Wen Guang (Kyo Chen), an autistic young man, is cared for by his younger brother, known only as Didi (Ernest Chong). Things are taking a toll on the brother and he sents Wen Guang out to look for work, but holding on to his job is a difficult task. Things come to a boiling head when the police come knocking on the door.
We saw the trailer for Guang some time ago and there is something about trailers that can make you become judge and jury in a space of less than two minutes. I knew I was going to watch a movie about an autistic savant and all the tropes associated with the genre would play themselves out in a quick burst. But then a glowing review in the local papers and great word of mouth made me take a risk. Yes, Guang embraces all the tropes but it is in the execution that it soars on wings of doves.
Blame it on Hollywood - autistic savants are gifted with superhuman abilities that are 'weaponised' for entertainment. In Rain Man (1988), Dustin Hoffman's character can count cards and in The Accountant (2016), Ben Affleck's character is great with numbers and machine guns. In Guang, Wen Guang has the ability to hear pitch in musical notes and pin-point their frequency. It is a sonic talent that puts him in more trouble than reeling in the money. That's the first thing that is refreshing about the debut film of Quek Shio Chuan - Guang's skills are useless in the real world.
Guang is also a semi-autobiographical piece of work and the director's own high-functioning autistic brother appears during the end-credits.
Movies like this can become cloying very fast, but Guang remains steadfast and never goes down the road of syrupy sentimentality for the first two acts. By the third act I already gave it a free pass to do the worst to me, and I have to say every tear was earned.
The movie rises on the authenticity of the brothers' relationship, brilliantly captured by a stunningly vivid cinematography. The streets of Kuala Lumpur's seedy Pudu district and their ramshackle apartment were lit and shot with a vibrancy, like a Malaysia I have never seen. The framing of every shot looks meticulously planned and carried out.
Kyo Chen's turn as Wen Guang is superb. Most times actors playing these roles tend to draw all the attention, but Chen never consumes the frames, letting his honest performance inform his struggles. His glassy stares and his flustered states of exigencies readily draw empathy. Likewise with Ernest Chong who plays the younger brother. Their portrayals are natural and the humour unforced. The characters conversed in a mixture of Mandarin, Cantonese and Malay, giving the movie a great sense of place and time.
The redemption arc of both brothers is deeply satisfying. Nothing is laid out in convenient expositions and in one instance we ended up discussing during the drive home how the "two becomes one" plot sequence transpired and our admiration for the storytelling went up another notch. However, something else my wife shared brought a pregnant pause. Who are we to say that an autistic person is abnormal? They can stay focused at a task until it reaches perfection, but we on the other hand have a thousand things vying for our attention at any given moment, and we sometimes can't even do that one task to the best of our ability.
There are many movies out there that thrill, make us laugh, scare us, turn us into softies, but you can count on the fingers of probably one hand the few movies in a year that make you understand the impaired person and make you want to become a better person. Guang is the first movie I have seen this year in this latter category.