Barbarian Invasion (Malaysia, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui’s comeback after a decade, Barbarian Invasion brings about considerable departure from her 2010 feature, Year Without a Summer. As a first departure, Tan offers a genre work, a clear break from her past arthouse-inclined works. As a second departure, Barbarian Invasion does not just align with the current trend of female-fronted genre films in Southeast Asia, as represented by Maria (2018), Furie (2018) and Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2018), since it goes further. Tan adds a personal touch by not just playing the protagonist but also sharing a part of herself in the narrative and in the form, martial arts movie, that she selected for the film.

But these departures bring with them some continuities: Barbarian Invasion continues Tan’s commitment to metafictional narratives that she made with her first two features. In this film, Tan plays Moon, an award-winning actress who’s been tapped by her regular collaborator, director Roger Woo (Pete Teo), for her comeback project from a long hiatus. Moon meets with Roger in an island and brings along with her son Yu Zhou (Nik Hadiff Dani). Roger reveals to Moon that what they are going to make is an action film that will revitalize her career. The film that Roger wants to make requires Moon to train in martial arts.

Roger says he wants to do a Southeast Asian version of The Bourne Identity (2002). Moon will play a woman who is found unconscious by Burmese illegal immigrants at the shores of a Malaysian seaside village. The woman does not remember anything. She finds herself in the care of phone repairman Adnan (Bront Palarae) who is surprised by the mysterious woman’s self-defense skills. Together, they set off to reclaim her memories.

The two narratives present in the movie (Moon the actress and a mother and the mysterious woman in Roger’s film) share the same goal of reclamation of the self that is aided by genre. This expresses another continuity that Tan gets from martial arts movie tradition: Barbarian Invasion speaks more from the early tradition of wuxia films and its classic philosophical problem of body-mind duality. In one scene, Moon is telling Cathy (Zhiny Ooi) about how when she was pregnant with her son, people were touching her stomach. She said that it is as if when you became a mother, your body belongs to society. This scene is cut in a fleeting manner, but it nonetheless provides a great grounding on what Barbarian Invasion is about: it’s a film about the process of crawling out of this collective ownership of the woman’s body to reclaim it back for the individual soul.

For Moon, crawling out of this collective ownership is hard, especially when at the center of this struggle is her son. The filmic resolution expresses a notably feminist approach to filmmaking in that conflicts are treated in antagonistically but with care and with a delicate balance, but still manage to reach a cathartic end. From an analytical perspective, Tan’s filmmaking approach seems to juggle a lot of things that may not seem to go together or be successfully balanced. Barbarian Invasion was made not by doing away with one over the other, but by fully embracing the very multiplicity, the synthesis of forms that it already is.

The synthesis of wuxia and metafiction gives Barbarian Invasion the complexity it needs to express the body-soul problematic and the conflict between being a woman and being a mother. This expression is made especially intense through Tan’s performance as Moon, who experiences the harshness of her martial arts crash course while as also taking care of her son. The culmination of Moon’s training is her performance as the mysterious ass-kicking superspy which brings the film full circle.

Barbarian Invasion processes its problematic mostly within the expressions of the body enacting and receiving violence. Tan, as a film director-martial arts practitioner, understands the necessity of violence to the emancipation of women. But as expressed by the film, this processing through violence can be done in a creative manner: a violence that builds the soul rather than destroying it.

Barbarian Invasion was shown at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 21 2020.

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