Over the weekend, Nil and I managed to catch the locally made Cantonese film entitled “The 3rd Generation” starring Nicholas Teo, Carmen Soo and Amber Chia. You see, after having watched all three of its trailers online, I decided to go against my better judgment and drag Nil to what I thought would be an ‘eye-opener’ film for him. That whole “get to know my Chinese heritage better”.
At the end of the film, I swear it was more like “get to know boredom better the Malaysian way”.
The story, which revolved around the Chinese saying of how wealth obtained in the first two generations could never pass the ill-fated 3rd generation, focuses itself on a family of supposedly rich Chinese merchants who had made it big in Malaysia during the first initial waves of migration. Specifically the story of Charlie, the only son and thus, the heir apparent of his father’s ’empire’. Now, how rich is rich exactly? Let’s just say that they were rich enough to have a road named after their forefather(s) and send two children abroad for a long overseas education. Bear in mind that money back then was unlike money now. To continue with the story, the children, like most of today and yesterday, come home all totally soaked in Western culture and ready – half-heartedly or otherwise – to perform their filial duty as Chinese children stereotypically do.
Charlie (Nicholas Teo) is no different. He wears his Western shirt collars up, choosing to done those colourful, almost ethnic but sometimes gaudy shirts rather that his patriarchal father’s stiff Mandarin collared solid coloured shirts/jackets and has a Western educated girlfriend, soon-to-be-wife in the form of Susan (Amber Chia). She has no qualms exposing her arms and belly – something which my long dead great-great-great grandfathers and grandmothers from Penang (where the family is supposed to be based) would balk and frown in disapproval.
Anyway, Charlie finds himself inheriting the business automatically and ‘forced’ into a marriage. Force itself would be subjective since one has no idea as to whether he really loved Susan or was just with her out of loneliness, boredom or responsibility.
On his stud night, he encounters not a cabaret dancer or waitress as proclaimed by other reviews but a cleaning lady named Linda; and might I add was she young, pretty and very unlike most cleaning ladies you knew had existed. Fast forward and you find Linda working in Charlie’s company. Throughout the film, nothing much is said about her except for the cryptic, super short convos (I wouldn’t even call them conversations actually) with her aunt and uncle. All I noticed was how she placed her shoes, how small she felt when asked where she studied and the same few dresses which she seem to wear over and over again throughout the film.
Charlie loves Linda. Now that is obvious. He spends more time with her. Talks to her. Feeds her morsels of grubs during their not-so-secret meetings. They never hold hands, unlike modern couples and it is almost as if they want to but cannot. It is funny because the hawker stall owner who knows them well enough to know what they like to eat every night could easily come to the conclusion that Charlie, a well-known rich man’s son and very much married, was having a little something on the side.
As for Susan…well, he doesn’t pay her much attention. He barely holds a decent conversation with her, rarely smiles and doesn’t seem to want to have babies with her on a regular basis. One actually wonders whether he was really in love with her at all in the first place and how they came to be together. After all, following someone home all the way from UK is not something every girl can do just like that. Despite it all, she remains naively loyal to him (it could be that or she has no choice but to submit) and blindly obedient to the point where she keeps on telling herself in her Christian prayers that she wants to do something for the Chan family and that doesn’t mean helping run the business but have a baby.
Perhaps on a deeper level, Linda gives Charlie that sort of old-school familiarity and tradition. Something his generation secretly craves for despite being exposed to all the trappings of an equally rich and vibrant but radically different Western culture. On a superficial level, she shares a similar religious belief – being a devotee of the Goddess Kwan Yin – dresses very much like Penangite ‘modern’ women (at least I saw her donning on a cheongsam twice!) and is ever demure with a simple hair bun or straight flowing hair down her back.
