|Dark and largely unsatisfying, At the End of Daybreak is difficult to recommend. And yet simply dismissing the film is equally difficult. Directed by Ho Yuhang (Rain Dogs) and serving as the closing film for the 6th Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, At the End of Daybreak is an accidental noir about some terribly unlikable people, whose greed, jealousy, obtuseness and anger lead to their presumed just desserts. Though these are disturbing situations, the characters are so distressingly recognizable that genuine pathos is achieved. Audiences looking for resolution or complete narratives may find At the End of Daybreak disappointing if not bewildering. However, discerning filmgoers should easily find value in this uncompromising and sometimes surprising little work.
Tuck (Tsui Tin-Yau) is 23 year-old Malaysian from a lower class family, who lives with his divorced mother (Kara Hui) and generally lays about doing nothing. He dates Ying (Ng Meng-Hui), a fifteen year-old schoolgirl whose quiet defiance defines her character. Their relationship is sexual but not one of exceptional affection, so it should be no surprise to Tuck that things go quickly south once her middle-class parents learn of their relationship. Threatening to charge Tuck with statutory rape, they instead blackmail him and his mother for more money than they have. Fittingly, situations spin out of control, and one bad turn begets another. In the end, maybe everyone should have just tried to get along.
At the End of Daybreak's story is simple, possessing few overtly shocking twists or turns. However, surprise does exist in how Ho chooses to tell his super-unhappy tale. There are many instances in the film that Ho could milk for violence or shock emotion, and yet he curiously looks away, instead showing the moments and details surrounding the film's most potent events. For example, one terrible act is never seen, with Ho concentrating on the tense build-up and the comedown, the actors showing an admirable lack of self-consciousness in portraying characters and situations that are ugly, pathetic and yet very credible. Unintentionally, even blindly, Ho's characters stumble headlong into tragedy, with their capacity for darkness surprising even them.
The film does possess violence, but it's strangely ancillary to the main action. One scene involves a sudden mother-son slap fight that resolves very little. And yet it's probably one of the film's most important scenes, revealing characters and relationships in an unexpected and effective way. Guilt, anger, shame and other terrible emotions are demonstrated indirectly but eloquently, the characters taking greater importance over pretension or thematic need. For example, Ying is the cause of the film's spiraling events, but she's a complex, real creation and not some screenwriter-crafted spark intended to start a flame. Her character is not simply defined; Ying's motivation isn't active, and is instead a confluence of emotions and situations that convince because they're so familiar. She may be the film's femme fatale, but she's one by accident, not design.
The characters that Ho creates seem real - but perhaps too real. Character arc doesn't exist here at all, and as such the film doesn't deliver a journey that most audiences would warm to. At the End of Daybreak's meaning is ultimately not overt; this isnít a film about how some choices should not be made, or how following the Golden Rule would be much better than blindly serving oneself. Ho Yuhang basically creates a situation and characters and lets them play out as they might, free of manipulation or obvious editorializing. Style here is spare; music is practically non-existent, shorts run above average length, and urgency is seemingly never created through technique. Ho's guiding hand is practically invisible, but the tension that he creates startles in its quiet ability to affect.
Aiding Ho are his actors. Tsui Tin-Yau's Tuck is immature and temperamental, but the actor gives him an almost sad sympathy. Young Ng Meng-Hui is a fine counterpart as Ying, earning understanding while also remaining appropriately unlikable. As Tuck's mother, Kara Hui owns her role, bringing a real depth of emotion to her relationship with her son. Their relationship carries a slightly disturbing edge in its closeness, but Ho deftly avoids turning their bond into unnecessary sensationalism. The mother-son relationship is actually the film's key, providing the film with its payoff. Unfortunately, that payoff is subtle - so subtle, in fact, that one could easily not notice it. Like last year's subtle office romance Claustrophobia (also a closing film at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival), At the End of Daybreak is compelling and also frustrating, its revelations mostly wordless or offscreen, with little audience reward beyond stark, silent filmmaking excellence. There's genuine thought and effective technique here, and even without a satisfying storyline or forthcoming themes, what Ho Yuhang creates is accomplished, powerful and very worthwhile.
(Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2009)