Film review: Barbarian Invasion is a triumph of Malaysian cinema

Film review: Barbarian Invasion is a triumph of Malaysian cinema

Malaysian ‘New Wave’ filmmaker Tan Chui Mui examines her ghosts in the deeply personal and ambitious ‘Barbarian Invasion’

LITTLE reference is made to Malaysia in Tan Chui Mui’s Barbarian Invasion. To a foreign audience, the movie, which largely takes place in a non-descript remote township could easily be taken for any Southeast Asian locale.

Yet, this quasi-autofiction is Tan’s most politically incisive and physically intensive work that stands in as a personal manifesto some two decades as an artist and filmmaker in Malaysia.

Barbarian Invasion – written and directed by Tan, also features her in the lead role – centres on a recently divorced actor, Moon Lee, as she gets recruited into the production of a new martial arts movie by her longtime collaborator Roger Woo (Pete Teo).

Within the movie’s universe, Moon is a popular actor, who took a step back from the industry to focus on her responsibility as a mother to Yu Zhou (Nik Hadiff Dani).

Pete Teo plays Roger Woo, a director looking to produce a Jason Bourne-inspired martial arts movie. – Pic courtesy of DaHuang Pictures

Moon shares a close artistic partnership with film director Roger, having starred in most of his movies, and so did not require a lot of convincing to take on the project.

To prepare for the role, she endures a lengthy and strenuous martial arts training regimen under the tutelage of Master Loh (James Lee).

Barbarian Invasion employs the use of a Chinese box as a narrative device – a film within a film, providing Tan the perfect platform to exhibit her muscles (pun intended, she is in impressive physical form here) as a director.

Tan, like her peers from the Malaysian New Wave movement, has never been too concerned with traditional, linear story arcs or neat, immaculate resolutions.

James Lee as Master Loh, the martial arts instructor to Moon Lee. – Pic courtesy of DaHuang Pictures

In this respect, Barbarian Invasion is a departure from her usual fare, or more accurately displays an evolved artist at work.

Many of her signatures and stylistic preoccupations can still be seen, from the casting of actors (Lee and Teo have been involved with her career from the beginning) to the constant self-reflexivity.

“When I was young, film was everything to me. Now, at this age, everything is like a film for me. Everything is a film,” Roger ruminates to Moon early in the movie.

Roger in many ways is the voice and alter ego of Tan, a hypothesis that Pete Teo concurred with during an audience Q&A.

Bront Palarae plays Julliard, Moon Lee’s ex-husband and love interest in the film. – Pic courtesy of DaHuang Pictures

Production of the untitled, Jason Bourne-inspired martial arts movie begins to tense when Moon’s ex-husband, Julliard (Bront Palarae) is roped in to play her love interest, despite her protest.

Some of the most energetic, exciting, and clever genre-bending sequences take place halfway through the 105-minute runtime, breathing new life and urgency into the material.

For Tan, the process of taking the audience away from mundane reality is at the heart of Barbarian Invasion. She throws everything she has at it; interrogating her own art and career, her spiritual beliefs, fractured relationships, and her experience of stepping into motherhood.

“When you become a mother, your body belongs to society,” Moon says in a scene. The title of the movie, incidentally, builds on this motif and takes its inspiration from a Hannah Arendt aphorism.

source – The Vibes

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