A pair of undocumented orphans navigate the slums of Kuala Lumpur in writer-director Jin Ong’s debut feature, Abang Adik, which arrives in Hong Kong cinemas upon a wave of rapturous critical acclaim.
Wu delivers a compelling performance as Abang, a deaf-mute who works odd jobs at a local wet market. He shares his modest flat with Adik (Malaysian star Jack Tan), his fellow orphan and sworn brother.
Unlike Abang, Adik is dissatisfied with his station in life, and yearns for a better future. This regularly steers the young man onto the wrong side of the law, whether hawking fake passports or working as a rent boy.
Despite both young men being born in Malaysia, their lack of official paperwork means they are constantly on the run from the authorities.
Their bustling flat complex, home to a vibrant, culturally diverse collective of migrants from all over the region, is targeted again and again by immigration officials, who bully, intimidate and even incarcerate the residents on an all too regular basis.
There are glimmers of hope in the desperate lives of these two wayward youths. Money (Tan Kim-wang), a middle-aged transgender woman who lives downstairs, welcomes the pair into her eclectic yet loving circle, which offers the pair something approaching a family structure.
Abang has feelings for a young neighbour from Myanmar (played by April Chan), while Serene Lim’s social worker seems committed to fighting their cause and shoring up their immigrant status.
That is, however, until a sudden act of accidental violence sends the brothers into a tragic tailspin from which they may not be able to recover.
Ong directs with the assured hand of a far more seasoned filmmaker, while Kartik Vijay’s lush cinematography and a vibrant score from Ryota Katayama create a thoroughly absorbing sense of place.
Performances across the board are convincing and demand empathy, but ultimately Ong’s screenplay lets the film down. In his efforts to stage a tragic denouement of sacrifice and redemption, Ong paints his protagonists into a corner of arch dramatic contrivance.
Where the central relationship between Abang and Adik has always been one of shared sacrifice, experience and reward, it culminates in an act of bewildering deception that never quite rings true.