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Review: Malaysian hit film Abang Adik probes the extent of brotherly love

Abang Adik
Wu Kang-ren and Jack Tan play two undocumented, orphaned brothers in Abang Adik.

In Malaysian screenwriter-director Jin Ong’s Abang Adik, two brothers couldn’t seem more opposite. Abang, played by Taiwanese star Wu Kang-ren, is the responsible one. Even though he’s deaf and mute, Abang is eager to work, accepting low wages as a wet-market meatcutter in Kuala Lumpur’s Pudu ward.

His younger brother, Adik, played by Malaysian actor Jack Tan, is more criminally minded, seeking to cut corners to get by. Yet these two orphans share a deep bond.

With great camaraderie, they crack hard-boiled eggs on each others’ heads. And they swap stories—Abang through sign language and Adik through words, which Abang comprehends with the help of a hearing aid and lip-reading. Abang is always looking out for Adik, even though Adik is the one who can speak.

Yet as undocumented slum dwellers, they’re constantly on the run from the authorities, who regularly conduct sweeps of the neighbourhood.

But how far can brotherly love go when Adik’s propensity for law-breaking puts him in serious peril? What will be the outcome when one brother has trust in the system and the other doesn’t?

Midway through the film, Ong’s Hitchcockian script takes an abrupt turn, ratcheting up the tension. Dark lighting, haunting music, and long silences reinforce the mood as the brothers individually ponder their fates.

Abang Adik
Taiwanese actor Wu Kang-ren lost a great deal of weight in advance of taking on the role of Abang.

Abang tells Adik that he must change

What really makes Abang Adik so memorable is the acting. Wu delivers a performance for the ages as the deaf-mute character, conveying more through his eyes than many actors can muster with their entire beings. Is it any wonder that the slimmed-down Wu picked up the 2023 Golden Horse Award for Best Leading Actor?

“Playing a deaf-mute character and learning ‘Malaysian sign language’ was a challenge,” Wu said at a 2023 news conference, according to the Malay Mail. “But playing a stateless person and walking in their shoes is a bigger one.”

Tan is also riveting as his character valiantly responds to a predicament of his own making.

At one point in this neo-noir film, Abang tells Adik that he needs to change and become a good person. That’s the dilemma driving the plot to a conclusion that’s full of surprises.

Watch the trailer for Abang Adik.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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