James Lee was one of the pioneers and mainstays of the so-called Malaysian New Wave of the early 2000s. One of the most interesting phenomena to appear in the cinema of South East Asia thanks to the advent of digital technology and the “democratization” of film production practices, that memorably intense season is remembered for its low-budget productions which experienced considerable success at international festivals, especially in Asia, providing a valuable model and inspiration for other “new cinema” movements in the region and outside it. One of the fundamental characteristics of the Malaysian New Wave was the mutual collaboration between filmmakers who lent their support, in one way or another, to their colleagues’ productions. For example, Lee – who was the movement’s forerunner – was director of photography on the acclaimed debuts of two of his Malaysian New Wave colleagues, Woo Ming Jin’s Monday Morning Glory (2005) and Tan Chui Mui’s Love Conquers All (2006), and was lead actor in 2007’s Flower in the Pocket, the award-winning debut of Liew Seng Tat. Lee also made a name for himself with his intimate films that examined the delicate workings of love, as well as with his mysterious The Beautiful Washing Machine (2004), considered by some as one of the seminal works of the Malaysian new cinema.
Due to the model’s lack of sustainability, which was mainly caused by an absence of institutional and economic support for productions mainly made in Chinese languages (and therefore not considered “national films” in Malaysia) and aimed at the international festival circuit (and therefore snubbed by cinema programmers and local audiences), the Malaysian New Wave gradually died off. But James Lee managed once again to be a pioneer: he had in fact already embarked on a second career in the commercial production of genre films with 2008 horror movie Histeria, subsequently specialising in genre production and horror and action films, interspersed with TV series and commercials.
Lee finally comes to Udine’s Far East Film with his latest exploration of the world of terror, Two Sisters, a very pleasant surprise where, with his usual low-budget approach, Lee breathes new life into established tropes and paradigms. Shot in a couple of weeks in the large villa where it is mainly set, Two Sisters opens with an ominous prologue that foreshadows a disturbing childhood trauma. From there, the narrative jumps to the present day to document the divergent fates of the two sisters of the title: one, an established and respected writer, the other and unstable patient in a psychiatric institution who is about to be discharged for a trial period. The first takes charge of the second, bringing her back to the family home where she inevitably ends up exploring the roots of her issues. What is most interesting about what follows is that Two Sisters is a film that remains tethered to a psychological rather than an effects-driven vision of horror. With doors that must not be opened, recurring nightmares, threatening shadows, sudden noises and a startling crescendo where reality becomes confused with projections of the subconscious, Lee evokes the pleasures of a kind of horror that doesn’t manifest as nightmarish creatures or explosions of gore. Making the most of his limited resources and coaxing effective performances from his actresses (Emily Lim and Mei Fen Lim), James Lee has produced his most convincing horror film yet, almost perfectly balanced between the aims of the story and a gratifying use of the mechanisms of the genre. Because even though anyone familiar with horror tropes will certainly guess the secret behind the two sisters’ plight before the climax, the savoir faire with which Lee plays out his games of identity slippage and the re-emergence of what has been repressed is hugely impressive, and the finale still manages to be painful and unsettling. A success which promises a great deal for the surely numerous films of Lee to come.