Susan is quite the opposite with her flamboyant hairdo and earrings, choosing to done on either hot pink tight pants (which would cause some men to faint either in horror or lust) or a host of other Western outfits. She defied tradition in many ways; by choosing to eat with a fork and a spoon (when chastisized by the patriarch, Susan excuses her behaviour to “am used to it…been like that since I was young BUT I’ll change”…), by sleeping in while the rest of the family offer their prayers of respect to the Chan ancestors and so forth. She is Catholic by faith unlike the rest of the Buddhist Chans, choosing to go to the church every Sunday in the morning with her huge Jackie O’-like glasses and a rosary which she kisses in faith.
Yet despite the grandiose tale of love, art-like flavour of shots and the cryptic dialogue between the three – a triangle of love – it ends like how all things Chinese end. On a very stereotypical and realistic note. A love like Charlie’s and Linda’s can never materialize outside their world. Despite what people may think of Chinese men taking on several wives to satisfy their ‘flavour of the month’ cravings, in mid-19th century Penang, it was hardly encouraged. (Nevertheless, throughout the film, we see how the elder Chan visits a former flame – or at least that was how I saw it. Perhaps it is true what people say – “like father, like son”.) Just for kicks, I would have liked to see Linda marry into the family but the woman managed to pull the stops on everything before I even thought of the idea.
Perhaps heartbroken, dejected and stricken with tears of a lost love, Charlie found himself being consoled by a loyal, desperate wife whose prayers for some form of contribution to the Chan family were finally realized some months later. A boy, signified by three red coloured eggs and two typical confinement dishes – ginger chicken and pork trotters stewed in vinegar and ginger.
And the film ends. There is no mention to what happens to all the characters after the birth of the fourth generation. Does Linda continue to work with her boss whom she loves but has to let go? Does Susan continue to stick by her husband with doe-like affection and loyalty? Will Judy (Charlie’s sister) wait forever for Seng? So many questions left unanswered in this arty tale of Chinese culture and love.
The film would have been an excellent watch had it not been for a few things:
- The repetitive bits at the end when Linda suddenly announces that it is over and we see Charlie in tears, with an equally sad song playing in the background.
- The whole range of other stories going on in the back – the sister and Charlie’s two spoilt rich brat of friends.
- The father’s constant visits to an old lover (I honestly don’t see how that had a place in the story.)
- The sporadic appearance of an elder brother whose face we never saw – he appeared a few times in the beginning and after that, it was as if he never existed.
- Seng. Now who is Seng? We only see him playing a harmonica, blowing out the theme song of the movie and hear him talk occasionally, that is when the old man has something for him to read or do. Oh, and that part when he got arrested? I really did not get that.
- The constant flipping between past, present and what-not which totally was illogical, IMHO. First it was “three months ago”, then “three months later” and then “1 day earlier”…and then it goes back to the scene earlier but not before saying “three months later” again. HUH?
- Linda’s uncle and aunt. Did they really have to be in the picture?
Because of these factors and more – some would say – the pace of the film became slow and draggy, almost to the point of being monotonous. Nil got lost halfway, unable to understand what the entire story was about even though subtitles were available. I have it easier because of my past training as a film major and the fact that I don’t really like to take films at face value. (Just had to say this but isn’t it strange that despite the cryptic dialogue, we can see and understand a love triangle and the struggle between duty and love when we see it?)
I’ll be very honest when I say that this film has its faults such as the language spoken in the film itself – Cantonese and Hakka in Penang??? – and the sometimes very corny, very uninspiring dialogue plus the pace. However, like with all films and everything else in life, there is always something good. The proportions of the shots, the richness of the colours, cinematography, the soundtrack, the blending of proverbs/sayings with actual footage…
It is a good attempt at producing an arty film in a country where funding for non-Malay films are virtually zero and subjected to censorship.
Now the biggest question of them all.
Would you watch it again?
Yes. Just to bask in the culture that I knew was once similar to my parents and the ones before them. Just to bask in something very Chinese in a country which is becoming more Muslim than multi-racial. It feels that way, sometimes, you know? Sometimes I really don’t mind. Other times, I just want to be reminded that this is my heritage, my culture, and my tradition – good AND bad.
ps: Support, and encourage not pour on more shit; especially when we keep complaining about how our film industry isn’t growing, isn’t doing stuff, isn’t this or that.