James Lee has finally come of age, and with him, independent Malaysian film (or more accurately, digital video).
A lanky, laconic figure who often sports a mohawk and downplays his experimentation as a part-time sideline to commercial TV work, the Ipoh-born Lee has been honing his craft for nearly a decade moving beyond amateurish imitations of Jim Jarmusch where quirky characters seemed to inhabit a lot of dead, plotless space.
In Call If You Need Me, a taut study of petty criminals shot in a month on a low budget, his long takes, real-time, off-hand dialogue and minimal exposition combine to superb effect in charting the pull of human loyalties. This is a gangster film that works without violence or even revealing, until close to the end, that these pill-popping, pleasure-seeking if girl-shy goof-offs are gangsters at all. And Lee wisely lets singer turned actor Pete Teo and sleepy-eyed Singaporean cult actor Sunny Pang (cast as a country bumpkin who rises by default to gang boss) carry the weight with amazingly nuanced and uncontrived nonperformances.
Without overt political intent, Call If You Need Me shows a Malaysia that may shock many. Here's an entirely amoral, unrelentingly materialist nation that's 100% populated by Hokkien Chinese. This is no devout, mostly Muslim society, nor some showcase of the harmonious multiculturalism shown in destination commercials. Instead of being "truly Asia," to quote the country's official tourism slogan, Lee's Malaysia is truly segregated. The film won the silver prize in the Hong Kong International Film Festival's Asian Digital Competition. Too bad the miniDV shooting format, and timid distributors, will keep this instant noir classic from getting the wider response it deserves.