My second set of evening screenings was something of a disappointment after the excellent Afghanistan forum featuring Finding Ali. The Year Without a Summer (Malaysia 2010) is one of those festival films that require patience and perfect viewing conditions. I think I made the wrong choice at the time. The film was screened in a small auditorium, clearly a product of a conversion from an old large single screen cinema (as most of Oslo’s city centre cinemas seem to be). The image wasn’t masked and the film was projected from DigiBeta. Unfortunately the first half of the film was mainly nighttime scenes with only minimal lighting and little movement. It was hard to stay awake and concentrate. There was an introduction in Norwegian but that didn’t help me.
I’d chosen the film since it was an independent production by a Malaysian woman. I’d only seen commercial Malaysian films before and this offered something different. The story is simple. Two boys grow up in a small fishing community on Malaysia’s east coast (actually the director’s home region). Azam agitates to leave home and try to make it in Kuala Lumpur (or ‘KL’). Ali wants to stay home. After several years away, Azam suddenly reappears and with Ali and his wife Minah takes a night-time fishing trip to an island where the two men reminisce – but the trip ends badly. The non-linear narrative means that we learn more about the two boys’ childhood in the second half of the film. Without a great deal of narrative excitement as such, the main pleasures of the film are the beautiful locations, the insight into local customs and practices and how this informs our sense of the sadness caught in the unusual title (see below). The writer-director Tan Chui Mui does attempt to introduce more symbolic elements and moments of surrealism (e.g. there is discussion of various myths about mermaids) but I failed to decipher these.
A little research reveals that Ms Tan is an important figure in the Malaysian independent film scene (with her own company Da Huang Pictures) who has produced and directed several short films that brought her recognition at festivals including Rotterdam and Busan – this film was made possible partly by funding from the Hubert Bals Fund (associated with Rotterdam) and another fund via Busan as well as further support from Switzerland and France. I found this comment on the company website:
“I found the title The Year Without A Summer from Wikipedia, which I am addicted to. It was 1816, and there was no summer in that year. In some places in America and China, there were even snowfalls during summer. I can imagine the climate abnormalities must have stirred a sense of doom day at that time. The crops died, the sky was often orange tinted, famines and war broke out everywhere . . .
Many years later, scientists believe that the climate abnormalities was mainly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years.
My story is not about volcano eruption, nor climate abnormalities. My story is about how people often live, without knowing much about what happened to them. In a way, my film is about history of sadness.”
My research suggests that I should have got much more out of the film than I did. Perhaps it’s just a function of moving between films with such different institutional and artistic contexts in the same day and perhaps you do need to know a little more about what to expect. For once, approaching a film without any kind of preparation didn’t work for me. I think if I watched this film a second time I’d get a lot more from it.