Gadoh is a film produced under the auspices of KOMAS, an NGO dedicated to human rights in Malaysia. The screening I attended was preceded by a speech from Datuk Zaid Ibrahim - yes, the man who quit a Cabinet post in protest over the ISA himself. He spoke on racism in Malaysia and the growing ethnic divide, issues I personally feel strongly about. His very presence was, dare I say, inspiring. So as the lights dimmed and the movie finally started, I found myself praying, "Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck..."
Racial tensions are running high at a Malaysian secondary school - two gangs of Malay and Chinese boys are constantly getting into fights and causing headaches for the principal. One teacher, Ms. Anne, suggests starting a theatre club for the boys, and ropes in old friend and theatre activist Azman to run it. Both gangs, in particular the leaders Khalil and Heng, will confront their own racial prejudices, face temptation to take up a life of crime, and put on a show for their self-serving principal.
The film basically follows the "inspirational teacher" formula, a path well trodden by dozens of Hollywood movies. The key element of this genre is the gradual transformation of the troubled kids to decent, well-rounded young men via the dedication of their teacher... and this is Gadoh's biggest failing. The two gangs can barely stand to be in the same room together at first - then suddenly, everyone's the best of friends. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??
I remember my secondary school days. I remember the rough kids, the gang fights, and the racial tension. This film's portrayal of it simply fails to convince. It's partly the fight scenes, which are in sore need of some stunt choreography, or at least some convincing blood-and-bruises makeup. It's partly their posturing and tough-talk, which is more giggle-inducing than menacing. But above all, it's the fact that this film isn't so much interested in telling a story as it is in preaching. Thus, we are hit over the head with the message that both gangs, violent racists all, aren't so different after all. Kum Ba Yah.
The preaching extends to the laughably heavy-handed script. Yes, everyone's a racist in this film - the kids' parents, the clueless teachers, the criminals who attempt to recruit some of the boys. And they'll express their racism in point-black, on-the-nose, in-your-face dialogue. Then we have the heroic Ms. Anne and En. Azman who will expound on the virtues of racial integration - as well as, for bonus points, the need for someone to believe in these kids - with equal lack of subtlety. There's the one kid who gets bullied sadistically by both gangs - and guess what, he's Indian! And then there's Azman's introduction; on an arty dark stage lit by overhead lights, delivering a ridiculously pretentious monologue that's supposed to let us know how "deep" he is.
The story takes an interesting turn with the aforementioned criminal elements - Heng has friends in the "ah long" business and gets a firsthand look at how they conduct it, and one of the Malay boys Zahir also keeps none-too-savoury company who persuade him to quit school and join them. The film seems to want to contrast the petty quarrels of the schoolboys with the genuine violence of the older gangsters, and this had the potential to work better. Zahir's story, as the most unrepentantly racist of the boys, is engaging - up till the moment when he too embraces his newfound Chinese best buddies, replete with tearful apologies.
None of the characters are anything other than two-dimensional, including the boys who actually have (ineffectual) character arcs. Anne does nothing but deliver speeches. Azman's supposedly inspirational teaching techniques are non-existent; also, there's some backstory about him being a former student of the school that amounts to nothing. There are precious few acting standouts - Zahiril Adzim as Khalil is the most convincing as a troubled and violence-prone young man. Nicholas Liew Davis' Heng is less successful, mainly due to his baby-face looks. Amerul Affendi does the best he can as Zahir, but then he has to do that tearful apology scene. Intan Diyana plays the one female member of the theatre club, and gives an impressively natural performance - too bad her character is the very definition of superfluous.
The film climaxes with the show that the club puts on, for the benefit of their principal and the Education Ministry official he wants to impress. And good Lord, is it made of facepalm. Every talking point the film wants to make about racism is trotted out once more and delivered with the force of a falling anvil - and on an arty dark stage lit by overhead lights, no less. These kids took drama lessons for this?
I can't recommend this film. I wish I could, because I'm more than supportive of KOMAS' mission - but I simply can't. Even if it was meant to be a homily on racial harmony, I have to believe that its message would've been more effective if it had simply been a better movie. (And damn if this isn't the second locally-produced movie I've seen in a month that's a thinly-disguised sermon.) The "inspirational teacher" genre is a perfect fit for a Malaysian secondary school milieu, and one day such a film could be made that's truly inspiring and uplifting. This isn't it. It is far from it.
Note: I saw this film at its launch screening at HELP Institute, where DVDs were also given away. I'm afraid I don't know of any other screenings or where else the DVD would be available. Anyone who knows, please drop a note in the comments thread. I'd like to keep this post updated on the movie's availability, for anyone who wants to catch it.
NEXT REVIEW: Monsters vs. Aliens
Anticipation level: fingers crossed