Barbarian Invasion 野蛮人入侵 (2022) Review

It’s life imitating art and vice versa in Barbarian Invasion, which subtly reflects Tan Chui Mui’s work as a director as well as an actress within the movie itself. The former turns out to be her first film in over a decade since 2010’s Year Without a Summer and here, she has made such an impressive comeback in feature filmmaking. An arthouse gem of a comeback film, to be exact and it’s one of the best local features I’ve ever seen so far.

Already made a splash at the 24th Shanghai International Film Festival and other film festivals around the world since last year, Barbarian Invasion follows Moon Lee (Tan Chui Mui), a once-acclaimed actress who has been on a lengthy hiatus after having a son (Nik Hadiff Dani’s Yu Zhou) and a bitter divorce with her husband, Juilliard played by Bront Palarae.

Moon is looking to start a new life by staging a comeback, where she met her frequent collaborator and film director Roger Woo (Pete Teo). Roger is planning to make an action movie of a Southeast Asian version of The Bourne Identity. In order to pull off the role, he needs Moon underwent a month of intensive martial arts training under the guidance of Master Loh (James Lee). She hesitates at first, suggesting that Roger should find a stunt double for all her action scenes but he somehow manages to persuade her otherwise.

Bront Palarae and Tan Chui Mui in "Barbarian Invasion" (2022)

Over the course of the training, she has to juggle her gruelling work commitment and her being a mother taking care of her hyperactive young son. The training proves to be difficult for her but after all the blood, sweat and determination, she manages to make it through to the end.

Then comes the bad news: the film investors who financed Roger Woo’s latest action movie wanted him to cast Moon’s ex-husband, Juilliard in the leading male role since he’s a box-office draw. Despite Roger’s persuasion, Moon just couldn’t stand the fact that she has to work with the man she hates the most. And this is where she gives Roger an ultimatum: it’s either Juilliard has to go or she quits the film.

But when her son is unexpectedly abducted in a broad daylight, Barbarian Invasion cleverly shifted its tone altogether as the movie morphed into an action movie that reminds me of 2019’s Furie. The second half is easily the most entertaining stretch here, where Tan Chui Mui even pays a direct homage to one of the fight scenes in The Bourne Identity. James Lee, who also doubled as the movie’s action director, does a great job in choreographing the action set pieces (the scene where Moon fights against an assassin played by Wong Wai Hoong is particularly worth mentioning here).

Kudos also go to Tan Chui Mui’s mix of visceral and jittery camerawork, with the latter being synonymous with Paul Greengrass’ shooting style in the Bourne sequels. But I’m glad she doesn’t go overboard with the shaky cam to the point it’s very nauseating to see what’s going on during the fight scene.

Pete Teo and Tan Chui Mui in "Barbarian Invasion" (2022)

Interestingly enough, I enjoy how meta the movie turns out to be. Beneath the familiar genre trappings lies a satirical commentary involving indie cinema and overall filmmaking in general. The movie basically has something to say about dealing with the budget constraint, lack of resources and at one point, the lazy/inept screenwriting syndrome, where there’s a scene involving Bront Palarae as an actor playing the role of Adnan giving a gibberish explanation of how things work.

Frankly, there are plenty of layers to peel here within Tan Chui Mui’s multifaceted screenplay. There’s an ingenious moment where we have a film-within-a-film moment that instantly recalled the likes of the underrated F/X (1986) and Mute Witness (1995). We also get a perspective from Pete Teo’s Roger Woo, whose initial ambition of making a Southeast Asian version of The Bourne Identity with his dream of envisioning Moon Lee evolved as an action star who does her own stunts. Except that his subsequent behind-the-scenes setbacks and has to make do with whatever limited resources he got at the end of the day.

Of course, at the heart of Barbarian Invasion is Tan Chui Mui herself, who excels in her layered performance just as great as she does behind the cameras. The name of her character is a nice homage to the Hong Kong actress herself, who used to be one of the prominent action stars of the Angel franchise in the ’80s during the once-popular girls-with-guns subgenre craze. Her character arc reflects a lot of things throughout the movie. Things that involved everything from finding one’s own identity to accepting an inevitable change and letting go.

Top-notch acting aside, Tan Chui Mui deserves equal praise for her physical prowess in the action scenes. She reportedly has prior knowledge of martial arts, namely Muay Thai when she was younger and similar to how her role as Moon Lee required her to train intensively in martial arts, she enrolled in a class to perfect her movement. As for the rest of the actors, everyone from James Lee’s no-nonsense turn as Master Loh to Bront Palarae as Julliard/Adnan, Pete Teo as Roger Woo and Mano Maniam in his cameo appearance as the monk, who is responsible for guiding Moon Lee — well, the path of enlightenment — complete with The Matrix-like red pill-or-blue pill moment all deliver solid supports.