Title: The Tiger Factory
Starring: Fooi Mun Lai
Director: Woo Ming Jin
Malaysia isn't exactly a country well known for its output of cinema, and little research on the matter shows that wikipedia has a list of all the major theatrical releases from this part of the world. Quite frankly, if wikipedia can make this list, then it's not exactly big business, and one glance at this film and you can quickly ascertain that the budget it was shot on wasn't exactly through the roof. In fact much of it initially comes across as somewhat amateurish with its use of handheld camera and the lack of editing of the scenes, but oddly, here this works in its favour. It's stark minimalism in the script yields a very realistic 'fly on the wall' feel; as though its less about telling a story as it is showing the life of our lead, and the very unapologetic manner it displays her life and the hardship is forced to endure, allowing each painful point to be drilled home in a slow and grinding fashion.
Ping Ping is a young migrant worker from Burma, forced to work two jobs – one at a restaurant and another at a pig farm, artificially inseminating pigs for breeding – all despite being heavily pregnant, pressured by her aunt and sole guardian in the belief that working is good for the child. In an effort to save up enough money to pay a local human trafficker to get her out of the country for a better life in Japan, she suffers setback after setback when her savings and passport is stolen and her under the table deal with a rival pig farm worker, selling semen from their prize pig is discovered, landing her without work. After delivering a still born birth, her relationship with her aunt takes another twist as we learn of her business in selling the offspring to new parents, and making the decision to be inseminated and try for another child to earn her passage abroad, learns more still more truths about her aunt.
Sadly, this minimalist motif employed also results in providing some major drawbacks, most notably the complete lack of a musical score for emphasis at key moments coupled with the inexperience of those involved; it never really gains any momentum, even as the end approaches, and despite the dark themes evident from the outset they are never really given the opportunity to show the gravity of her plight. The coldness of what would seem atrocious is evident from the complete lack of emotional response; it is a business venture and treated as such in an entirely detached manner; a father is chosen based on his health and is paid for his work; clients haggled with for the product of this lucrative business, but there is little contrast – only coming in the form of a few short scenes with Mei and Kang – to lend weight to the lows by showing the mundane nature of the highs.
There are also certain aspects of Malay culture that were never explained to a Western audience where a simple caption would have sufficed, meaning there were points where you had to make certain assumptions, and it really could have done with just a few short scenes to connect some of the dots. Had the direction and acting had been expressive enough to back up the story, it could have easily resulted in a thoroughly immersive and moving experience, but it never quite got there. It remains a fascinating and believable insight into what life might be like living in the depths of depravity as a Burmese migrant worker, forced into a inhumane situation in order to escape, but ultimately has a short-lived appeal.