A House Of Happiness

Malaysia (2018) Dir. Jy Teng 

We are all forgetful from time to time; we even manage to block out things we’d rather not remember, but losing all of our memories would be too hard to take. So spare a thought for those who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s, with no control over this and their loved ones left to pick up the pieces, the collateral damage in this situation.

Shui (Richard Ng) is an elderly man whose Alzheimer’s is getting progressively worse, as is his temper. The only person who seems to tolerate his moods – and his chronic flatulence – is his housekeeper Ha (Mimi Chu), being paid by Shui’s son to look after him. Still hung up on his late wife Summer, Shui pushes Ha too far one day and she quits, vowing this is the last time to the disbelief of the locals.

A few days later Ha sees that a woman named Fang (Louisa Chong), who dresses a lot like Summer did, has moved in with Shui and soon has her feet under the table. Ha shrugs it off but her son Leong (Fong Chan), briefly arrived back in town, knows better and along with Shui’s neighbours, sets out to expose Fang as a suspected charlatan only after Shui’s money.

This debut from director Jy Teng has one of the more unusual journeys to the screen by being produced by Malaysian Chinese-language radio station 988 FM, their first foray into film. It was a gamble that paid off as the film not only made 1 million RM in its first week at the box office but also won a top award at an international festival.

Despite starring two Hong Kong veterans, the main language being Cantonese, this is still very much a Malaysian film, set in Malaysia and with the support cast being local talent as well as star DJs from 988 FM. Clearly intended for the profitable Chinese New Year market its comedy follows a familiarly broad path yet Teng suffuses his own cultural touch as not to exclude his home audience.

“Comedy” and “Alzheimer’s” aren’t usually common bedfellows, the danger being that this debilitating disease is exploited for cruel laughs more likely to offend than bring a smile to one’s face. Luckily, Shui’s encroaching senility isn’t used as the basis of any jokes, supplanted by his toxic flatulence, which is actually amusing because of the reactions of the others.

Shui is a busy man despite his age, selling ice creams from his bicycle just as he has done his whole life, which is how he met his wife Summer as a teen, her framed photograph still prominent on his mantelpiece. Unfortunately, this means that Shui tends to take Ha for granted and refuses to admit that he can’t survive without everything she does for him.

Ha enjoys looking after Shui but their mutual stubbornness proves combustible one time too many, but the locals have seen it all before, taking bets on how soon Ha will return to Shui. Fang’s unexpected arrival doesn’t expediate Ha’s return but does see her paying more interest in Shui’s life out of suspicion more than jealousy.

Meanwhile the younger cast members have their own romantic problems to deal with – Ha’s feckless nephew Man Xu (Steve Yap) dotes on newspaper seller Zhen (Thian Siew Kim, also playing her twin sister Boh), and chubby grocery shop owner Siew (Ching Miau Lim) is crushing on Leong, whilst he takes a shine to Siew’s tomboy cousin Sei (Cheryl Lee).  

They also provide most of the comedy in stalking Shui on his daily rounds for Ha, and hatching ill-fated plans to expose Fang as the gold-digging gambling addict only after Shui’s money that they know show is. They create a decent enough chemistry but the humour is unsubtle and largely predictable to the point it borders on being a parody.

Shui’s condition doesn’t become a serious story concern until the third act, just as things start to improve between him and Ha. The deterioration of his mental faculties takes a dangerous turn, and sees the story abandon the humour for a final stretch of achingly raw and poignant drama, taking the characters and the performances of the cast into a different emotional territory.

It’s quite a sudden tonal shift but an inevitable and quite necessary one given the sensitive subject matter and in bringing together the loose ends of the relationships of the central cadre in Shui’s life. The ambiguity of the verbiage used refuses to confirm or deny our initial suspicions but it falls into place eventually, with some a little more obvious than others.

One can assume that as radio DJs, the support cast are a jocular bunch on the airwaves, displaying a knack for comedy and timing, as well as characterisation. Yet Fong Chan has a meatier role as Leong as revealed in the final act, determined not to leave a dry eye in the house. Richard Ng is as mischievous as ever as Shui, with a fabulous sparring partner in Mimi Chui, but like Fong Chan, Ng shows us his rarely seen serious side in the touching closing scenes.  

As a first time director, Teng doesn’t stray too far from the light family comedy blueprint in creating an amiable and inclusive atmosphere. However, this is undermined by the shockingly abrupt editing, jumping from one scenario to the next without any context or prior set up, only rectified for the shift in tone for the third act. The humour is meant to be irreverent but this makes if feel manic.

The issue of Alzheimer’s might ultimately be a conduit for exploring the theme of families and the value of memories, thus might seem underwhelming in how it represents this illness. But this also means it isn’t exploited for gratuitous comedy capital, so A House Of Happiness gets a pass for this display of sensitivity and for being a perfectly watchable and often moving little film.