Pendatang (2023) Review

What if Malaysia turns into a totalitarian, racially segregated regime where mixed races aren’t allowed to be seen together by law?

That’s the provocative premise surrounding the predominantly Cantonese-language film of Pendatang (literally “immigrant” in Malay). It made its mark as the first fully crowdfunded feature film in Malaysia. And that is not all as Kuman Pictures forgoes its film submission to the Film Censorship Board of Malaysia (LPF) due to its sensitive subject matter (the title itself is more than enough to spark controversy). Instead, the studio is wise enough to premiere Pendatang on YouTube, which is currently available for streaming for free.

The story takes place in a dystopian future where we first see the Wong family — Wong Kim Seng (Fred Chan) and his wife Shan (Mayjune Tan) alongside their two children, Yan (Shareen Yeo) and Bobby (Kyzer Tou) — being transported to a remote location. We learn they were involved in a traffic accident and the result of Wong’s vote leads them to relocate to a kampung house.

The family, particularly Wong, is reluctant to live in the house previously resided by their racial enemy. They live in isolation with no neighbours or any other houses in sight. They are only given a pair of bicycles as their mode of transportation while telecommunication services like internet and phone calls aren’t available.

Then one day, they discover a young Malay girl (Qaidah Marha) who has been hiding in the attic. Unlike Shan, who took pity on her, Wong is determined to get rid of her because if she doesn’t leave and the authorities find out about them hiding an intruder of another race, they will risk a 25-year imprisonment.

Director Ng Ken Kin (credited as Ken Kin) and screenwriter Lim Boon Siang made good use of their dystopian storyline to cover the fascinating what-if scenario of excessive race relations, segregation and corruption. It was a refreshing change of pace for a Malaysian film, despite the controversial nature of its title and the premise.

It’s easy to incite hatred but after watching the film in its entirety, the story isn’t about spreading hate propaganda but more about a family — in this case, the Wongs — coping with the country’s (referred to as the “motherland” in Pendatang) stringent law that instils fear, detestation and phobia. This is especially true with the sudden appearance of the nameless young Malay girl in the house. Wong’s dilemma of whether he should report the situation to the authorities is understandable because he has to protect his family from harm. Plus, given the severe punishment, it was too big of a risk to take for ordinary citizens like the Wong family.

The film could have emphasised further the forbidden relationship between the Wong family and the Malay girl. This, in turn, made the latter’s appearance feel more like a mere plot mechanism to drive the story forward. We learn little about the girl’s background, let alone spend considerable time developing her character.

Instead, Ken Kin is more interested in depicting Wong’s subsequent risky approach of smuggling the girl to the other side. The film also introduced an antagonist in the form of Ho Kar Leung played by Nick Davis in a solid supporting role, a big bully within the authorities who abuses his power over the Wong family. The story’s underlying themes of unity and compassion are subtly incorporated into the film as the movie progresses, suggesting these people just want to live in peace and harmony amidst the draconian state of the dystopian-era country.

The film’s tight budget does rear its ugly head in some scenes that require more story and visual expansions, especially given the subject matter in the alternate reality of Malaysia. But overall, Pendatang remains Ken Kin’s assured feature film debut worth checking out. Not to mention Tan Teck Zee’s scenic cinematography successfully captured the idyllic beauty of the rural Perak landscapes.