Edmund Yeo's feature film debut is at once an expansion of the rich world he has steadily built with the marvelous short films he has made in Japan and his native Malaysia over the past near-decade and a courageous departure into new territories of personal expression and political engagement with the wide world around him. It befits the bright, clear-eyed intelligence that comes across so strongly in his interviews and blog posts that this first feature for him as writer, editor, and director (his three customary roles in addition to that of producer on his and his creative partner Woo Ming Jin's projects) is tangibly executed with such sureness, sincerity, and purpose. River of Exploding Durians (2014) is a coming-of-age tale in the purest sense, both in its portrayal of the journeys of three Malaysian secondary school students – Ming (Koe Shern), Mei Ann (Joey Leong), and Hui Ling (Daphne Low) – towards a greater understanding of their country, the world, and their places in both and the ways in which it reflects Yeo's own journey towards becoming the informed, inquisitive, conscientious artist he is today.
At first, the film appears to take on the shape of a semi-autobiographical memory piece as it follows the boyish Ming through his last few weeks of secondary school before his imminent departure to Australia for university, echoing Yeo's own move to Perth in the early 2000s for his post-secondary education. Ming is closely attached to Mei Ann, his childhood friend with whom he wishes to continue spending his days in their coastal hometown. The early passages of River of Exploding Durians are recognizably of the same rurally-situated world as Woo's Woman on Fire Looks for Water (2009) – which Yeo edited and co-produced – a place immersed in jungle, heat, majestic orange and pink skies, and river waters flowing towards the sea, where its inhabitants live in impoverished villages and fish the waters to eke out a living, quietly enduring their daily routines of nets, boats, and fish farms as they dream of and work towards better futures for themselves and their children. The most alluring prospects lie abroad, as Ming is told by both his father and Mei Ann, who pointedly remarks upon the privileged perspective Ming's travels will grant him. "Perhaps when you're there," she tells him, "you can find out what the Australians really think of us. We small Malaysians."
Both Ming and Mei Ann have experienced loss in their lives (one poignant scene conjures Mei Ann's grandfather, lost to the ravages of senility and age before living out his last days in Cameron Highlands, while in another Ming recalls an unborn younger sister – another personal element from Yeo's own life), but Mei Ann seems to have a far greater understanding of the more cruel and painful aspects of life, plainly illustrated by the sad, haunted expressions painted upon her delicate features. Sure enough, her sudden betrothal to the mayor's brother and an unwanted pregnancy that later causes her to abandon the arrangement and flee with her family strike as tragic yet somehow inevitable ruptures in Ming's rapidly fading world of carefree adolescence, which is anchored in the comforting routines of buying pork buns with Mei Ann at their favorite food stall after school and the cherished childhood rite of lighting paper lanterns by the rolling waves of the sea. More ominous premonitions signal the dark clouds of approaching change: disturbing images of a boar's fly-covered carcass bathed in flames, split durian husks scattered on a jungle floor and gathered in a crackling bonfire, dreamed visions of soldiers marching through the wilderness. Though Ming continues to frequent the same spots where he and Mei Ann previously spent time together, he too gradually comes to accept the bittersweet passing of his youth, giving way to more urgent matters that will soon come surging into his life and those of his fellow classmates.
River of Exploding Durians' second half shifts focus to the protest movement against the construction of a rare earth processing plant that could pose significant health risks to the people and environment surrounding it – a situation based on a true case involving the Australian company Lynas and the local resistance it faced in late 2012 when it pursued the construction of a rare earth refinery in eastern Malaysia. This particular scenario enabled Yeo to seriously consider the problems and imbalances that plague relations between the Malaysian people and the state that governs them, particularly in its pursuit of industrial projects more for purposes of power and profit than its citizens' best interests and oppressive control of the media to silence opposition and debate. The result is a pressurized environment of national concern vividly evoked by the film's title and illustrated by its mood of uneasy tension: the suppression can only continue for so long before something – or someone – inevitably bursts from the buildup of anger and despair. Marching protesters clad in bright green rain ponchos (modeled after the green t-shirts worn during the Lynas controversy) become reoccurring sights over the course of the film, while the second part introduces a series of meetings between the group's members in an abandoned mansion presided over by Teacher Lim (Zhu Zhi-Ying), who teaches history to Ming and his classmates at their school. A circle of student petitioners led by class representative Hui Ling soon approaches the resistance group for membership, the young people eager to voice their own concerns and take action themselves.
As Hui Ling and Teacher Lim bond over Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and their shared respect and awe for the power of ideas, beliefs, and revolutionary change, Teacher Lim gets her class to consider cases of injustice, violence, and strife riddled throughout Asia's past by way of a series of student presentations. These sequences, in which the disturbing events of the 1976 Thammasat University Massacre in Thailand, the 1972 assault and killing of newspaper editor Liliosa Hilao during Ferdinand Marcos' reign of martial law in the Philippines, and the disquieting phenomenon of the Karayuki-san – Japanese prostitutes who were sold by their families and lived lives of shame and neglect in Malaysia between 1860 and 1920 – stand out as some of the most potent moments in the film, so chilling are the images of the uniformed students enacting these atrocities of the past, usually either as menacing tormentors or crying, helpless victims in the austere white classroom setting. Where in other parts of the film Yeo revives and examines past events through projected stock footage and blown-up photographs (bringing to mind a similar study of the reliability of images in Edward Yang's 1986 film The Terrorizers), it is the framing of history through narrative and storytelling, as Teacher Lim implores her students to do, that the most direct and effective connections to these troubled times are established. If history is a deep mine of traumas that must be unearthed, examined, and shared in the light of the present, then art can be mobilized as an effective, even crucial tool for illuminating and preserving those stories that face the greatest risk of being forgotten, yet are in the greatest need of being told. As I write this, the recent death of Gord Downie and his steadfast devotion to proper reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples still weighs heavily in my mind, loaded with a sense of urgency and importance that similarly drives the committed young people in River of Exploding Durians in their own engagements with the wounds and ghosts of history.
As the bond between Teacher Lim and Hui Ling deepens, the gulf between their beliefs regarding the appropriate means of resistance against the rare earth plant becomes more apparent, brought into relief during a botched raid on the construction site that leaves two workers seriously injured. Teacher Lim only becomes more determined that drastic actions, even violence and destruction, are the only effective courses of action for meaningful change. Despite Hui Ling's arguments for more peaceful alternatives, Teacher Lim determinedly fixes herself upon a trajectory of growing fanaticism and, ultimately, tragic bloodshed while Hui Ling carries on with the books, ideas, and lessons imparted by her mentor, armed with resilience and resourcefulness, now a little more prepared to go forth into the world as an informed political being (the next stage of her journey is told in Yeo's follow-up feature, Aqérat (We, the Dead)).
River of Exploding Durians ends with Hui Ling and Ming parting from the remnants of their youth, the latter undertaking a trip to Cameron Highlands where he finally attains a measure of peace and closure with his memories of Mei Ann amid the famous district's serene green hills and winding roads. The two students cross paths one last time at the annual Parade of the Gods in Johor, where Teacher Lim grew up. There, in the film's moving final scene, they quietly watch the dazzling costumes, floats, and lights that flow past them like the currents of a great river of time, pulling them, and their small country, towards an unforeseeable future. As the parade festivities carry on in the night around them, the chapters of innocence and instruction conclude for Ming and Hui Ling; ahead of them, the sagas of history and action await.
River of Exploding Durians is available to watch on Amazon.com and Filmdoo.