Speaking Imperfectly without Fear in Snow in Midsummer

By Michelle Lee


How do you speak about the unspeakable? Snow in Midsummer (2023) tackles a subject that remains a raw wound in the Malaysian national psyche. Malaysian director Chong Keat Aun’s sophomore film centres on the racial riots of 13 May 1969 where violent clashes between Chinese and Malay communities resulted in a state of emergency and a profound shift in the country’s political landscape. Divided into two parts, the first half of the film follows a family that is split up during the violence, and the second, set in 2018, follows the daughter Ah Eng as she searches for her father and brother’s graves.Fifty years later, the riots remain a spectre haunting Malaysian politics. Like a ghost that appears when you say its name in the mirror, there exists a deep fear that mentioning May 13 will reawaken racial tensions that persist to this day, invoking the same violence that erupted in 1969. This fear poses a challenge for artists in finding productive ways to talk about this sensitive history without being seen as taking sides.

Chong joins other Malaysian Chinese directors such as Lau Kek Huat who, after facing censorship in Malaysia, have sought funding and support from Taiwan. Chong’s debut feature film, The Story of Southern Islet (2020), was shown in Malaysia with parts of its dialogue muted. Snow in Midsummer, despite receiving nine nominations at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, has not yet been released in Malaysia. Taiwanese support for Malaysian Chinese cinema has always been based on the ideal of a shared Sinophone identity, where Chinese ethnic, linguistic, and cultural similarities transcend nationality. It raises the question of whether these films emphasise a Chinese perspective at the cost of a fair and objective representation of Malaysian history.

Snow in Midsummer undeniably portrays a subjective Chinese perspective on the riots, largely failing to depict Malay characters and voices. Yet its strength is in its emotional and specific portrayal of the experience of trauma. Despite its lack of objectivity, Snow in Midsummer makes the case that we must speak about May 13, without worrying about finding the perfect words.

Chong’s film refutes accusations of ethnonationalism through its complex portrayal of Malaysian Chinese identity. It depicts the family at the centre of the film as worshipping a syncretic local religion, Datuk Gong, drawing on the director’s own family’s practice. Chong presents their rituals in opaquely atmospheric scenes that capture the sounds and objects of their worship without pausing to provide the viewer with explanations. His insistence on capturing the particularities of this family’s identity, even at the expense of legibility to the viewer, make clear the film’s focus on subjective and personally informed experience. In doing so, he shifts his narrative on the riots away from easy identifications based on race.

Snow in Midsummer’s emphasis on the subjective is supported by its reference to a myth about leprosy from the Malay Annals, a foundational work of Malay royal historiography. It tells the story of a king who has leprosy and can only be cured by drinking the footbath of the Malay sultan. In a stunning low-angled shot, Chong places the viewers below the surface of the footbath as the Sultan towers above them. The Sultan’s bare feet, thrust directly before the camera, produce a visceral sense of humiliation and disgust. As the Sultan sings about the Chinese king’s need to be humbled, the viewer is forced to drink the water alongside the king, partaking in his submission. The reference evokes instinctive feelings of aversion, allowing the viewer to affectively experience the trauma of the riots without claiming to provide objective representations of historical events. Through the motif, Chong provides an emotional window into the abstract political narratives about race that emerged after May 13. The Sultan’s accusation that the Chinese king is afraid of leprosy, a tropical disease, can be seen as an accusation of a fear of contamination by native society. Through the leprosy myth, Chong vividly expresses Malaysian Chinese emotions around post-riot narratives depicting immigrant Chinese as unwilling to assimilate.

This fear of leprosy resurfaces in the second half of the film as Ah Eng makes her way to a cemetery where riot victims were buried. Her taxi driver brings up the fact that the place used to be a leper hospital, telling her “I heard from the old folks that the Chinese are terrified of leprosy,” while glancing at her in the rear-view mirror. In this moment, it becomes clear that decades after the riots, stereotypes and segregation between ethnic communities persist to the modern day, going from the state level to being reproduced by ordinary citizens.

Yet, the film makes a strong case for sharing personal experiences of May 13 by depicting the gnawing impact of silence. Throughout the second half of the film, Ah Eng remains largely silent while searching for her father and brother’s graves. In a moving final scene, she runs into another mourner and her words begin pouring out as she openly and compulsively shares her story. The grief Ah Eng silently carries with her for five decades closely mirrors the continued taboo against speaking about May 13. Much like lepers were quarantined to prevent contagion to the larger population, the stories, and identities of those killed in the riots were buried by fear, along with the ability to talk about the riots at all.

While Snow in Midsummer presents a subjective perspective on the riots, it is the authenticity and emotional impact of this account that is the film’s strength. Only through breaking the silence and sharing our experiences, Snow in Midsummer seems to say, can healing begin.