Nope, still not a convert ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, January 4, 2010

Nope, still not a convert

My rating:

Okay, I chickened out of reviewing the last Yasmin Ahmad film I watched. She was, and still is, so universally praised after her death that I was afraid writing a negative review of Talentime would come across as disrespectful. And yes, that's pretty chickenshit of me - not so much because I'm afraid of raising the ire of her fans, but that I should be able to write a review without being disrespectful of her memory. It'll be a challenge - I just so love my own snark - but it behooves me to give it a shot.

But I'm really not liking her work so far.

Rohani (Sharifah Amani) and Rohana (Sharifah Aleysha) are two sisters living on their own in Ipoh; the elder Rohani works as a pub waitress to put her sister through school. Rohana's precociousness causes problems for her at school, which raises the interest of the principal, Brother Anthony (Tony Savarimuthu), and a young teacher, Brian (Brian Yap). Brian and Rohani become friends, sharing many talks on her Muslim faith, which leads Brian to contemplate his own lapsed Catholicism and his painful childhood memories - as well as his growing feelings for her. But the sisters' dark secret is that they are running away from a wealthy, abusive father (Dato' Rahim Razali) who is bent on tracking them down.

Look, I get that Yasmin's films are all intensely personal. And I get that they are all very much reflections of her personality, her views and her vision. But then again, so are all films (and all creative endeavours, period). The thing is, most good filmmakers know where to draw the line between "this is all about me" and "this is a story with an integrity of its own". I don't think Yasmin did. The stories she told, the characters in them, and the things they say and do, are all about her. Movies made this way rarely turn out good. Proof in point: in Muallaf, the main character Rohani is that most obnoxious of fictional creatures - the Mary Sue.

Let's see: she's a devout Muslim, yet displays an amazing knowledge of the Bible, the writings of Christian saints, and occasionally the Tao Te Ching. She goes to a crappy community college to inquire about courses on comparative religion, then makes some pointed jabs at the receptionist's ignorance of matters spiritual. She works in a pub, where she is popular with the patrons, despite the fact that she lectures them on the virtues of temperance. She visits the hospital every day just to visit a coma patient whom she doesn't know and read to her from the Quran. Her father is a callous, abusive scumbag, yet she beatifically forgives him all his trespasses. When she overhears Brian speaking harshly to his mother over the phone, she chastises him like a little boy. (And he still falls in love with her.) She takes taekwondo lessons, but balks at sparring, because she abhors violence... oh wait, that's the sister Rohana.

The whole movie is like this - didactic, sanctimonious, strident, on-the-nose, and utterly unbelievable. Rohani is not a person, she's a saint. (Hell, look at her name.) Neither is Brian; his sole purpose is to bask in in the glow of her godliness. This is not a story, this is a sermon; the plot does not evolve naturally out of the characters and their world. There's a meaningless subplot involving Cindy (Yeo Yann Yann), a fellow waitress at the pub where Rohani works, and it serves only to sling a few more arrows at our martyr of a heroine. Rohana's oh-so-precious habit of spouting numbers that turn out to be religious scripture makes no sense, considering she only mentions verse and line but not chapter. There's a running joke about Brian always forgetting to take his shoes off when entering the sisters' house, and I found myself thinking: whatchew trying to say, Yasmin? You think Chinese wear shoes inside the house izzit?

Well, yeah, I know that's a petty thing to think, but since everything that happens in this movie seems to be trying to make a point, can you blame me? It wouldn't be so bad if the story, as preachy as it is, were effective, but it very rarely is. Brian's childhood flashback scene is overwrought to the point of being unintentionally hilarious. There's a slapsticky joke about domestic violence, of all things, that's just jarring. Yasmin's directorial style is simplistic, naturalistic - and kinda boring. A bit of visual flair would've livened things up just a tad; and I don't know why she ended every scene with a fade to black. Even the performances are simplistic, naturalistic, and frankly, just plain wooden.

With the sole exception of Sharifah Amani. She's a terrific young actor, if only for her ability to recite Yasmin's stilted dialogue and make it sound natural - and she can claim credit for the film's only effectively poignant scene, where Rohani reveals her scarred and bleeding freshly-shaved head. And yes, she can make even a Mary Sue seem likable. Brian Yap and Tony Savarimuthu are new to acting, and their inexperience shows. But even a veteran of Singaporean film, TV and stage like Yeo Yann Yann has trouble with Yasmin's script; I don't know why Cindy speaks in heavily-Chinese-accented English to her boss while he replies to her in Cantonese. In fact, whenever anyone speaks in Malay or Cantonese, they sound so much more comfortable.

Well, that's as non-snarky as I can make it. How'd I do? This film is Yasmin's most overtly controversial; it was banned in Malaysia, first screened in Singapore, and only now allowed to be screened here with two lines of dialogue muted. (And of course, they're utterly harmless, and you can find out what they are here.) It certainly deserves to be seen by Malaysians; I just wish it was actually good. My sincerest apologies to her fans, friends and family, but I just didn't like this film, nor Talentime. Perhaps when I catch her other four films and do that retrospective I promised (I will, I promise), I'll find one I like. Perhaps then, I can speak with a little more authority on the legacy she left behind.

NEXT REVIEW: Paranormal Activity
Expectations: looking (*gulp*) forward to it


chicnchomel said...

Finally someone who tells the truth. Essentially, her romanticism of the ideal only work for 2 mins, like her highly regarded Petronas' ads, which I happened to enjoy. Any longer than that is sheer BS.

Anonymous said...

Muaalaf and Talentime are just bad, bad, baaad... But please watch Mukhsin. It's the only movie of hers that I actually like.