Credit: Giornate degli Autori
by Morris Yang Featured Film

Snow in Midsummer — Keat Aun Chong [Venice ’23 Review]

September 7, 2023

The titular expression of Chong Keat Aun’s sophomore feature, Snow in Midsummer, has a political signification beyond its outwardly meteorological imagery. In Guan Hanqing’s The Injustice to Dou E, a Chinese play written during the Yuan dynasty, snow in the peak summer month of June is one of three divine phenomena — alongside blood raining inexplicably from the sky and a drought lasting three years — to manifest following its eponymous character’s wrongful trial and execution at the hands of a corrupt court official. As a symbol of justice’s miscarriage, the snow defies natural (and ostensibly moral) order, plunging a world of life and community into winter and decay; this perversion has endured in dramatic form over the centuries, culminating most famously in modern Chinese opera rendition which, incidentally, features in Chong’s film through the comings and goings of a Chinese opera troupe.

Divided into two chapters set nearly fifty years apart, Snow in Midsummer situates this troupe against a backdrop of tragic historical violence: on May 13, 1969, following Malaysia’s first general election after Singapore’s separation, racial riots broke out in the capital Kuala Lumpur, motivated by a sectarian schism between the ruling pro-Malay coalition and the fast-gaining Chinese-dominated opposition. The violence resulted, officially, in at least 196 deaths — who were mostly buried in mass graves on the city’s outskirts — and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency, effectively suspending parliamentary democracy for two years. In the film’s first half, set during the riots, the Poh Cheung Choon troupe stage a run of Guan’s play in a Chinese enclave, attracting a sizeable turnout (while the rest head down, at night, to the splendorous Majestic Theatre for sold-out screenings of both Malay- and Chinese-produced films). Threats of imminent unrest in the evening, however, force the troupe into hiding, while a woman and her daughter in the audience unwittingly find themselves seeking refuge with the former.

The apprehension and abject terror of this night are transmuted into scars of remembrance in 2018, nearly half a century later. Ah Eng (Wan Fang), the daughter, is now a middle-aged woman living in Penang, and her pensiveness masks a lifetime of regret. With her father and brothers killed during the riots, she has constantly sought — against the wishes of her husband — to find their resting places. As she journeys across Malaysia and back to the capital she once called home, she no longer quite recognizes those landmarks of memory (for instance, the Majestic, where most of her family were implied to have been killed, has been demolished and rebuilt); its spaces have been thoroughly urbanized and transformed, with even the riot victims’ graves threatened by redevelopment and relocation. In Chong’s film, geography is history: communal districts and ways of life precede ideological alliances even as they are undoubtedly shaped by them, and the simmering ethnic tensions within aren’t foregrounded the way contemporary state-sanctioned films reduce loyalties to uninspired tropes and thereby narrativize history.

Instead, Snow in Midsummer wears its influences fairly openly on its sleeve, most of all Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness. While Hou’s film offers a much more expansive and intimate examination of political repression in wartime Taiwan, Chong’s comparatively modest ambitions serves him well in realizing a sense of national fervor and loss, mediated equally through the film’s sweeping panoramas of urban social life (1969) and its more personal focus on memory and collective grief (2018). These dual periods are both imbued arrestingly with an allegorical, otherworldly register: ghosts and other figures reemerge from shadowy legends to puncture the present, as, for instance, in a telling account from the literary Malay Annals of a king’s humiliation by the Sultan of Malacca. But Snow in Midsummer does not wholly rely on this register, to its benefit. There’s something quite moving about the juxtaposition of a 13th-century legend to contemporary and ongoing malaise, which suggests, to some degree, that the muted and ghostly refractions of Malaysia’s tumultuous national history are not so much unresolved as they are downplayed and left to be forgotten. In a way, the film’s central metaphor crystallizes this perfectly: nothing burns in summer, and everything is left to wither slowly away.

Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2023: Dispatch 1.