Myths, childhood tales, and life stories come together in an endearing narrative made of surrealistic beauty and penetrating realism in Year Without A Summer, Tan Chui Mui’s second feature film that presents a bittersweet romanticism of innocent friendship in the rough simplicity of rural life.
The film opens to a spellbinding sequence of moonlit reminiscing between three friends, Azam, Ali and Minah on a night fishing excursion, before weaving into a fluid series of scenes from the friends’ boyhood past when one of them slips into the ocean never to return.
Beneath a bright silver moon, the friends speak of events transpired in each other’s absence, strange myths of old and shared snippets of the past, a brilliantly dreamy snapshot of old friends awkwardly rekindled in the pulse of the ocean.
Then, perhaps a reflection of life itself, Azam disappears as abruptly as he came, a mirrored repetition from his departure as a youth, leaving but traces of conversations, half-remembered legends, recollections of familial love that is so commonly taciturn in a state of poverty, as well as the formative memories of a friendship littered with near-heartrending innocence, honest boyhood camaraderie and an endearing simplicity.
With a firm grip of compositional aesthetics, the two timelines merge into a contrasting blend of juxtaposing scenes: the present, a surreal picturesque visual trail of hypnotic quality. The past: bright, sharp and striking with a punctuating realism; as if a visual interpretation to the warm but ill-at-ease nature of old reunions as well as the pure, simple teenage innocence that is, at times, far truer than any life experience.
Add that to a brilliant cast of professional and indigenous actors, and Year Without A Summer becomes a subtly powerful emotive piece that first invites you to a warm, quiet night out amongst the waves, then through conversations in its lush green forest, childhood misadventures, longings and familial bonds in cozy wooden homes, to tell a story that is at once familiar and strangely distant, mythical and captivatingly real.
The one small complaint I could muster is perhaps the undeveloped perspective of Minah’s character in the long flashback narratives, seeing as she serves as an obvious presence in the story’s overall framework.
However, what I found most interesting as an urban Malaysian viewer is the film’s potential to serve as a summary to very real, very human, yet very local sentiments, especially in our current state of shrouded anxiety, social-political absurdities and looming economical uncertainty.
For beyond its picturesque observations of kampung life, what Year Without a Summer ultimately captures and so eloquently portrays is the ever-gnawing restlessness for something greater in a restricting environment, the unwavering bond of our homebound friends, and finally, the bittersweet longing to experience once again, the innocence we’ve long forgotten.
Screening of Year Without A Summer can be found here.
Phang Kuan Hoong is an indie musician and avid movie lover. He is also an ex-journalist who currently writes for ads.
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