Days of the Turquoise Sky (Woo Ming Jin, 2008)
Malaysian Title: Kurus
Woo Ming Jin's Days of the Turquoise Sky possesses a gorgeous simplicity that is quietly arresting. Woo's film shows a remarkable affinity with Hou Hsiao Hsien's A Summer at Grandpa's (1984), a meditative ode to childhood innocence which details one summer spent by two city-bred siblings in their grandpa's countryside home. Adult concerns are dealt with but mostly with subtle brushstrokes, like in the suggestive discussions about the father's incurable gambling problem in Woo's film or the parental concerns in the backdrop of Hou's film. Attention is given to the concerns of the youth, through their quaint interactions they share with each other, reflecting on their volatility in the midst of slow and steady change.
Days of the Turquois Sky is a collection of familiar facets of growing up, nuanced but never to the point of them calling attention to themselves. Woo keeps the narrative minimalist, skirting away from drama and histrionics and instead, maintaining an observant, if not reminiscent, stance on these commonplace eventualities. The story centers on Ali (Arshad Zamir), who lives with his father (Namron), a public servant left inutile and impoverished by his gambling debts and partially salvaged from being a parental embarrassment by his nextdoor neighbor (Mislina Mustapha). At school, Ali and his best friend Hassan (Ahmad Muzhaffar Mustapha) are constantly bullied by a pair of their classmates, Eli (Muhammad Fadhirul Anuar) and his heavyset pal, Iqa (Nursyafiqa Izzaty). Romance comes into the lives of Ali and Hassan through their new English teacher Miss Carol (Carmen Soo) and a new student Nora (Anis Nadia Jilid), respectively.
A conversation between Eli and Iqa reveals an alluring semblance of purity to the bullies despite their brutish ways. Iqa relates to Eli about her being stung by a bee, which made her thinner. The effect of the bee sting is merely temporary for she reverts back to her heavyset self after a short while. Eli, out of friendship or concern to her bud or some other emotion Woo is clever enough to withhold, scourges the nearby surroundings for bees that could sting Iqa, hoping that his action might make her friend thinner. Woo carefully draws his characters with impassioned whispers instead of loud and clear dictations: coloring Hassan's growing affection for Nora with the joys of young love and the light pains of separation, or the longing Ali has for Miss Carol repressed by the former's own youth and the latter's relationship with her boyfriend, a lowly wage-earner posing as a rich businessman. Ali's repressed estimation for his teacher flees as fits of heightened feelings recur, expressed through the way he religiously reads through the books his teacher assigns, the moments wherein he makes the brash decision to come back for his teacher and offer to bring her home, and finally to reveal the boyfriend's ruse.
These teenagers' conflicts seem insignificant to the rest of us, but it is this shroud of seeming insignificance that makes the film so beautiful in its familiarity. Days of the Turquoise Sky shows adult concerns through the point of view of one in the grips of adulthood. In another beautiful scene, Ali sees his father cleaning the sole of his shoe in the streetside. The father just stepped on cow dung left by the loan sharks who have been looking for him. Ali naively asks his father why they're poor. The father replies wisely, giving an answer that maintains both conviction and honesty. He says that they are poor because they are not greedy like most other people, or probably because of his gambling.
The conversation evinces the mechanics of Woo's lamentation to the passing of fragile youth and his ode to whatever is left of it. Ali expresses indifference to his father's wise answer, and throws a reply that is both comforting to the father and expressive of his innocence. His mind is elsewhere: in school, in the exact spot where Miss Carol waits for her boyfriend, in the fishing pond where he and Hassan test their fishbombs. He finally reminds his father that he no longer has Milo. Woo deviates from adult concerns, and keeps the film in the realm of that unsteady stage of puberty, where the youthful mind and heart are slowly being introduced to the hardships of reality but is allowed to relish in youth's purity. The film laments on how adulthood would eventually mutate our humanity, how it is natural for us to trade our invaluable innocence. At fifteen, we worry about empty cans of Milo and transient crushes. At fifty, we worry about the world.