Wu Kang Ren and Jack Tan Go Against the World in Abang Adik

Facing inequality in contemporary Malaysia in the neo-realist award-winning Malaysian film.

Two brothers go against the world in Jin Ong’s Abang Adik. The searing domestic drama chronicles the plight of the undocumented orphans, Abang and Adi, as they circumnavigate life in the underbelly of Kuala Lumpur. Though fundamentally connected, the brothers’ outlook on overcoming hardship couldn’t have been more dissimilar. While the earnest Abang goes on the more dignified route, the impetuous Adi bends and breaks the rules by peddling phoney IDs to those who are, very much like him, desperate enough for one. 

Abang Adik is a gripping exposé that confronts the uncomfortable reality of life amid a bustling and burgeoning city but restrained just in time so as not to swerve into poverty porn—a testament to Ong’s empathetic sensibility as a filmmaker. It is a sharp commentary on the unexamined marginalised community—the stateless society—whose future is forever in limbo, anchored by a couple of committed performances from Taiwanese model-turned-actor Kang-Ren Wu and our very own singer-actor Jack Tan. 

“It is something common in this country. But their experiences were something distant to me; I knew of their existence but I didn’t know their stories,” said Tan on the research he had done before taking on the role of Adi, which included spending the bulk of his time with faceless foreign workers. “Being closer to them gave me the opportunities to listen to their stories and understand the reasons they are here as well as the difficulties that they face. I’m more open to lending a helping hand now if they ever need one,” he added. 

Tan’s involvement in Abang Adik came naturally after striking up a rapport with Ong through their past collaborations on Shuttle Life and Miss Andy. He was always aware of the veteran producer’s intention to make his directorial debut and jumped on the chance once he learned about the story Ong wanted to tell back in 2020. Tan appreciated the fact that the film would show a part of Malaysia that had been shrouded in secrecy for the longest time, one that would put a spotlight on a group of people who live on the fringes of society. 

Wu, on the other hand, had to fight for his part. “Even though I was given the opportunity to read the script, I knew for a fact that I wasn’t the only candidate capable of playing Abang,” he recollected. “I understood that getting a Malaysian actor to play this role might have been a better idea but I really liked the story and I was willing to put an effort into understanding the character and taking part in any pre-production demands,” he said. Those included getting himself familiarised with dactylology.

“I spent most of my time in Malaysia learning sign language,” he commented on his preparation to play the deaf-mute protagonist. But the main concern, as it turns out, was to eschew any hint of fluency given that the character is deprived of any form of formal education. “We also had to take Malaysia’s diverse racial makeup into consideration as the gesticulation would often mix multiple languages,” he added. It was a tall order but Wu was adamant in accurately portraying and representing the community in question. 

Asian families, as we all know, are not as expressive. But it’s different for the deaf-mute because a lot of their communication includes physical gestures like hugging when they say ‘I Love You’.

Mastering the art of communication through fingerspelling is particularly challenging in Abang Adik, as part of the film also demystifies familial affection in Asian households. “Asian families, as we all know, are not as expressive. But it’s different for the deaf-mute because a lot of their communication includes physical gestures like hugging when they say ‘I Love You’,” said Tan. “They are very straightforward and expressive. There are fewer pushes and pulls to make sure the messages reach precisely. The gestures oftentimes get bigger, with more force, when they want to emphasise something,” Wu added.

This unflinching commitment to the craft has evidently paid off in spades as the duo continues to rake in international accolades such as the most coveted Best Performance award at China’s FIRST International Film Festival earlier this year. More recently, Wu and Tan landed the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor nods, respectively, at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival and Awards, with the former bagging the coveted prize. The film itself has been collecting some prestigious hardware as it makes its rounds in the festival circuit. All of these beg the question: have they had the chance to celebrate?

“If we were to celebrate, then we would have to do it multiple times since we are getting quite a number of awards,” said Wu before breaking into laughter. He wasn’t at all wrong. The buzz surrounding Abang Adik is only going to get louder when the film opens domestically on 14 December 2023. That said, are the actors cautious about the strict regulations that locally produced films are subjected to? Fellow filmmaker Amanda Nell Eu recently disowned her pride and joy, Tiger Stripes, after it was heavily censored by the country’s Film Censorship Board. This came on the heels of the film’s historic Grand Prize win at Cannes Film Festival’s Critics Week and official selection as the Malaysian contender for Best International Feature Film at the 96th Academy Awards next year.

“Censorship is not much of an issue for us. The main concern was whether or not we could even release Abang Adik in Malaysia. Fortunately, we received the green light from the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia,” said Tan confidently. It is a promising sign for the film and the industry at large since, as Wu diplomatically put it, making a Chinese-language movie in the country poses different challenges—from securing the funding to getting the right creatives for the roles. “The process of filming was rather toilsome but I believe a good piece of work attracts the right talent. I felt the solidarity, the passion, and the determination everyone had while we were making Abang Adik,” he concluded.

Abang Adik opens in Malaysian theatres on 14th December 2023.

Translation Lorraine Chai