Things go from bad to worse in Tan Seng Kiat’s directorial debut Shuttle Life.
“All your worries, all your problems, let them all fall away.”
This song, as sung by Hui Shan (Angel Chan) echoes throughout the movie, usually in main character Qiang’s (Jack Tan) memory. It’s the voice and the words of someone far younger and far more innocent, who doesn’t see the world the same way as her older brother. Qiang is a young Malaysian living in Kuala Lumpur, looking after both his mentally ill mother (Sylvia Chang), and his six-year-old sister Shan. He and his friends spend evenings stealing cars to help make ends meet, sometimes even bringing Shan with them.
On her sixth birthday, the gang decide to drive down on their scooters to a cake shop, to celebrate, before heading back to their usual food stall. But the unthinkable happens when a hit-and-run driver takes out Qiang, putting him in the hospital. Shan is not so lucky. Things only get worse when he finds his mother refuses to take her medication and is slowly losing her grip on reality, and the morgue refuses to release his sister until he shows a birth certificate. His life spiralling out of control, Qiang is left with few choices, as he struggles to keep his head above the water.
The focus of the film here, is the divide between the rich and the poor in Malaysia. Director Tan shows this effectively, especially in the scenes near the end, when the group is invited to an MP’s party, to discuss their situation. Qiang and his friends are shocked at the presence of a water truck (during a time of drought), tonnes of uneaten food (which Qiang, his survival instinct kicking in, begins to shovel into bags) and people discussing what actors to hire for a fundraiser. Seen from Qiang’s point of view, it’s an alien world filled with people who pretend to care. The point is made strongly, but is never really hammered in. There isn’t a moral per se, but there is a point.
The realism in how Tan handles mental illness and scarcity saturates the whole movie. Using only diegetic sound and plenty of eye-level shots, he makes us forget that this is a film, and this happens several times during, right up until the bitter, heart-wrenching end. By giving us a simple story, with characters complicated enough to seem real, while straightforward enough for us to understand their motivations, backed with a great cast, Shuttle Life keeps you riveted throughout.
Sylvia Chang does a great job here, almost losing herself to the role and a few times made me forget it was even her. But she never overshadows her co-stars, namely Jack Tan, whose day job is singer. Despite the lack of experience, Tan puts on a powerhouse of a performance, and it’s largely thanks to him – his reactions to the world around him, and the people he interacts with – that we care at all for the characters. His chemistry with his friends, and more notably, his little sister (who, by the way, is the most adorable thing I’ve seen on screen this year) is powerful and lets us connect with the story in a way we might not necessarily have done before.
The acting brings out th/e human side of the story. Without the acting, it would have been a good drama, but potentially would have lost its connection with the audience. We might not all live in the same level of poverty as Qiang and his family, but everyone’s felt that desperation and that sense that everything is falling apart. It relates to our basic, human struggle to survive as best we can, and do our best for friends and family. And when it comes to fight, or flight, sometimes all we can do is hope things get better before they get worse.
Verdict: A strong premise and a brilliant cast make Shuttle Life a very compelling, if pretty miserable, look at Malaysian life.
Overall entertainment: 9/10
Violence: Some hitting, some running
Water: Very little
Malaysian Ringgit: Helps to learn the conversion before watching this
Bureaucracy: Just the worst
Shuttle Life (2017)
Also known as: Fen bei ren sheng
Director: Tan Seng Kiat
Writer: Tan Seng Kiat, Siew Hong Leong
Jack Tan – Ah Qiang
Sylvia Chang – Mother
Angel Chan – Hui Shan
Mei Yan Gan – Xiao Chuan
Juztin Lan – Bao Tou
Jack Yap – Fei