Venice 2023 review: Snow in Midsummer (Chong Keat Aun)

“In its second half, Snow in Midsummer leaves behind the lavish reconstitution of the past, for an approach closer to the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul.”

Snow in Midsummer is the second feature film by Chong Keat Aun (whose debut film The Story of Southern Islet earned him the Best New Director prize at the 57th Golden Horse Awards). It is haunted in every way by an historical event that saw the roots of the director, a Malaysian of Chinese descent, clash with one another: the “513” incident, which stands for May the 13th of 1969. On this night, following a general election that saw the coalition ruling the country since its independence being, for the first time, seriously challenged by opposition parties defending the rights of the Chinese part of the population, riots broke out in Kuala Lumpur. The Malays burned cars and shops, killed and looted in the Chinese areas of the capital. Hundreds of Chinese civilians were murdered, with lots of them buried namelessly in mass graves as the government was looking to minimize the scale of the tragedy. State of emergency was then immediately declared, instituting curfew and suspending the parliament as well as the press.

Snow in Midsummer is divided into two parts: the first, set in 1969, brings back to life the memory of this dreadful day, and the second, set in 2018, provides a space for the ghosts of the victims and their descendants to meet. Separated by half a century, the two chapters of the film are very distinct in their tone and aesthetics. The first one is reminiscent of classic historical dramas such as A City of Sadness by Hou Hsiao-hsien or A Brighter Summer Day by Edward Yang. Like them, Chong Keat Aun revisits, by telling it on an intimate level, a tragic event which disrupted his country’s history on a massive scale. What we get to see of the “513”, the final hours leading to it and the immediate aftermath, is what the members of the family at the centre of the movie (father and mother, daughter and son) experience and understand of it. A denied claim for an official identification paper, a sudden cry of alarm urging people to hide immediately wherever they can, the distant rumble of destruction and gunfire while you cannot and dare not get out of your refuge. Most of the time, Chong Keat Aun encompasses his characters in wide shots which make them seem smaller than their size, as they are overwhelmed by the proportions of the city and its buildings. This serves as a strong visual echo to how individuals are powerless in the face of the global course of history, even when they are its prime players and victims.

The film shows one way by which people can reclaim some measure of control over their lives – art. The story of the 1969 chapter is told through different mediums, all put on the same level. There is the impersonal and distant official regime propaganda issued through the radio, the personal experience of the riots discussed before, and its transfiguration through art, here in the form of a Chinese street opera troupe performing the play (also known as Snow in June or The Injustice to Dou E) which gives its title to the movie. We see some parts of the play being performed, others being prepared backstage, which is also where the daughter Ah Eng and her mother take cover during the riots, never to hear again from the father and son. The first part of the tale of Dou E echoes the ordeal of the victims of the “513” – executed even though innocent – and the second part superimposes itself with the half of Snow in Midsummer set in 2018.

In the Chinese opera, the ghost of Dou E manifests herself to the living; in Chong Keat Aun’s film, while Ah Eng searches relentlessly for any trace of her father and her brother, she encounters the spirit of Dou E (whether it is her ghost or an actress impersonating her) in a mass grave of Chinese killed in the “513”. In the background, a mobile excavator forces upon us a striking visual exhibition of what the sequence is about: the fear that the memory of the victims of the “513”, instead of being recovered, gets even more erased as a consequence of the demolition of the graves, to clear space for more urban development. In its second half, Snow in Midsummer leaves behind the lavish reconstitution of the past, for an approach closer to the cinema of Apichatpong Weerasethakul (the scene with the mobile excavator disturbing the resting place of ghosts is a clear reference to his masterpiece Cemetery of Splendour), halfway between harsh reality and strong spirituality. The emotions conveyed are just as powerful in both cases, whatever the era displayed and the pictorial approach opted for.