Why is it so difficult to represent childhood convincingly onscreen? The widespread assumption is that the mere image of the very young brings out the filmmaker’s urge for emotional manipulation and the audience’s overeagerness for surrender. Adults who are easily overcome by a child’s adorability don’t have much of an eye for the unique intelligence and resourcefulness of youth, and often end up either ignoring those qualities or romanticizing them. But if movies are going to sustain their capacity for delight in the world’s sensory pleasures amid our jaded, image-saturated culture, there’s still much for them to learn from the ever-renewing inquisitiveness of the innocent. Malaysian-Chinese director Liew Seng Tat’s feature debut, Flower in the Pocket, has arrived at the perfect moment, offering a kind of companion piece to So Young Kim’s Treeless Mountain, which has received much praise for its unsentimental portrayal of children amidst economic uncertainty. Like Kim’s film, Flower treats the preciousness of its two young protagonists as a given, and accepts with grace and dignity the fact that they (along with all the rest of us) will have to learn how to navigate an imperfect world.
We are first introduced to the Chinese brothers Li Ohm and Li Ahn as the misfits at school, getting in trouble with their teachers for loitering around campus and (in a moment reminiscent of the precocious boy photographer in Yi Yi) taking an unorthodox approach in art class. Out of step with an education system that threatens to squash all their idiosyncrasies, the boys become street urchins aimlessly wandering the town of Jinjiang, sometimes with a stray puppy they find in a trash heap. The film moves through a series of seemingly unremarkable anecdotes that unexpectedly become suffused with a sense of wonder. Liew has a gift for conjuring bittersweetness out of details as simple as the brothers sucking on ketchup sachets, a large blow-up clown flapping in the wind, and a small fish wriggling up a narrow stream.
Click here to read the rest of Andrew Chan's review of Flower in the Pocket.