People often ask me why I bother watching local Malay movies. I have a number of reasons; but one that I've not told anyone is that, well, to put it succinctly, I'm Malaysian, yo. The fact that I was born, bred and raised in this country means there's something in me that's programmed to appreciate Malaysian films. A joke is funnier if it's told in good ol' Bahasa Malaysia; a scene is more enjoyable if it's set in a location you recognize; a story is more heartfelt if it's about people whom you see around you, who walk past you on the street, who live in the houses you pass by every day. And all we need is a solid, well-made film, with no WTFery to spoil it, for that inherent appeal to be realized.
This is it. Sweet Alhamdulillah, this is it!
Sid (Rashidi Ishak) and Joe (Afdlin Shauki) are small-time con men who plot to steal a rare stamp worth US$4 million. But they aren't the only ones - ex-con Mani (Indi Nadarajah), newly released from prison, and Vellu (Sathia), the security guard in charge of transporting the stamp, are eyeing it too. Gangland boss Piranha Lim (Chew Kin Wah) also wants in, and sends his psychopathic henchman Burn (Bront Palarae) to oversee Sid and Joe. And when hijinks ensue, three innocent people get sucked in - blind street musician Iskandar (Que Haidar), his sister Alia (Vanidah Imran), and hapless Indonesian illegal immigrant Aryanto (Isma Yusoof).
If I were to watch Snatch or Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels again and discover that screenwriter and director Kabir Bhatia basically ripped off both films, I will be only slightly disappointed. Every creative person steals from their peers, and so have far better-known film directors. What Bhatia has crafted here is an ensemble heist comedy, and it's as respectable as either of the Guy Ritchie vehicles. It moves fast, and it has a smart and tight plot (except for the ending, but more on that in a bit) with a canny sense of setup and payoff.
It's also freaking funny. Afdlin is a natural comedian, and he effortlessly makes Joe a character that gets laughs with his every scene. But the film doesn't rely solely on him; the dialogue is consistently funny, whether it's Joe's one-liners, or the (subtitled) Tamil banter between Mani and Vellu, or the rapid-fire Indonesian from Haron Salim Bachok playing the doyen of a group of illiegal immigrants. Yes, it's quite a multi-lingual film, which is a pleasant surprise. The wacky hijinks are also deftly directed by Bhatia, who handles comic suspense and timing with a sure-handed touch - and seriously, there's nothing like a good farce to get you ROFLing. The only unfunny bit is Sathia's mugging, which fortunately doesn't go on for too long before the plot gives him something to do.
Besides Afdlin and Sathia, there isn't a bad performance in the bunch - which is a goddamn miracle for a local movie, lemme tell ya. Rashidi is a little wooden, but he isn't challenged beyond the limits of his range. It's a pleasure to see veteran Datuk Aziz Sattar on screen again, in a small but impressive role. I don't know if it was Chew's idea to give Piranha Lim a Kelantanese Malay accent, but it was an inspired touch. Palarae is fine, but Adam Corrie Lee, who plays another minor minion of Lim, should've played Burn - Lee is much scarier-looking. Indi plays an effective badass, Que Haidar a likable innocent, and Vanidah needn't do anything more than look sweet. Similarly, Isma Yusoof's "gelabah" face is all he needs to endear him to the audience. These are all characters you can care about, and you'll want happy endings for all of them.
There are a few missteps though. Bhatia's competent direction doesn't extend to action scenes, of which there are three; a car crash, a gunbattle and a hand-to-hand fight. The first employs some effective stunt work, but the other two aren't convincing, and the last is actually kinda shoddy. And the aforementioned ending goes on too long, way past the point of the story's logical conclusion. But then we get epilogues of every surviving character over the end credits, which only works when we like them enough to want to see how they end up. The fact that the film is confident enough to show us this earns it another kudos - it knows what it's done best.
I want to mention the illegal Indonesian immigrant subplot; this is an example of what I said earlier about how the Malaysian setting makes local films more meaningful to Malaysian viewers. Through Aryanto, we are given a sympathetic glimpse of the lives of these immigrants, and it strikes a chord. It's not heavy-handed - I doubt it's even intended to make a point - but that's as it should be. A dash of realism in a fluffy but entertaining movie like this is far more effective than an entire film that hammers its message down our throats.
I can't be the only one, can I? I can't be the only one who believes a good, solidly entertaining Malay movie can appeal to all Malaysians. Well, here's one, and here's my strong recommendation for it. It's funny. It's fun. It's good. It's 100% made in Malaysia (okay, Bhatia began his career in India, but nobody's perfect), and that's what makes it good. Go watch it, and tell all your friends. Tell the rest of the Malaysian film industry that this is how it's done.
NEXT REVIEW: The Proposal
Anticipation level: ho-hum