Are you brave enough to reveal your family’s darkest secrets? Saw Teong Hin’s Hokkien play Hai Ki Xin Lor did just that.
SOMETHING lingered in the air that night in this older part of Penang, something mystical and ancient. It vibrated like the plucked strings of a violin and the gathering crowd felt it.
Whatever it was, a quietness enveloped the Leong San Tong Khoo Kongsi clan house, Lebuh Cannon, George Town. But not for long. The voice of a girl which said, “We shall start after the call to prayer” broke the silence.
It was on the heels of this prayerful note that Penang-born filmmaker Saw Teong Hin’s Hokkien play, Hai Ki Xin Lor: You Mean The World To Me, began at this rustic venue. The Hai Ki Xin Lor, which ran from last Thursday to Sunday, was possibly one of the most talked about shows at the recent George Town Festival 2014.
The cast included Frederick Lee, Neo Swee Lin, Tan Ai Suan, Chelsia Ng, Chin Teo, Skyler Tan, Winnie Yap, Ho Sheau Fung, Janice Leong and Chong Jie.
Originally written for a film, Saw had to put the project on hold as many interested parties insisted the play used Mandarin instead.
The director, better known for Malaysia’s first epic saga Puteri Gunung Ledang, stuck to his guns, as he knew the play will only work in Hokkien and finally the festival came a-calling.
“I really appreciate how adamant Teong Hin was to have the play in Hokkien. It stays true to its origins and there is no other way to do it. It had to be done in Penang Hokkien,” said Chelsia Ng, a Penangite herself.
English and Mandarin surtitles were provided.
Hai Ki Xin Lor tells the story of Sunny, a filmmaker who returns to Penang to revisit his past as inspiration for his latest project. He visits his sister in the process and heartbreak abounds.
“This story is about family and however messed up it is, family will still be family,” said Frederick Lee, who plays Sunny.
This honest and daring play touched on elements that would speak to any audience. It dealt with family, love, ambition, disappointments, sacrifices and secrets. And it was these themes that formed the skeleton of the show that annulled the language barrier and conjured something very truthful and relatable.
The key figure in all of this is Sunny’s mother played by the brilliant Singaporean actress Neo Swee Lin.
“I don’t have children of my own but I drew inspiration from my own mother and how blind and how devoted she can be. You tend to overlook the flaws,” said Neo.
It is this blind devotion that triggered the drama of it all. Sunny had an older brother who suffered a mental illness. His mother is very protective of the older boy, notorious for walking around half naked much to the disdain of the neighbours. His misbehaviour and gross indecencies are brushed off.
Much to the horror of the audience, the older boy is seen being physically intimate with his mother in a daring and provocative scene. It felt like an impending doom was approaching. Why was the mother obliging her son’s sexual advances? Why did she not stop it? This was the blind devotion Neo was talking about.
Cut! Bright lights came on, the set was crawling with people in black crew T-shirts and Neo’s character asks “Was that okay?” All this while, the story of Sunny’s past unfolding before the audience at the Khoo Kongsi last Friday was not really his childhood memories per se but the filming of his movie.
One thing was certain. It seemed necessary for Sunny (and possibly Saw) to reenact these crucial moments and live through them. Such was the state of this healing journey, painful though it seemed.
The storytelling of Hai Ki Xin Lor, was done masterfully. The audience were lulled into believing that this was just like any other ordinary family story. But like a boxer, Saw jabbed the audience incessantly with one dark revelation after another, culminating in this final blow.
Kudos to Saw for bravely baring it all. The Penangite has never been coy to admit that his play is almost an autobiography and the fact that he was open to share his demons is truly commendable and this writer appreciates the gesture.
Some of the cast members said they took on this job because it was Saw’s story – raw and honest.
At the end, Hai Ki Xin Lor was a redemptive tale. In the final scene, with Amazing Grace playing in the background, Sunny and his sister make amends. The darkness was at bay and light was returning. This powerful scene served as a balm to the soul. Hope and forgiveness seemed possible and that is the takeaway message of this masterpiece.
One character rightly said, “There are three phrases which are most difficult to say. I love you, I am sorry and I need help.”
Whatever darkness abides in one’s life, especially in the family, never allow it to grow. Love, forgive and seek forgiveness. All else will be well.