Movie review: The Journey (PG)

Review: Comedy Drama

102 minutes / Now Showing / Rating:3.5/5

The story: Bee (Joanne Yew) returns home from London to Malaysia's Cameron Highlands to tell her conservative father Chuan (Frankie Lee Sai Peng) that she is getting married to her Caucasian boyfriend Benji (Ben Andrew Pfeiffer). Chuan reluctantly agrees to the impending nuptials, but only if Benji goes on a road trip with him first to hand-deliver the wedding invitations.

This was a major surprise hit in Malaysia, surpassing the Aaron Aziz actioner KL Gangster (2011) to become the highest-grossing local film of all time.

For weeks since its opening on January 30, Malaysian media reported the film's numerous sold-out screenings throughout the country, as well as last-minute show additions to meet the high demand. To date, it has already made close to RM17 million (S$6.5 million).

The question is, does the film live up to all the hype?

If a sweet and heartwarming dramedy is what you are looking for, then yes, this checks off all the feel-good markers.

Director Chiu Keng Guan, who also made the equally unpretentious movies Woohoo! (2010) and Good Day (2012), delivers his most pleasant work yet, even if some of it veers dangerously towards melodrama.

The best segments are the ones shared between Chuan and his future son-in-law Benji, who are often at odds due to cultural differences.

In one hilariously awkward dinner scene, Benji grabs the head of the cooked chicken and puts it in Chuan's bowl, thinking that it is the polite thing to do. It is only when Chuan's daughter Bee tells him that the head is not for eating that Benji realises he has caused offence.

Moments like this expose the quirks of Chinese tradition as seen from an outsider's perspective, but they are handled with restraint and without judgment.

The fact that most of the cast - other than Australian stage actor Pfeiffer - are first-time actors is worth mentioning, as their performances are natural and convincing.

The wonderfully subdued Lee, 73, is especially believable as the guarded Chuan, a stern father who is merely afraid of losing his only daughter to a culture he does not understand.

Still, the film is not without its faults.

For all the genuine humour between father and son-in-law, there is surprisingly little romantic chemistry between Benji and his fiancee. The two go through the motions, cuddling and whispering sweet nothings to each other, but you never feel like they are in love.

The final act involving a hot-air balloon also sticks out like a sore thumb as it is too heavy-handed, straying from the rest of the film's lovely understated quality.

But those are small quibbles.

Set against the backdrop of some truly stunning views of Cameron Highlands, Penang and the Klang Valley (the footage would be at home in Malaysian Tourism Promotion Board advertisements), this is one of the most charming Malaysian films to hit cinemas in a while.

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