Flower in the Pocket

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Children Running Through
By Andrew Chan

Flower in the Pocket
Dir. Liew Seng Tat, Malaysia, playing May 4-11 at New York’s MOMA

Why is it so difficult to represent childhood convincingly onscreen? The widespread assumption is that the mere image of the very young brings out the filmmaker’s urge for emotional manipulation and the audience’s overeagerness for surrender. Adults who are easily overcome by a child’s adorability don’t have much of an eye for the unique intelligence and resourcefulness of youth, and often end up either ignoring those qualities or romanticizing them. But if movies are going to sustain their capacity for delight in the world’s sensory pleasures amid our jaded, image-saturated culture, there’s still much for them to learn from the ever-renewing inquisitiveness of the innocent. Malaysian-Chinese director Liew Seng Tat’s feature debut, Flower in the Pocket, has arrived at the perfect moment, offering a kind of companion piece to So Young Kim’s Treeless Mountain, which has received much praise for its unsentimental portrayal of children amidst economic uncertainty. Like Kim’s film, Flower treats the preciousness of its two young protagonists as a given, and accepts with grace and dignity the fact that they (along with all the rest of us) will have to learn how to navigate an imperfect world.

We are first introduced to the Chinese brothers Li Ohm and Li Ahn as the misfits at school, getting in trouble with their teachers for loitering around campus and (in a moment reminiscent of the precocious boy photographer in Yi Yi) taking an unorthodox approach in art class. Out of step with an education system that threatens to squash all their idiosyncrasies, the boys become street urchins aimlessly wandering the town of Jinjiang, sometimes with a stray puppy they find in a trash heap. The film moves through a series of seemingly unremarkable anecdotes that unexpectedly become suffused with a sense of wonder. Liew has a gift for conjuring bittersweetness out of details as simple as the brothers sucking on ketchup sachets, a large blow-up clown flapping in the wind, and a small fish wriggling up a narrow stream.

So carefree and independent are these kids that we start to forget the parental figures who are largely absent from their lives. The mother is either deceased or missing (this crucial plot point is never explained), and their good-natured but negligent father (played by James Lee, one of Malaysia’s most acclaimed contemporary directors) is a workaholic mannequin maker who only appears in the same frame as his children toward the end of the film. His work life runs parallel in function to the boys’ delinquent play: it’s the only way he knows to distract himself from a reality he (and the movie itself) can’t face up to. Holed up in his workshop, with an endless row of plastic female limbs dangling from the ceiling, this melancholy loner becomes a conduit for Liew’s magical-realist mischief. Heartache throws him so out of sync with nature that he starts leaking water from his left nipple, munching on a photograph of his lost love, and attempting to swim freestyle on the cold, bare floor of his studio.

As his sons begin to build a relationship with the outside world, the father makes every effort to remain cut off, his solitude interrupted only by the encouragement of a jovial, newlywed Malay coworker. The gulf separating parent and child is not the result of a diminishment of love between them, but of an unspoken loss that has unsettled the ways they imagine their place in the world. Where American pseudo-indie comedies like Little Miss Sunshine have cutesified the cynical concept of “family dysfunction,” stripping characters of their inner life and turning every emotion into a punchline, Flower is quietly remarkable in its exploration of how families are constructed across each member’s profound separateness. Few films successfully situate us within that mysterious space where the family unit ends and society begins, but Flower sensitively observes how the haphazard establishment of friendships can open up the boundaries of the family structure, and also how the insularity of the family can be used as an excuse for the indifference of the outside world. The film’s mixed tonality strikes a balance between two distinct styles that have emerged in the recent Malaysian cinema that has made it to museums and festivals on our shores. Mostly lighthearted, Flower is dominated by quirky sketches and bright exteriors that recall the tender portraits of community in Yasmin Ahmad’s recent child-centered triumph Mukhsin. But it also contains moments of eerie silence reminiscent of the spiritual languor and minimalist style mined by emerging Malaysian-Chinese talents like Woo Ming Jin (The Elephant and the Sea) and Ho Yuhang (Rain Dogs).

Flower’s shoestring aesthetic is elevated by Liew’s calm watchfulness and taste for clutter. Some of the film’s most memorable compositions frame human activity with the materials of domestic life crowding in at the edges. This multitextured visual style complements a story that, like many new Malaysian films, incorporates the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the nation. Here, Liew has chosen to downplay the often-reported cultural tensions that segregate the politically empowered Malay majority from the Chinese minority, and instead employ the Malay supporting cast as the protagonists’ guardian angels. Liew’s vision remains steadfastly humanist throughout, kept afloat by an undercurrent of whimsical but deeply felt mysticism. In its first shot, one of the boys steals a statue of the Buddhist bodhisattva Guanyin, which he carries in his backpack while tramping through town. Though Flower’s primary mode is gently comic, it is pulled forth by the spiritual power embodied by this talisman. At the film’s core lies the belief that these boys will be protected through their journeys, and that they have been granted everything they need to both engage with and defend themselves against the vast, unknowable world.