FestivalsFilmReview

Abang Adik – Queer East Film Festival

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writer and Director: Jin Ong

Receiving its UK premiere at the Queer East Film Festival, some viewers may question if this film from Malaysia fulfils the correct criteria to be involved in a such platform that celebrates non-heteronormative lives. Abang Adik tells the story of two brothers trying to obtain identity cards in Kuala Lumpur and while they are helped by a trans woman who lives next door, any other signs of queerness are hard to detect. However, this doesn’t prevent Jin Ong’s film from being a compelling examination of undocumented lives in Malaysia.

The woman who lives in the next-door apartment is called Money, and she gives the brothers cash to help them get their identity cards. Also, supporting them is their social worker who goes beyond the call of duty to track down their father who will be able to verify their existence and give them the right documentation to receive their identity cards and start working legally.

At the moment, Abang, who is deaf, works in the local market, making deliveries or chopping up chickens. Meanwhile, Adi hustles in organised crime in which Bangladeshi refugees are exploited. The film begins with a police raid where one Bangladeshi man throws himself off a roof to avoid being captured. Adi also is involved in sex work, sleeping with a lonely woman in the city from the Malaysian countryside. She hands him a fat bundle of notes after intercourse. There are hints that their connection is more than contractual.

Abang also has a love interest, a young woman from Myanmar whom the UN helps to relocate to another country. For the viewer at Queer East, it’s confusing as one would expect at least one of the brothers to be queer in some way. There’s an odd scene towards the middle of the film that hints at a romantic relationship between them. At Money’s birthday the two dance together, their arms finally wrapped around each other with Abang ruffling his brother’s bleached hair. Not since Peter Medak’s 1990 biopic The Krays, featuring Martin and Gary Kemp, have two brothers been so intimate.

However, the rest of Ong’s story, when one of the brothers is arrested, is like Medak’s next film Let Him Have It about the execution of Derek Bentley in Britain. Both films are a tad too sentimental in their approach. That Malaysia still had the death penalty up until 2023, when it was eventually abolished, is probably down to British imperial rule. Some signs in the officialdom that Abang and Adi’s social worker has to engage with are in English, perhaps another remnant of colonialism in a city as multicultural as London.

Kuala Lumpur is awash with primary colours in Ong’s vision. Right from the start, scarlet blood trailing from the body of the man who has jumped off the building, Adi’s red T-shirt emblazoned with the word London, Ong has carefully chosen his colour scheme to match the vibrancy of the community in which the brothers live and work. Later, in the second half of the film, the palette changes and instead we’re offered white prison uniforms and black shadows.

The young actors shine as much as the cinematography, especially Kang Ren Wu (who is not deaf in real life), as the solemn Abang, searching for a better life but determined to be a good person. Jack Tan as Adi, easily swayed and hot-tempered, is a good match as the other brother and their sibling relationship is completely convincing.

For a film showing in a queer festival, it’s surprising that we see so little of Money (Kim Wang Tan), but the fact that she is trans is never commented on and she’s an important and influential member in a society of outcasts and exiles. Abang Adik’s queerness may be tangential, but the film is impressively shot and should do well after festival season has ended.

Queer East Festival 2024 takes place 17 – 28 April across venues in London.

The Reviews Hub Score

Gritty drama

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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