, if it happens to show up at your local film festival, it is more than worth your time.