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Review: Ice Kacang Puppy Love (2010)

Ice Kacang Puppy Love

初恋红豆冰

Malaysia, 2010, colour, 1.85:1, 103 mins.

Director: A Niu 阿牛.

Rating: 7/10.

Lively heartwarmer of growing up in 1980s Malaysia is a strong directing debut by singer-actor A Niu.

STORY

Penang island, Malaysia, early 1980s. Botak (A Niu), the son of a coffee-shop owner, is secretly in love with tomboy Zhou Anqi, aka Fighting Fish (Li Xinjie), who’s grown up with him since she and her mother Yuefeng (Chen Mei’e) came to live with them a decade or so ago. Their teenage friends all have various crushes on each other and are also too shy to reveal them: Botak’s fat younger sister (Lin Jingmiao) on Prince Charming (Huang Pinguan), who wants to be a singer; local bully Ma Linfan (Cao Ge) on Fighting Fish, who’s always stood up to him; and Ma Linfan’s silent younger sister, Ma Libing (Liang Jingru), on Prince Charming, and vice versa. Angry at her mother for deserting her no-good father (Wu Qixian) when she was still young, Fighting Fish sets out one day to find him, with Botak in tow.

REVIEW

Popular Malaysian singer A Niu 阿牛, aka Chen Qingxiang 陈庆祥 [Tan Kheng Seong], who’s appeared in a couple of Hong Kong films over the years (Summer Holiday 夏日的么么茶, 2000; Para Para Sakura 芭啦芭啦樱の花, 2001), gives a big boost to his country’s small Chinese-speaking industry with Ice Kacang Puppy Love 初恋红豆冰, a beautifully shot, immensely likeable ensemble movie. Though it’s loaded with local singers (including Cao Ge 曹格 [Gary Chaw], Huang Pinguan 黄品冠 [Victor Wong], Liang Jingru 梁静茹 [Fish Leong] and Wu Qixian 巫启贤 [Eric Moo]), several of whom have become well-known via Taiwan, the film’s biggest asset internationally is actress-singer Li Xinjie 李心洁 [Angelica Lee], Malaysia’s best-known acting export after Yang Ziqiong 杨紫琼 [Michelle Yeoh], here making her first film in her homeland since she left for Taiwan 15 years ago. Though both she and A Niu are now in their mid-30s, both easily manage to convince in roles half their age, and Li in particular, in a beautiful tomboy role that seems tailor-made for her, shows her lustrous charm is still intact after the muddy-looking, bottom-of-the-barrel thriller Missing 深海寻人 (2008), directed by Xu Ke 徐克 [Tsui Hark].

There’s nothing particularly original about the movie’s plot, which is largely a patchwork of small incidents inspired by A Niu’s own childhood, bound together by a lively, Spanish guitar-led score by him and Wu Guanyan 伍冠谚 [Chet Ng], eye-pleasing but untouristy photography by Yang Junlin 杨俊麟, and seamless editing by Lin Weide 林伟德. But it wouldn’t have worked without the ensemble performances by A Niu’s friends and colleagues, none of whom show the awkwardness that often afflicts similar films from neighbouring Singapore. Though largely in Southeast Asian-accented Mandarin, the dialogue is naturally flavoured – like the ice kacang drink of the title – with a host of other dialects (Hokkien, Hakka, Cantonese) and languages (Malay, Tamil) without becoming too broad or dirty. And though the overall tone is idealised, the nostalgia is neither the main event nor trowelled on with period references: the ending is both simple and very moving, with a neat coda.

Apart from a brief burst by Huang, A Niu has also resisted the temptation to make either a de facto musical or song-laden movie. The famous 1980s song, Pure Contemporary Love 纯文艺的恋爱, is used as an occasional refrain but no more. It’s the characters who drive the film, with A Niu himself taking a low-key part as the lovelorn Botak, Cao amusing as the hopeless bully, Liang affecting in a silent role, Huang loking very “period” as a wannabe singer-cum-hearthrob (a role that deserves to have been expanded) and Chen Mei’e 陈美娥 excellently cast as the long-suffering mother of Li’s tomboy. The best news about Ice Kacang is that Malaysia could have a commercial Chinese industry beyond the arty, minimalist doodlings favoured by festival programmers.

CREDITS

Presented by Asia Tropical Films (MA).

Script: A Niu, Lai Changming [Dennis Lai]. Photography: Yang Junlin. Editing: Lin Weide. Music direction: A Niu, Wu Guanyan [Chet Ng]. Production design: Zhu Lixia [Dora Chu]. Art direction: Fu Wenhui. Sound: Pan Guoqiang, Daniel Tang. Action: Huang Junming.

Cast: A Niu (Botak/Baldy), Li Xinjie [Angelica Lee] (Zhou Anqi/Fighting Fish), Cao Ge [Gary Chaw] (Ma Linfan), Huang Pinguan [Victor Wong] (Baima Wangzi/Prince Charming), Liang Jingru [Fish Leong] (Ma Libing/Barley Ice, Ma Linfan’s younger sister), Yi Jieqi (Radio), Wu Qixian [Eric Moo] (Zhou Anqi’s father), Chen Mei’e (Yuefeng, Zhou Anqi’s mother), Lin Jingmiao (Botak’s younger sister), Guan Dongming (Dinosaur), Huang Weigang (Fried Chicken), Chen Guokun (fish-shop owner), Dai Peini (Botak’s girlfriend), Zhang Dongliang, Zeng Ruobing (passers-by at end), Cao Sanfeng (coffee-shop baby).

Release: Malaysia, 15 Apr 2010.

(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 1 Jun 2010.)