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CathayPlay Film Review: Year Without A Summer (2010) by Tan Chui Mui

"Some fishermen said they saw mermaids swimming at night"

From the director's statement: Maybe I forgot to tell you, I am quite obsessed with unnecessary knowledge. When I was 12, I read an encyclopedia cover to cover. I found the title “” from Wikipedia. It was 1816, and there was no summer in that year. In some places in America and China, there were even snowfalls during summer. I can imagine the climate abnormalities must have stirred a sense of doom day at that time. The crops died, the sky was often orange tinted, famines and war broke out everywhere… the fear, and the confusion. Many years later, scientists believe that the climate abnormalities were mainly caused by the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia of 1815, the largest known eruption in over 1,600 years. My story is not about volcano eruption, nor climate abnormalities. My story is about how people often live, without knowing much about what happened to them. In a way, my film is about history of sadness. 

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The first part of “Year Without a Summer” takes place in the present and is largely set in the moonlight. One evening, singer Azam returns to the village he was born in and was so eager to move away from as a child. He meets his childhood friend, Ali, and his wife Minah, and the three of them go night fishing, in a small island close by. They spent some time there, talking about a number of things, from local folklore, to their families, to Silat. Eventually they go to the boat again, and Minah shows she can hold her breath for three minutes underwater. Azam tries to do the same but time passes and he does not seem to resurface. 

The second part of the movie is much brighter, and takes a look at the childhood of the two friends. Azam, despite his father's efforts to keep him in the area, wanted to live for Kuala Lumpur even as a young child. Ali would follow him around, essentially ‘living” from the experiences Azam had. 

As with the majority of her filmography, “Year Without a Summer” is a rather personal movie for , since it is shot in her hometown, a small fishing village called Sungai Ular, while a number of the stories heard, particularly in the first part, seem to have an intense local flavor. Apart from this, the two parts differ significantly in tone and narrative approach. 

The first part unfolds much like a shadow puppet play, with the shadows and the thin moonlight making the characters barely visible for the most part, thus forcing the focus to be on the dialogue. The discussions about the past of the three and their relationship with their relatives sheds some light in them as characters, but the folklore aspects seem to have a very local and even personal flavor, that is quite difficult to be understood by any ‘outsider'. The finale of the segment cements the magical realism and mystery driven aesthetics, in a way that somehow works however. 

The second part implements a more grounded, down to earth and into realism approach, essentially a coming of age story about a boy who wanted to leave the rural area and become an artist, perhaps in a parallel with Tan Chui Mui's path in life. The interactions between Azam and his father, and Azam and Ali stand out here, in a style, that, as in the first part, reminds intently of a stage play. 

If you like Year Without a Summer, check the interview with the director

It is also in this part, however, that the visual aspect of the movie comes to the fore, with DP Teoh Gay Hian presenting a series of impressive images, both long and mid-shots, with the ones in the forest and the beach, which occasionally look rather dystopian, being the ones that stand out. Tan Chui Mui's editing allows the narrative to unfold in a rather slow pace, with the cuts occasionally being somewhat misleading regarding the timeline, fitting though, the magical realism premises of the movie. 

Regarding the acting, as Azam is the one who steals the show, particularly with his smiles, while Mohd. Norsuhaizan Hanafi as young Azam is quite convincing in the role of the rebellious teenager. 

There is such a thing as a film being too personal, and this definitely applies here, with the non-Malaysian viewer probably having issues identifying the symbolisms found particularly in the first part, while the locality of the setting makes it difficult to empathize with the characters. At the same time though, the overall atmosphere and the job done in the visuals result in a movie that ‘demands' to be appreciated with the senses rather than logic, and will definitely appeal to fans of slow, utterly art-house cinema. 

About the author

Panos Kotzathanasis

My name is Panos Kotzathanasis and I am Greek. Being a fan of Asian cinema and especially of Chinese kung fu and Japanese samurai movies since I was a little kid, I cultivated that love during my adolescence, to extend to the whole of SE Asia.

Starting from my own blog in Greek, I then moved on to write for some of the major publications in Greece, and in a number of websites dealing with (Asian) cinema, such as Taste of Cinema, Hancinema, EasternKicks, Chinese Policy Institute, and of course, Asian Movie Pulse. in which I still continue to contribute.

In the beginning of 2017, I launched my own website, Asian Film Vault, which I merged in 2018 with Asian Movie Pulse, creating the most complete website about the Asian movie industry, as it deals with almost every country from East and South Asia, and definitely all genres.

You can follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

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