We begin with the indigenous Orang Asli, a Malayan tribe whose history has been a story of unfortunate repetition: unceasing repression and regular retreats into the shadows of the Jungle.
Nowadays, only a handful of their ancestors remain, and it is via these few survivors that we’re provided detailed accounts of their generational struggle against deforestation and general lack of recognition.
Then we switch to a new and totally unrelated example of Malaysian subjugation, the 1969 513 Incident, wherein similarly journalistic accounts from survivors are delivered in sit-down interviews.
We wonder whether the entire film will follow this pattern of episodic examples of disparate injustices inflicted by the vague yet forbidding Malaysian government oppressor; we wonder when some form of story will be introduced, or whether this will all be a retrospective observation of the past…
After some time, we come to understand that hindsight is where we shall remain; that there is no real link between the two events, besides its common antagonist and general air of injustice.
On the rare occasion, there are modest attempts at creating some kind of atmosphere to reinforce or validate the recounts of the interviewees, but for the most part, the ‘mood dept.’ was seemingly a casualty of the film’s modest budget.
In this way, much of the film feels unfurnished and lacking in any trace of artistic expression. We’re consequently left with a film unsure of itself, as though it cannot commit to a sensation — other than pity — that it wants to provoke in the audience.
This gives the overall impression that the film’s sole intention is that the audience remembers a forgotten moment of history — mind you, this of course is a totally worthy motive, but when executed without any conviction, it can, ironically, have the opposite of the desired effect: an unmemorable film.
As a consequence, the film bears the mundane air of a high-school history class.
Ironically, what’s described as unfurnished filmmaking does not, in this instance, translate to authenticity, as it might for a similarly-toned Al Jazeera history doco (which are in themselves very informative programs, but that said, are under no illusions that they belong on festival circuits), nor does it endow the film with the air of authority of a minimalist film. In the case of The Tree Remembers (as is the case with most minimalist things; sterile, white-clad cafes, for instance), unfurnished means both uninspired and indecisive.
But then, the film suddenly redeems itself (to an insufficient yet pleasant extent) in the last 10 minutes, as one of the 513 survivors declares that only the trees are witnesses — finally uniting the two stories with the beautiful proverb, ‘what the axe forgets, the tree remembers’. Of course, we now understand that deforestation of the Orang Asli land is a perfect metaphor for the erasure of our memory.
This, however, is not only delivered too late in the piece, but with way too much subtlety; especially for those unfamiliar with the proverb in the first place.
The way in which these two threads came together was resemblant of a neat, Hollywood, last-minute knot; leading us to ask ourselves why they didn’t tie it together earlier, with some simple interweaving, or even through a humble plait?! The answer, we contend, is because the idea only arrived in the editing room, when all the filming was done — which is to say, too late. Maybe, it will have more of an impact in Malaysia or other nearby countries (Taiwan, for instance, where the film is streaming in the national festival), where the proverb is more well known.