Berlinale 2023 review: Tomorrow Is a Long Time (Jow Zhi Wei)

“A delicate coming-of-age story that doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure but rather cuts the story in half not just in the narrative sense but also in visual approach, Tomorrow Is a Long Time is a film for an audience with patience.”

It is perhaps somewhat lazy to namedrop the likes of Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tsai Ming-liang when describing a certain kind of Southeast Asian cinema, but when discussing Jow Zhi Wei’s lovely debut Tomorrow Is a Long Time it is almost inevitable. The aesthetic approach Jow Zhi Wei takes, the long moments of silence, camera slowly panning, all evoke the masters of contemplative cinema. This is ‘slow cinema’ at its finest, especially because Jow Zhi Wei isn’t aping his more famous predecessors but shares sensibilities and sensitivity with them. A delicate coming-of-age story that doesn’t follow a traditional three-act structure but rather cuts the story in half not just in the narrative sense but also in visual approach, Tomorrow Is a Long Time is a film for an audience with patience, and one that touches upon several thorny subjects in Singapore society.

Between a difficult relationship with an always working father (Leon Dai) and the deteriorating health of his grandmother, 17-year-old Meng (a wonderful performance by Edward Tan), a sensitive kid in an isolated position, is a bit of a loner. Preyed upon by a group of school bullies, he becomes a member of their gang through a series of cruel initiation rites. His widowed father is working long hours at a pest control company, where the pressure of having to provide for his son and the health issues from the toxic chemicals he works with make his labor increasingly hard. When an illegal co-worker dies on one of his shifts and he is urged to move the body, guilt starts gnawing at his already overworked heart. Meng in the meantime has gotten himself in trouble following an act of violence that his new ‘friends’ try to let him take the fall for. He is given the option to do military service, and with nothing left to lose he takes the opportunity.

The film then shifts to the jungle, traversed by Meng and the small military company he is part of. There seems to be a true camaraderie among the soldiers, and when Meng over a campfire confesses it is his birthday, the ritual his squad members make him go through evokes an earlier ritual that got Meng accepted by the bullies, but the tone is much friendlier. As they lie on the forest floor to sleep, Meng opens up to Kishod (Lekheraj Sekhar) and the two share a moment of spiritual intimacy. When the company is attacked the next day and Kishod is wounded, the company tries to reach safety. While hiding in a cave, Meng is abandoned by the others and forced to find his way out of the jungle by himself.

The film’s shift is not just marked by the fact that one of the protagonists, the father character, disappears from the film (though you could say he later returns to Meng in a moment of magical realism that calls Uncle Boonmee into memory). Although not a massive change, Jow Zhi Wei switches style as well, if not tone. The first half, which arguably focuses more on the father than on the son, is characterized by carefully framed shots and well thought-out blocking, and through the father’s story raises issues about worker abuse and illegal employment. Meng’s school bullying arc is less interesting, but is important for his development in the film’s second half, as is the relationship with his father.

The second half begins with the film’s only moment of significant use of music, already signaling a change straight from the start. Because of the switch of environment, moving from the city to the jungle, the framing immediately changes and so does Jow Zhi Wei’s use of the camera, even at times employing a handheld. With the focus now fully on Meng, the most important part of his journey is in this chapter. His relationship with Kishod clearly goes beyond friendship, although neither moves on it. Throughout the jungle journey Meng comes to terms with his own nature, but also with nature itself, both by being part of it and overcoming it in his quest to escape the forest.

The confidence with which Jow Zhi Wei navigates through his unusual narrative and directorial choices is remarkable for a first-timer. Tomorrow Is a Long Time is a film that announces a new Asian talent, and while not all is perfect (the attack in the jungle feels out of place, and the unexplained abandonment of Meng puzzling) there is more than enough promise to get excited. “No one sees the regret of daily life,” says a song that poetically connects the two halves of the film, and it is a statement that helps us contemplate Meng’s arc. In these moments Tomorrow Is a Long Time is not easy to penetrate, but when Jow Zhi Wei ties it up in the final shot the film proves to have staying power.

(c) Image copyright: Akanga Film Asia