Arts Film Review Singapore

★★★★☆ Review: Barbarian Invasion dir. Tan Chui Mui

Finding strength and power through film.

“When I was younger, film was everything,” says director Roger Woo (Pete Teo), in Malaysian filmmaker Tan Chui Mui’s new film Barbarian Invasion. “Now, everything is film.”

In many ways, that’s the quote that encapsulates Barbarian Invasion as a whole, as it considers the thin line between fiction and reality, and the redemptive qualities of performance and film. Playing as part of the 32nd Singapore International Film Festival, (SGIFF), Barbarian Invasion tells the tale of award-winning Malaysian actress Lee Yoon Moon (Tan Chui Mui herself) who’s since fallen into obscurity and the droll of divorcee life, while caring for her young son Yu Zhou (Nik Hadiff Dani). Wanting a change of scenery, she jumps at the opportunity to star in a new action thriller by her old friend and longtime collaborator Roger.

Right from the start, Tan leaves no question about the burden motherhood brings, with Yu Zhou being difficult and demanding for a set of Hot Wheels. As much as Moon loves him dearly, he almost becomes a ball and chain that constantly thwarts her efforts at regaining her independence. While in the middle of training, Yu Zhou constantly interrupts, whether it’s charging headfirst into the arena, or running off on his own and almost getting lost, to the exasperation of his exhausted mother. As Moon herself puts it: “once you become a mother your body belongs to society, and your child is your best work.”

The main tension of Barbarian Invasion then, lies in the audience’s support for Moon, and how we cheer her on to succeed at landing this role. While completely untrained at the beginning, through gruelling, unrelenting training, bearing blows, bloody noses and hours of hard work, Moon eventually emerges a physically and mentally stronger version of herself. As director and actor, Chui Mui makes these training montages feel gritty and real, and that she really is an amateur fighter growing from strength to strength with each subsequent exercise; one particularly harrowing sequence sees her being ganged up on by the other students, while her trainer (James Lee) simply sips a cup of kopi by the side.

The more Moon learns, the more she seems in control of herself, confident and renewing her lease on life, and finally ready to play the lead in Roger’s Bourne Identity-‘inspired’ film. But just as quickly as we celebrate her triumph, the rug is pulled from under her, as Roger reveals that her ex-husband is to star opposite her. There’s a devastating scene, as Moon dejectedly deflates a doughnut floatie, a pathetic image that symbolises her own deflated ego. A series of angry words and bruised pride later, and she makes the difficult decision to leave the film on her own terms, a final, defiant act of independence.

It is at this point that Barbarian Invasion makes a complete transformation, and Moon is suddenly forced into using her newfound skills to literally become the character she was slated to play. Think police chases, exploring seedy clubs, and even street brawls with burly, tattooed gangsters. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, and Moon even takes a leaf from Battle Royale and turns a mechanical pencil into a lethal weapon; her life in short, unexpectedly and suddenly becomes precisely the action film she’s been training for, complete with fantastically choreographed and filmed fight scenes.

The double twist in Barbarian Invasion can easily be derived from the sudden tonal change and the narrative. But whether or not you realise it by the time they reveal it never detracts from how through it all, the film remains true to its central message of overcoming adversity with determination. Moon makes for an unusual but effective protagonist – who hasn’t felt like they’ve lost their way at some point, and needs a jolt to bring us back to life?

Regardless of whether it’s a case of life imitating art or art imitating life, by the end of the film, it is through the decision to embark on the project, and process of preparing for the film that allows Moon to find her way back to herself, and reclaim her identity as a talent. Barbarian Invasion ends on a hopeful, celebratory note, all smiles and celebration as it wraps, and perhaps, suggests that we too need to let ourselves go, and pursue our own wants fiercely and determinedly, if we are to live life to the fullest.

Barbarian Invasion screened on 29th November and 1st December 2021. More information available here

SGIFF 2021 runs from 25th November to 5th December 2021. For more information about the SGIFF, visit their website here

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