Inspired by a tabloid crime story, Malaysian director Ho Yuhang’s “At the End of Daybreak” is a tale of class divides, tragic love and the loss of innocence. It’s a slick, hectic and moody picture that’s tinged with anger and passion that cements Ho’s already exciting reputation.
Tuck-chai (Chui Tien-Yau) is 23 and somewhat of a playboy. He’s aloof, secretive and his life seems to be heading in an uncertain direction, wiling away his time playing pool with friends or tending to his whisky-loving mother (Wai Ying-Hung). Then there’s Ying, his 15-year-old girlfriend, who belies her age by gossiping, shoplifting and pressuring Tuck-chai into “defining” their relationship. Yet there’s a sweet innocence about their relationship, which is jeopardized when her well-to-do parents uncover their illicit affair. As they threaten to prosecute for statutory rape unless they receive compensatory payment, Tuck-chai’s increasingly frenetic mother hits the bottle and begs her ex-husband for a loan, leaving Tuck-chai to seek an infinitely darker solution to the problem.
While Ho’s gloomy photography is reflective of the despondent mood and the malaise that Tuck-chai and his mother find themselves in, tonally the picture is a bit uneven. As the frantic Tuck-chai resorts to violence, the picture takes a menacing turn. This shift sits fairly uncomfortably, particularly as Tuck-chai is actually the most sympathetic character despite ultimately being the least deserving. Ying comes off as a wayward spoiled child, while her parents are exposed as classist snobs, dismissing Tuck-chai as unworthy of their daughter (regardless of his age). Only Wai’s wonderfully vulnerable portrayal of Tuck-chai’s well-meaning yet inadequate mother demands any sort of compassion.
As “At the End of Daybreak” careers towards its tragic conclusion, Ho experiments with innovative photography, particularly when attempting to emphasize Tuck-chai’s fractured and troubled spirit as his life unravels. It lends the picture a film-noir feel which is also part tragic love story, part thriller, although it’s never quite broody or sexy enough to nestle into one particular genre, betraying a degree of uncertainty on Ho’s part as to what sort of film he was trying to make. That said, there is much to admire here; it’s solidly acted, with Wai the standout, Gay Hian Teoh’s cinematography is emotive and Ho’s direction is well paced and inventive. It’s a promising and welcome addition to Ho’s impressive body of work