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TIFF 09: "At the End of Daybreak" (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia)

Responsibility goes both ways in At the End of Daybreak, Malaysian director Ho Yuhang's fourth feature.   Blame at first seems to fall to parents, whose wealthy heavy hand with their daughter Ying (Jane Ng) and whose buddy-buddy relationship of an alcoholic single mom with her son Tuck Chai (Chiu Tien-you) make the kids' romance an act of adolescent, unconscious cross-class resilience, if not rebellion.  But each youth has their own problem, and when their relationship is discovered, the fact that Ying is 15 and Tuck Chai is twenty-three forces each to focus on her and his own concerns, and their idyll crumbles apart.

Ho's modest and sensitive feature portrays this small but universal world—that of a boy and a girl, perhaps in love but probably not, and the omnipresent influence of their parents—with a surprising lack of sentimentality and force-fed genre contexts.  Instead, At the End of Daybreak is stylized, and erratically so.  Whereas Ryuichi Hiroki's two films It’s Only Talk (2005) and Love on Sunday (2006)—which share with Ho's film a serious but not overly-solemn appreciation for both the concerns and the world of teenagers and their relationships—have a consistency and coherency which ironically has made that work unmarketable, Ho nearly seems to approach each scene with a different idea of depiction and style.  This provokes a dynamism in the material, taking a typical plot, taking its characters and its social situation with earnest directness, and then seeing what each individual scene or idea needs to be brought to life.

This perhaps paints At the End of Daybreak as exaggeratedly stylized, but Ho's approach to his concerned but quintessentially irresponsible children and equally characterized parents is a minor but relentless questioning of his own material, as if wanting to push it farther and deeper. The film’s finest achievement is evoking in each kid, both the female teen and her older lover, a sense that they seem to want not just each other but something more from life, something not satisfactory in a simple relationship, something fundamentally unresolved around them.  In a way, At the End of Daybreak likewise evokes this quality, the film itself having a subtle, askew aspect to its own evolution.  On the immediate surface a normative, earnest human story treated with an unmeasured inventiveness, Ho's film eventually seems to end up like his characters, impressively simple hearted and just barely beginning to show glimpses of existential wonder and worry.

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