Year Without a Summer (Wu Zhi Xia Nian)
Director/Screenplay – Tan Chui Mui, Producer – Liew Seng Tat, Photography – Gay Hian Teoh, Music – Azmly Yunor. Production Company – Da Huang Pictures
Namron (Azam), Azman Hassan (Ali), Mislina Mustaffa (Minah), Mohammed Norsuhaizan Hanafi (Young Azam), Mohammed Shahrudin (Young Ali)
Azam walks up out of the ocean and rejoins his childhood friend Ali after many years. He, Ali and Ali’s wife Minah spend their time reminiscing and fishing. A young boy Azam tries to get enough money to go away and live in Kuala Lumpur.
A film festival organiser friend of mine once announced he was retiring from involvement in organising festivals where, among other things, he felt that he had “watched enough films about the lives of peasants tilling rice paddies for one lifetime.” Year Without a Summer lacks rice paddies but it falls into the same category where I know exactly what he was talking about. Peasants in Rice Paddies films are all about portrayals of obscure cultures. The crucial complaint about Peasants in Rice Paddies films is that their undeniably worthy dedication to showing this often masks a lack of any of the other basic requirements that we would ask of a dramatic film. The frequent nomadic or rural lifestyles that feature as subject matter lack anything dramatic, the films are based around the minutely detailed depiction of the culture. This is limited to precisely the extent in which one wants to view a film solely in terms of anthropological interest, most of which you feel would surely be better served by a National Geographic channel documentary. Put it this way – if these were portraits of life in small town USA or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, they would dull to the point of inertia with their lack of dramatic incident. While there are exceptions to this – the magnificent portrait of Inuit culture in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001) – this is generally the rule.
Year Without a Summer however has a dullness that goes way beyond even that. It is a film where literally nothing happens. It tells two stories – both feature two friends named Azam and Ali. You are not sure if either story is connected or why they concern two friends with the same names. You are not even sure if the second half is meant to be a flashback to the two friends’ childhood, as both stories seem to be set contemporary.
In the first story, Azam (Namron) abruptly reappears, walking up out of the ocean to join his old friend Ali (Azman Hassan) and Ali’s wife (Mislina Mustaffa). The three go fishing at night and tell some stories. One of the stories that Ali tells is a legend about a man who found a mermaid (but a mermaid that has a fish body and human legs unlike a Hollywood mermaid, the film is quick to stress), fell in love and went to live underwater for a year, finally returning to his village to find that a hundred years had passed. After losing the magic grain of sand that would allow him to return to his mermaid, the man turned into a crab and started to search every grain of sand on the beach. Finally, Azam jumps overboard and fails to reappear.
The second story concerns two boys, Azam (Mohammed Norsuhaizan Hanafi) and Ali (Mohammed Shahrudin). Azam wants to borrow 100 ringgit to go to Kuala Lumpur, Ali is working as a child labourer at a sawmill. The two of them play in an abandoned truck and wander around through the jungle and along the beach together. On the beach, the boys then come across a mermaid that has a fish body and human legs and see a crab scuttling in the sand, which they set afloat on a shard of rock.
Certainly, Year Without a Summer is made with a reasonable level of professionalism. Most of the film however seems to have been improvised by the cast. More importantly, the lack of plot or dramatic momentum or happening makes the entire show drag to the point of utter tedium. A good half of the audience had walked out at the Vancouver International Film Festival session that I attended.