The Journey: A message for all Malaysians

CHIU Keng Guan's THE JOURNEY made almost RM18 million at the cinemas. An unprecedented feat and one that will be hard to top. If not for anything else, THE JOURNEY will go down in Malaysian cinema history as the only film where the audience waited until the end of the credits (and got quite a bit of a jerk when the credits actually ended). And joy, oh joy! The cinema lights remained off until the last — a satisfying closure for film aficionados.

THE JOURNEY tells the story of Uncle Chuan (Frankie Lee), a conservative father with a rigid set of rules.

When his daughter, Bee (Joanne Yew) returns home after spending most of her formative years in England with a fiancé, Benji, an Englishman (Ben Pfeiffer) in-tow, Uncle Chuan refuses to give his blessing. With cultural differences and language barrier that could potentially damage the union between Benji and his loved one, he feels that something must be done quick. Uncle Chuan reluctantly allows them to marry but on one condition — the wedding ceremony has to be in the traditional way.

Despite their lack of understanding towards one another, Benji and Uncle Chuan embark on a nationwide journey to hand-deliver wedding invitations to the latter‘s childhood friends. Throughout the journey, the two learn valuable lessons about accepting each other‘s differences.

The Journey is a 2014 Malaysia Chinese film directed by Chiu Keng Guan.

So what is it about THE JOURNEY that clicked with the audience that not a single Malaysian film has managed to do thus far? It probably can be summed up in two words: Family and tradition.

You might have noticed that the majority of Hollywood movies include the elements of family in almost every genre. Family is the basic unit of society. Therefore it stands to reason that anything connected to a family would connect with audiences.

It also has to do with marketing strategies (getting the whole family into the cinema). Or perhaps it was because the film was conceived and made with honesty and sincerity — the vital ingredients for a story full of humanism. And in THE JOURNEY, the entire spectrum of family is represented — from children right up to the grandparents.

Yasmin Ahmad used to give us lumps in the throat and tears in our eyes with her films. Her subjects were invariably about multiracial relationships, love, compassion, family, parents, upbringing, school and tradition. Her protagonists were always well-mannered and delivered courteous dialogue - unlike many Malay mainstream movies that had boorish characters with uncouth lines and who hardly showed any respect for their elders (not to mention their shouting every time they opened their mouth - that were enhanced all the more with Dolby or THX!).

Well, surprise, surprise! Chiu has taken Yasmin‘s caboodle and dumped it into THE JOURNEY — and added a huge hot air balloon for good effect. And if you were one of those who stayed until the end of the credits, you would have seen the music video in the side box as the credits rolled.

One line of the lyrics sung by the lead actor, Benji is: ―We are family and that can never change. This is the crux of the story and is connected to his earlier realization that it was not just about tradition but was more about love and compassion. And this is connected to the demands of the father, Uncle Chuan that Benji marry his daughter according to traditions.

At the wedding, one of the elderly Chinese women remarks that at one point Uncle Chuan was going against tradition. With a mischievious grin, he replies that one should not follow tradition too rigidly. Here is a guy made for the millennium!

This is not your ordinary old guy steeped in Chinese traditions. He is one who knows how to recognize and accept change but he feels the need to have the younger generation also recognize where it all comes from.

Only tradition can give a race its identity. And God knows that the Chinese in Malaysia need all the identity they can get at the present time!

This may be a Chinese-language film aimed at a Chinese audience but it has relevance for all Malaysians, especially in the light of the social and political issues plaguing us over the last few years.

Instead of just presenting the problems, Chiu offers us some solutions, which is — to go back to the days when the educational system was such that it created relationships and camaraderie that lasted over a lifetime.

Perhaps this was why, in the film, Chiu included the tradition of inviting schoolmates, no matter where they were, to come to their offspring‘s wedding. And, true to tradition, they all came — even though the venue was up in the mountains of Cameron Highlands. And it is no coincidence that Chiu included a Malay woman, Fatimah (Sherry Aljefri), in the group. She had been one of the classmates and a possible (or imaginary) love relationship between her and Uncle Chuan is alluded to. It is she who tells Benji about Uncle Chuan's birthday according to the Chinese Lunar calendar.

Like Deepak Kumaran Menon in CHALANGGAI, here, Chiu also subtly hints that when one race understands the culture of another race, there would be true understanding and tolerance.

Like the balloon that is made up of bits and pieces of colourful plastic, Chiu‘s film is a tapestry of well-structured elements that carries deeper layers of subtle comment that are connected to the main theme of tradition.

The Englishman does not speak Chinese. Uncle Chuan (the future father-in-law) does not speak English but they are able to communicate.

Why are we Malaysians then increasingly unable to do so even though many of us are able to converse in the country‘s different languages?

The students of various races in the Chinese school recite after their teacher: ― "Malaysia is a beautiful country…"‖Strangely, in our actions, we don‘t seem to think so — that Malaysia is indeed a beautiful country unlike any in the world precisely because of the tapestry of various cultures and races.

If a Englishman from outside the country can recognize this, why are we not similarly able to do so?

The balloon was built painstakingly by numerous volunteers over many days and when it finally takes off, the schoolchildren rejoice, their index fingers pointing to it (signifying '1Malaysia', perhaps?).

Was that effort not one of solidarity and of working together - and one that was done sincerely and without any political intent?

The ride in the balloon by Uncle Chuan and a friend was to scatter the ashes of one of their dead schoolmates. However, the trip goes awry and the ashes end up scattered on the leaves of the huge tree in the school compound. The tree had never flowered and had been called a 'pondan' tree.

At the end of the film, a line of dialogue indicates that the tree had finally flowered. Could it be that the dead schoolmate had a fervent wish, that is, for today‘s educational system to go back to the way it was decades before where it promoted understanding and tolerance?

The journey that Benji and his future father-in-law take on a motorbike to deliver wedding invitations brings realization to him.

The daughter, who had been estranged from her father, also attains to realization as the three of them travel in a car. She draws her father pillion-riding on the Englishman's motorbike on the window of the moving car.

In a figure and ground relationship, we see the drawn image like an animated cartoon travelling with them — truly an inspired mise-en-scene image and one that will go down in Malaysian cinema history.

THE JOURNEY‘s narrative, too, uses allusions, metaphors, signifiers and symbols in an unobtrusive manner that is worthy of a literary novel. This is not surprising as Chiu graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in China where music, literature and philosophy is taught.

The film‘s subtexts are numerous and varied and are not that difficult to grasp for the erudite. You may need to see it a second time. Perhaps even a third to truly appreciate the work that has gone into it. And every time you take THE JOURNEY‘s journey in the cinema, you will not fail to be continuously entertained.