Aqérat 阿奇洛 (We, the Dead) (2017) – Malaysia [HKAFF 2018]
Reviewed by Andrew Chan (Film Critics Circle of Australia)
Edmund Yeo’s continuation of his promising directorial feature debut in 2014’s “River of the Exploding Durians” comes in “Aqerat”, a difficult film to sit through, but nonetheless, also his most ambitious to date. Tackling the political and universal human rights based the true events on the discovery of mass graves in northern Malaysia of over two hundred Rohingya refugees, buried by Malaysian human traffickers, the film become layers of dream-like sequence and often providing damning of humans losing humanity and eventually mortality. Yeo never allows the audience to rest on their laurels and requires an uncanny and laser focus from the audience in order to follow the enduring journey. By going the arthouse route, not all the audience will go through with the journey, Yeo wants us to think and see. For those that do, it is journey that will linger your inner thoughts, for long after the credit rolls.
The title “Aqerat” means the afterlife and Yeo’s follows Hui Ling (the rebellious young girl from “Durians”) played by Daphne Low, who easily produces the strongest and most natural performance in her career to date. Having said that, the film is not an easy one to endure, there are difficult moments, but most allows the audience to think for themselves and often a reflection of our mortality. We see Hui Ling goes through a “reborn” or afterlife journey, transforming from a simple young girl working at a floating restaurant and saving money to move to Taiwan, but instead falls to her roommate (played by (Agnes Wang) whose violent boyfriend together stole her entire savings. It is from this moment, where Hui Ling makes a conscience choice to human trafficking that allow Low produces a performance of a star becoming, as her subdued look remains both raw and mysterious, allowing just enough for the audience to maintain a certain level of interest as Yeo uses handheld camerawork to follow the character. In Yeo’s constant use of extreme close up shots, it can so easily be hit and miss with lesser actors, but Low shines through these scenes with raw and natural emotions. Less convincing is the side story of potential love interest (played by Howard HonKahoe), whilst, there is some chemistry between the duo, it is never truly heartfelt, perhaps a deliberate attempt by Yeo to create that lingering distance with characters and the audience.
All in all, buried within all its layers and complexities, “Aqerat” remains Yeo’s most ambitious film to date. There are a lot of genuine ideas and visions buried within the film’s multiple layers and structure, some are better articulated than others, but Yeo manages to create a eulogy of an afterlife, the question of human mortality or its trivialness. It is a kind of film that requires a repeated viewing to fully appreciate what Yeo has created. Combined with the colourful cinematography of Lesly Leon Lee, we see jungles, trees and often raw close-up of actors and faces, giving off a sedated feeling as we remember the quote: “But if you stare long enough, these faces will become the faces of our loved ones.” Whilst, the film is not entirely successful, Yeo is maturing as an ambitious filmmaker with an abundance of ideas in the bag and as for Daphne Low, a likely star in the making.
I rated it 7.5/10
With Actress Daphne Low, after the screening.