From its dingy streets to the crowded wet market, the bustling Pudu district becomes the narrative and visual canvases for Jin Ong’s Abang Adik (which means “older brother, younger brother”), which marks the Shuttle Life producer’s directorial debut. The recurring establishing shot of Pasar Pudu (Pudu Wet Market) is dwarfed by the sights of the Kuala Lumpur skyline, reflecting the confinement of the two titular characters — Abang (Wu Kang-Ren) and Adi (Jack Tan) — trapped within the poverty-stricken enclave.
They simply want to live a normal life without fear of getting caught by the police or immigration officials. They may have been born in Malaysia but both of them are undocumented. This means they have to maintain a low profile and not attract any unwanted attention. While we see Abang, who is born deaf-mute, surrender to his fate that he has no choice but to work whatever menial jobs he can get to make ends meet, Adi often gets himself into trouble doing illegal ways of earning money. This can be seen during the tense opening sequence as Adi, who works as a middleman for a gangster (Bront Palarae in a memorable cameo appearance) selling fake documents, runs afoul of the police following a bust for cracking down on illegal migrant workers.
The movie gets off to a promising start which effectively sets the tone of the story’s topical subject matter related to migrants and refugees who populated the underbelly of Pudu district. Jin Ong, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t shy away from depicting the matter-of-fact moments of local authorities harassing and mistreating the “foreigners”. These illegal aliens are not welcomed as they are subject to regular abuse, even though they are just looking to earn an honest living.
The same also goes for Abang and Adi but their otherwise daily struggle as stateless citizens is getting help from a kind transgender sex worker, Money (Tan Kim-Wang) and social worker Jia En (Serene Lim). The latter is working hard to help the brothers and other migrants obtain ICs. At one point, there’s a scene in the JPN (Jabatan Pendaftaran Negara or National Registration Department of Malaysia) office that resonates with the locals the most.
The first half of the movie, which focuses primarily on the grim slice-of-life drama showcases Jin Ong’s flair for gritty direction with the help of Kartik Vijay’s atmospheric cinematography capturing the urban decay and slums of the Pudu district. The bleakness of the story also strikes a fine balance with a beacon of hope surrounding the strong brotherly bond between Abang and Adi, thanks to the calibres of Taiwan-based Wu Kang-Ren and local actor Jack Tan, best known for his roles in Shuttle Life and Fly by Night.
The movie also shows how they share a recurring ritual of these two cracking hard-boiled eggs on each other’s foreheads, symbolising the Chinese tradition of togetherness of a family unit or in this case, the brotherhood. The movie also benefits from equally solid supporting turns including Tan Kim Wang and Serene Lim in their respective roles as Money and Jia En.
The second half, however, sees the writer-director pivoting the neorealist angle into an unlikely thriller-style territory and how a turn of events changes everything. I get this is meant to raise the dramatic stakes related to Abang and Adi’s predicaments. And yet, I can’t help but feel Ong’s creative decision to shift tones is less effective compared to the engaging first half of the movie.
Still, it has its few moments, notably Abang’s affecting monologue expressing his sadness and frustration using sign language and facial gestures in front of a monk. It was undoubtedly the most memorable scene in the movie and it’s no wonder Wu Kang-Ren’s Best Actor victory in the recent Golden Horse Award is well-deserved.