Barbarian Invasion

Written by Chui Mui Tan

Directed by Chui Mui Tan

Starring Chui Mui Tan, Pete Teo, James Lee

“Life itself is a film.”

Somewhere between deeply personal drama and genre film lies “Barbarian Invasion”, a wonderful character piece from Malaysian filmmaker Chui Mui Tan. 

Starring in one of her own films for the first time, Tan plays Moon Lee, a retired but once popular actress who has come to the end of a distressing divorce. 

Moon is struggling to find herself again, seeking her purist identity and setting out to reclaim the soul she knew before becoming a wife and mother. She wants to be more than just a popular actress and a good mother to her son. It is the struggle to stay true to herself while dodging her public’s expectations of her that causes her to begin to search inward.

Reunited with her longtime collaborator, director, and close friend Roger Woo (a perfect Pete Teo), Moon is excited to star in his new film which he describes as a “Southeast Asian version of The Bourne Identity”. Woo loves his dear friend and hopes this will be the professional comeback she needs.

For the sake of authenticity, Woo wants his friend to do her own stunt work in the action scenes and has her train with Master Loh (James Lee, who also choreographed this film’s fight scenes), an old-school Martial Arts teacher who puts Moon through some serious and painful physical and mental training. He only has one month to make this actress look like a professional fighter. While he balks at first, Loh wastes no time and refuses to make it easy on her. Moon endures all of this while trying to balance the proper care for her young son, who is a handful himself. 

It is beautiful how Tan infuses some of her own personal trials and feelings into her character. Her performance (and being allowed to cultivate it as the director) is one of appreciable inner reflection and growth.

As Moon searches for a gratifying place in her return to filmmaking, perhaps Tan is wanting to move beyond the arthouse sensibilities of her previous works (if only for the moment) and announce herself as a player in the world of female-led action cinema. Action films desperately need more female voices, especially on this side of the world. 

When a complication arises that causes Moon to quit the film, it is a moment of soul-shaking personal drama that sends her on a driven path straight to a fate where the divide between actress and character becomes smaller. 

Tan infuses the work with a certain playfulness regarding in how it is all presented, while expressing a deeply personal (and quite moving) journey of mind and spirit. The filmmaker also wrote the multifaceted screenplay and uses a mix of Chinese and Cantonese along with the regional Malay, creating something different from the norm pertaining to the usual use of only one dialect. 

The equanimity of Gwai Lou’s beautiful camerawork finds a Zen-like fluidity with Kamal Sabran’s tranquil score, both completing the balanced tone of Tan’s film, which successfully finds that elusive connection of the physical and the spiritual. By film’s end, for the character of Moon and for director Tan, mind and body are one.

With its philosophical search for inner strength, peace, and balance, Chui Mui Tan’s “Barbarian Invasion” is a striking film from a unique cinematic voice. 

NR, 106 minutes, Hong Kong International Film Festival Society Ltd./ Greenlight Pictures