The awards keep coming for "Flower in the Pocket," a slip of a film whose genuine humor and lack of pretension, not to mention palpable warmth, set it above the general run of new Malaysian cinema.

The awards keep coming for “Flower in the Pocket,” a slip of a film whose genuine humor and lack of pretension, not to mention palpable warmth, set it above the general run of new Malaysian cinema. Though demonstrably affiliated with the distancing style of the ultra-low budget Malaysian trend, freshman features helmer Liew Seng Tat is fortunate to have a couple of rascally brats around whose mischief-making offsets a tone too willing to hold the viewer at arm’s length. Prizes at Pusan and Rotterdam guarantee a healthy fest life, though expectations may be greater than pic’s mild charms.

Neither of the Mandarin-speaking Ma boys — older brother Li Ahh (Lim Ming Wei) and younger Li Ohm (Wong Zi Jiang) — are exactly model pupils, though perhaps if their teachers showed them the slightest interest they’d be better students. As it is, when not in school they’re on their own, free to wander the neighborhood and fend for themselves.

Workaholic dad Sui (James Lee, helmer of “The Beautiful Washing Machine”) spends his days repairing broken mannequins, more comfortable with imitation humans than his own children. Only after about an hour into the story are the kids seen in the same frame as their father, though little warmth passes between them and when Li Ah cuts his hand on broken glass there’s no thought of waking his dad for help.

Contrast comes when the kids befriend fatherless tomboy Atan, aka Ayu (Amira Nasuha Binti Shahiran), easily a match for their rambunctiousness but with a nurturing mother (Mislina Mustaffa) whose maternal remonstrations and care are the polar opposite of Sui’s nonexistent parenting skills. Not that the script offers any tension between the two family types — Liew offers no real development, content in letting everyone just exist.

Like much of the new wave of Malaysian cinema, the coolly observational camera provocatively challenges auds to become involved, as if Liew is experimenting with the idea of making the viewer care while insisting on keeping everything at an unemotional distance. Questions too can be raised about the functionality of certain scenes: What’s the purpose of an extended sequence showing Sui washing his face and brushing his teeth, when similar pointless images have been seen so often in the last few decades?

Fortunately, the two boys are natural-born performers, and while acting is wildly uneven among the minor characters, the kids’ impish delight in making trouble fills the square format with plenty of personality. Certain moments of humor may work best at home, but enough comes through to help pass over the longueurs. Liew takes more care than many of his colleagues in offering reasonable digital quality, though use of music is both inconsistent and poorly integrated.

Flower in the Pocket

Malaysia

Production

A Da Huang Pictures production. Produced by Yen San Michelle Lo. Executive producers, Tan Chui Mui, Liew Seng Tat. Directed, written, edited by Liew Seng Tat.

Crew

Camera (color, BetaSP), Albert Hue; music, Arif Rafhan Othman; production designer, Gan Siong King; costume designer, Wong Tay Sy; sound, Ong Cheng Lam; assistant director, Charlotte Lim. Reviewed at Rotterdam Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2008. (Also in Pusan, Vancouver film festivals; Berlin Film Festival -- Generation Kplus/Forum.) Running time: 97 MIN.

With

Lim Ming Wei, Wong Zi Jiang, James Lee, Amira Nasuha Binti Shahiran, Mislina Mustaffa, Mak Inom, Azman Bin Md. Hasan. (Mandarin, Malay dialogue)

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