VIFF 2012 Review: IF IT'S NOT NOW, THEN WHEN

The world can be a dull and sullen place. Movies of the mainstream variety offer an easy if not cathartic diversion from the humdrum with momentary distractions full of thrills, horrors and laughs where things happen for a reason. Festival films tend to be creatures of a different sort--still a form or escapism, but unafraid of dystopia in its unanswered forms. James Lee, one of the leading figures in new Malaysian film, is a director that spreads his artistic endeavors across the festival-mainstream lines. Lee is best known in his home country for his edgy genre films: from the full-tilt action of The Collector to the extreme horror of Histeria, not to mention his controversial and heavily censored Clay Pot Curry Killers. Festival goers are likely to have a completely different perspective of Lee from a slate of more low-key films that explore the dark yet subtle effects of social isolation, including his award-winning My Beautiful Washing Machine and his critically acclaimed Love Trilogy. His most recent film, If It's Not Now, Then When? firmly lands in the later prospectus with an added self-assurance to his thesis on unrelenting bleak moments.

The focus of Lee's film is a shattered nuclear family as they resentfully go through the motions of their netherworld life in Kuala Lumpur. The revealed components of this family consist of two adult daughters, an adult son, a mother, and the vestige of a father no longer present, represented in his broken down BMW that they keep in the carport. The mother (played by Pearlly Chua) spends her days secretly meeting a man for long walks in the park while passively caring for her kids. Although one of her daughters is married with two kids, her other daughter (Tan Bee Hung) and son (Kenny Gan) are adrift. She leaves food for her daughter and stows cash in a place where her son can think he is stealing it. The daughter attempts to find fulfillment in a hollow affair with her married boss, and the son works very hard at being disenfranchised youth in the form of a petty thief and a miserable companion to his sincere girlfriend. Social deviation, especially within the family unit, is the plat de jour served in this oppressive representation of false hopes and damaged dreams.

There is little space for humor in this laconic examination of interpersonal dynamics. As a mater of fact, more is said in this film by what is not, and the audience is forced to feel their way around the dropped hints and visual clues. One intuits that the father is dead, and also that the current schism is either a result of his sudden void or, more likely, a continuation of a dysfunction that he either initiated or perpetuated. Lee is also quick to turn the tables on our first impression of a lonely overweight woman, who is a friend of the family and who we assume is something of a sociopath. Quite the contrary, she is at least making attempt at social norms. The film does have a brief glimpse of happiness when the brother and sister sing a depressive love song together with a rudimentary Casio keyboard. The silly yet tender moment is a release from the silent suffering (and also a tidbit of foreshadowing) in a film built around a serious portrait of individual aberration. The mother will never reveal her daily courtship, and the daughter and son seem destine for self-destruction. But the downward spiral is a conscious choice of social revolt, not misanthropy, keenly and suddenly defined by Lee's final closing sequence. The anticipatory nature of the film's title insinuates that a page will turn on the growing discontent, but Lee's answer, at least within conventional conceptions, iis hardly resolute.

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