Asian cinema
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Tan Chui Mui as Moon Lee in a still from Barbarian Invasion, which she also directed. The film won the Jury Grand Prix, one of two top prizes at the Golden Goblet Awards in Shanghai. Photo: courtesy of Da Huang Pictures

Award-winning movie Barbarian Invasion heralds Malaysian ‘New Wave’ filmmaking revival with its teamwork and multilingual dialogue

  • Barbarian Invasion, director Tan Chui Mui’s third feature, won the jury prize at a Shanghai film festival - hailed for continuing to ‘subvert and surprise’
  • Most Malaysian films are monolingual, but Barbarian Invasion uses a mix of Chinese, Cantonese and Malay dialogue
Asian cinema

On June 20, Barbarian Invasion by Malaysian director Tan Chui Mui edged out 12 other finalists to win the Jury Grand Prix, one of two top prizes at the Golden Goblet Awards, held in conjunction with the 24th Shanghai International Film Festival. The other prize, for Best Feature Film, went to Chinese production Manchurian Tiger.

The jury lauded Barbarian Invasion for its pitch-perfect pace “as it continues to subvert and surprise at each turn”.

“We wanted the film to have the largest audience possible so, while we begin our journey in China, we hope Barbarian Invasion will play in other parts of the world like Europe and North America. Ultimately, we do intend to release it in Malaysia and Southeast Asia,” the film’s producer Woo Ming Jin tells the Post.

Barbarian Invasion is Tan’s third film, and her first in a decade after Love Conquers All (2006) and Year Without A Summer (2010). Tan, who also wrote the script, plays the main lead, Moon Lee, a celebrated actress who retired to become a full-time mother.

The film title alludes to the arrival of a child in a person’s life as an event that messes up everything. But this clever art house film explores much more than the intricacies of motherhood: it pays homage to the art and resilience of acting and filmmaking, as well as the determination to face whatever life throws at you.

Barbarian Invasion follows Moon as she attempts to regain her sense of self after her divorce. The film opens as she travels with her mixed-race Malay Chinese son, Yu Zhou, to the Malaysian district of Kemaman near Kuantan, where Moon reconnects with her long-time collaborator, director Roger Woo (Pete Teo).

Tan Chui Mui’s character undertakes a severe martial art training programme in Barbarian Invasion. Photo: courtesy of Da Huang Pictures

Woo wants Moon as the heroine of his new action film, which he describes as a “Southeast Asian version of The Bourne Identity”. However, Moon must undergo punishing physical training under martial arts sifu Master Loh (James Lee).

Barbarian Invasion is produced by Tan’s company, Da Huang Pictures, and funded by Hong Kong Pictures Heaven Culture and Media Company Limited and the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society. The film is part of the latter two organisations’ six-film project B2B A Love Supreme.

The project awarded Tan and five other Asian filmmakers – Yuya Ishii from Japan, Tsai Ming-liang from Taiwan, Korean-Chinese director Zhang Lu, Yang Jin from China, and Hong Kong director Philip Yung Tsz-kwong ( Port of Call) – 1 million yuan each (US$155,000) to produce six high-quality films.
Pete Teo (left) and Tan Chui Mui in a still from Barbarian Invasion. Photo: courtesy of Da Huang Pictures

When Barbarian Invasion went into pre-production, Malaysia went into lockdown to reduce the spread of Covid-19. The crew left the set in Kemaman and returned to Kuala Lumpur. Shooting was postponed by several months, and the production office in the capital city was turned into a makeshift set.

“When we were finally given the OK to shoot, our small team of roughly 30 went back to the location and we self-isolated the entire crew while shooting,” says producer Woo. “Back then, Covid-19 cases were still relatively low in Malaysia, so it all went by without incident.”

Barbarian Invasion has a notable Malaysian cast, including singer-songwriter, composer and filmmaker Pete Teo, filmmaker James Lee, and actor Bront Palarae as Moon’s ex-husband Juillard. Palarae previously appeared in Chiu Keng Guan’s Malaysian blockbuster Ola Bola (2016) and the celebrated Indonesian horror Satan’s Slaves (2017) by Joko Anwar, among other films.

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Barbarian Invasion not only brings a lesser-known part of Malaysia to the screen, but also beautifully represents the Southeast Asian nation’s multi-ethnic background with a mix of Chinese – both Mandarin and Cantonese – and Malay dialogue.

“Multilingual films are relatively rare, so I would imagine that the [Golden Goblet Award’s] jury found this aspect of the film to be refreshing,” says Teo in an interview with the Post.

Except for the work of the late Malaysian director Yasmin Ahmad – one of the filmmakers who started the first “New Wave” of Malaysian cinema in the 2000s – most Malaysian films are monolingual.

Tan Chui Mui in a still from Barbarian Invasion. Photo: courtesy of Da Huang Pictures

“Malaysian Chinese-language films in particular often struggle to express a sense of place because they lack sufficient differentiation from Hong Kong or Taiwanese films. Not only do they adopt the linguistic syntax of these places, but they often contain no reference to other ethnicities in their narrative,” says Teo.

Barbarian Invasion is also a noteworthy example of teamwork between Tan, Woo and James Lee – three of the talents that started that very same Malaysian “New Wave” 20 years ago. “The collaborative form is reminiscent of those early days,” says Teo. “Hopefully the success of this film will lead to a re-ignition and expansion of similar collaborations in the future.”

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