At the heart of ‘The Return’ is a bittersweet family drama, centred around Wen (Chen Tianxiang), a recently released ex-political detainee, and his reunion with his children Tien (Vincent Tee) and Mei (Tan Beng Chiak). While Mei gladly welcomes Wen, Tien is aloof and angry. The contrast between Tien and Mei’s reactions to their father’s return is interesting.The reason is revealed later on and it is understandable why Wen made such a decision and why Tien resented Wen for that decision.
It is not difficult to imagine a version of this film saturated in melodrama. However, Green Zeng, the director, opted for a more grounded approach which showcases multiple facets of Wen’s struggle, such as his friendships, political view, health, media exposure, and aspirations. The film has a slow pace, but it maintains its momentum to make sure it does not feel boring. Its 83-minute duration is just right.
The main characters feel real enough with distinct personalities and clear motivations behind their decisions. They are generally well-acted as well. Chen’s acting is strongest, giving a nuanced and restrained performance of an estranged father who has been exiled for too long. Tee and Tan’s acting at times seem exaggerated and soap-y in comparison, but this improves as the film progresses.
One of the film’s novelty the sometimes non-linear structure. This is mainly seen through Wen’s dreams as he relives the moments he missed while he was imprisoned, but at times the past seems woven into the present. The line between his memories and realities are blurred. Such scenes are left open to the interpretation of the audience,
The cinematography is good, with some memorable outdoor scenes. Its depiction of many real places in Singapore, such as Fort Canning, Malaysian border, old Tao Nan School (described as Wen’s school growing up) which is now Peranakan Museum, and the Nanyang University gate (described as where Wen met his wife). The director clearly likes static, long takes which allow us to focus more on the actor’s performance. The soundtrack is rather minimal, which is suitable with the film’s style.
Overall, ‘The Return’ is a compelling local film which approaches the complexity of ex-political detainees’ life in a careful way. Its intimate and engaging portrayal allows us to empathize without feeling preached. - Freddy