Circumstances spin far beyond the protags’ control in “At the End of Daybreak,” Ho Yuhang’s beautifully shot, noir-like tale of an adolescent girl’s illicit relationship with a complicated young man. The outline is misleading, since the narrative is very much a sum of parts, and though the parts feel frayed, Ho expands his visual vocabulary and proves he’s the most interesting — and possibly most talented — of the young Malaysian helmers. Winner of the Netpac prize at Locarno, the pic will likely coast along the fest circuit, becoming a sought-after DVD when Ho eventually hits the arthouse big time.
In earlier pics (“Min,” “Rain Dogs”), Ho kept his distance, striving for a tricky balance between pure observation and subjective understanding. Here he’s loosened up, allowing himself short scenes and closer shots, with the result that the characters come alive and maintain interest even when still more is wanted.
Tuck Chai (Chui Tien-you), 23, is in a relationship with 15-year-old Ying (Jane Ng). An early scene of Tuck Chai pouring boiling water on a trapped rat evokes understandably negative audience reactions, but Ho’s greatest success is the way he upends expectation, bringing Ying’s nasty streak to the surface as Tuck Chai’s more complex character takes over audience sympathies.
Ying’s mother (Mandy Chong) flips when she discovers birth control pills in her daughter’s room, demanding cash from Tuck Chai and his mother (Wai Ying-hung) — even though Ying’s family is well off, while Tuck and his mom struggle to make ends meet — in exchange for not filing a statutory rape complaint.
Tuck’s mom has led a less-than-idyllic life: Abandoned by her husband for her rich sister, she’s increasingly hitting the bottle, struggling to maintain a maternal relationship with Tuck Chai despite times when the son has to parent the mother. When she does manage to scrape the cash together, Ying’s parents take the money but renege on the deal, setting in motion an unexpected chain of events driven by their casual greed and their daughter’s moral emptiness.
Ho’s accomplished visuals, full of sophisticated connecting devices and handsome pans, at times upstage the story, which feels less thought out than the manner in which it’s crafted. He makes little of the class distinctions between the two families, and a sudden break in the narrative (“two weeks later”) feels disruptively artificial. Likewise, a scene featuring an inappropriate erection plays clumsily, doing little to further the contradictions already felt in Tuck Chai’s character.
Notwithstanding these imperfections, the helmer has caught that feeling of dread inherent in noir, when innocence mixes with greed and stupidity to create inexorable disaster. The young cast is solid, but it’s Wai, as usual, who leaves a lasting impression.
Lensing by Ho’s regular d.p. Teoh Gay-hian, is flawless, and the helmer’s feel for music is, as always, unerring. Pic’s Chinese moniker translates as “Devil in the Heart,” a more descriptive, though perhaps more melodramatic title.