Abang Adik Movie Review: An intense, character-driven and poignant film about identity and the inequities of our time

Abang Adik Movie Review: An intense, character-driven and poignant film about identity and the inequities of our time

Abang Adik is a harrowing tale of the search for identity and dignity. Themes of poverty, sacrifice, loyalty and redemption play out in this powerfully moving two-hour film
Abang Adik(3 / 5)

Ong Lay Jin’s intense film about two undocumented immigrant brothers in Malaysia lays bare all the struggles of striving for an identity. It is from that identity, of being legal (for the want of a better word) with proof to show for it, does acceptance begin. It shouldn’t be the case, because immigrants without papers make up a fair bit of the workforce. They contribute much to the economy (often being compensated below par) and its overall functioning. Despite the exploitation and the constant fear of deportation, people in the said circumstances beat on. Because, what choice is there, really? Another depressing reality of our times.

Director - Ong Lay Jin  

Cast - Wu Kang-ren, Jack TanSerene LimTan Kim Wang, April Chan, Bront Palarae  

Streaming On - Netflix

Belonging to this milieu in Kuala Lumpur are Abang (Wu Kang-ren) and Adik (Jack Tan), two orphan brothers who are poles apart. Their bond dates back to a shared childhood, a very challenging one where survival was the first priority. The older, Abang, though hearing and speech impaired, assumes the role of protector. As they grow into adulthood, the former matures into a hardworking man bent on doing all the right things. His dream is to be a legal immigrant, with all the requisite documentation to prove it. Adik is wayward, often getting himself involved in nefarious schemes. He scoffs at the idea of applying for authentic identification, telling Jia En (Serene Lim), a genuinely concerned social worker, that he’d prefer a fake ID, instead. Abang slogs away at a butcher’s shop where he cuts and cleans chickens for a living, often taking on other odd jobs to supplement his income. Adik works with a fraudulent agent involved in making illegal immigrants legal by unauthorised means. The irony of his situation is not lost on anyone. By the end of each night, Adik returns to the tiny tenement he shares with his brother, to find care and comfort. Food is kept on the table for him, always. Abang may be upset by Adik’s reckless and unchanging ways, but he never once loses faith in steering him on the straight and narrow.

The film unfolds in a bleak manner, with the viewer having this uneasy feeling at the pit of their stomach. Some moments of hope make you wonder if their circumstance will ever change. Wu Kang-ren’s earnest portrayal of Abang encapsulates the story’s tone. Something in those deep, melancholic eyes tells you that he has accepted his fate, for better or for worse. His acting forces you to look away, even for an instant, for, the situation is unrelenting. It’s hard enough to put up with constant police raids, but to deal with a loose-cannon brother living on the edge…now that’s downright depressing. His patient, understanding way does not cease. Abang’s counsel may fall on deaf ears, but Adik cares for his brother deeply. He even asks Ms. Money (Tan Kim Wang), their caring neighbour, whether Abang would abandon him if he got married and started a family of his own. “Silly boy! He’s the one who loves you the most in the world.” Her words reinforce Abang Adik’s principles – loyalty and filial love. In the absence of parental figures, all the brothers have ever had is each other. Abang may get annoyed with Adik whenever the latter chooses to be impulsive, but he lets it go as a parent would. Provide counsel and hope for the best. 

Eggs take them back to a difficult childhood when food was scarce; Abang cracks a boiled egg open gently on his brother’s forehead to stop him from crying. That small act serves as a metaphor for their bonding all the way into adulthood. Ms. Money asks, “What is it with you two and eggs?” Abang’s hope lies in the faith he bestows in social worker Jia En. She believes they both have a fighting chance to obtain legal status, information Adik rejects sarcastically. It is Abang’s hope of striving for a better, more dignified existence, that fuels the film, and serves as inspiration. A valid criticism of this intense, character-driven story is that it is set in one tone, from start to finish. There are some instances where we see the light, but they truly are few and far between. In addition to the aforementioned scenes involving Jia En, it is only Abang and Su’s interest for one another that falls into this category.

Abang Adik is a harrowing tale of the search for identity and dignity. Themes of poverty, sacrifice, loyalty and redemption play out in this powerfully moving two-hour film. It shows things as they are, not as they ought to be. Unsettling and too close for comfort, one might say, but so very real. For that and the high acting standard it aspires for, the film deserves full credit.

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