Lost in the jungle ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lost in the jungle

My rating:

I had somewhat high hopes for this one. Its crew, which includes writer-director Jason Chong and fledgling prodco Preston Zaidan, is pretty new and fresh in the local film industry - or at least, fresher than the usual Metrowealth/Grand Brilliance/KRU Studios gang of idiots. Early promos pegged it as a noir thriller, which certainly isn't a genre you see local filmmakers tackle much. And it features the debut lead performance of Daphne Iking, who is unconscionably hawt and whom I dearly hope will turn out to be a solid actress. Y'see, as much as I am (and have been - often) unashamedly pervy, I would be bitterly disappointed if an actress I find attractive turns out be a lousy actress, so... yeah. High hopes.

Gladly I can report that she is good. Sadly, the movie is not.

Eva (Daphne Iking) is a con artist working for Kota Kinabalu's biggest gang boss TKO (Chew Kin Wah) - and Nick (Bront Palarae) is the insurance investigator assigned to catch her in the act. He goes undercover as a tour guide, but soon finds himself falling for her and losing sight of his duty. Ignoring the warnings of Zailan (Danny Anwa), another investigator who had previously went up against her and failed, Nick gets involved in her ploy along with her two co-conspirators (Md. Eyzendy and Azwan Kombos) to con an insurance company out of RM12 million and frame TKO for it. But there's more than one con being worked, and those who think themselves the hustler may well turn out to be the mark.

Body Heat is a 1981 film, written and directed by Lawrence Kasdan, that I just watched about a year ago. I kept comparing Belukar to it, which may not be entirely fair - but it sure did seem to be a noir thriller like Body Heat, which is a pretty good model to follow if you're making a noir thriller. Unfortunately, this movie didn't follow it at all. The relationship between Nick and Eva is presented very poorly, and whatever feelings are growing between them never come across, despite Iking's and Bront Palarae's valiant attempts. Body Heat had an obsessive, sexually-charged affair between its two leads, and conveyed it through some pretty explicit sex scenes; Nick and Eva are perfectly chaste. Of course, we can't have explicit sex scenes in a Malaysian movie, but there's hardly even any passion between them - and you'd need that, I should think, if your story involves a similarly obsessive, all-consuming love that can make a man willingly ruin his life.

But whoops! Turns out this is not, in fact, a noir thriller - or at least, not just one. It's also a caper film, a somewhat similar genre that's different largely in terms of tone; noir thrillers are darker, caper films are more light-hearted and its characters more likable. Does this mean I misjudged the movie, that it's actually good? Frankly, no - because its tone is all over the place. Throughout the film, I kept wondering why in the world would a noir thriller have slapsticky jokes, cheesy fight scenes, and a ridiculously over-the-top villain with three henchpeople comprising a dude in guyliner (Ray Redzuan), a goth dominatrix (Linora Low), and an Ah Beng (Fong U-Shin Xavier) with the endearing habit of snapping his teeth at people like a dog. The (probable) answer is that this stuff is meant to be funny - but it isn't. Chong's direction is incredibly tone-deaf; practically all his attempts at humour, suspense, romance et al simply don't work.

But whoops again! How 'bout that twist ending, eh? A typical one for caper films, the kind that reveals that what you've been seeing all along isn't what was really going on. The film would have you believe that that ending explains everything, especially in regards to the nature of Nick's and Eva's relationship. Frankly, no it doesn't - because the twist is another thing that simply doesn't work. Twist endings need to play fair; if there's anything from early in the movie that's inconsistent with the ending, that's cheating. Chong's screenplay doesn't just cheat, it bribes the teacher for an A and does it in front of the whole class. The entire first half of the film makes no sense given what the ending reveals. The misdirection and attention to detail required to make plot twists like this work are clearly beyond Chong's writing skills. And the big money shot? The crucial scene in which the twist is revealed? You botched it, Mr. Chong. You didn't even shoot it right.

I said before that both Iking and Palarae were good, and they were. Iking claims she isn't an actress, but she was natural and self-assured as Eva. You are a good actress, Ms. Iking, and you should definitely make more movies. Palarae too was equally good, and if they failed to generate any real chemistry I'll chalk it up to Chong's script and direction rather than their acting, which is really one of the only two reasons to watch this movie. On the other hand, Chew Kin Wah was terrible. I normally like watching him, and I think he's one of our best character actors; but what he did in the role of the aforementioned ridiculously over-the-top TKO was just grating. He seemed to be doing a redux of his Piranha Lim character in Setem, but that was a broad comedy. This is...

...honestly, I don't know what kind of movie this is, and I don't think Chong knows either. It tries to be both broadly comic yet serious, darkly obsessive yet romantic, deceptive and surprising - and ultimately ends up none of these things. The only apt description I can give to Belukar is that it's a noir thriller-caper film, and the only other reason to watch it is to see a Malaysian film make an attempt at this genre. And it's a brave effort, Mr. Chong, it really is, and I'm quite sad to hear that it's flopping at the box-office. (I watched it in a cinema hall with precisely two other people.) But sorry, you can't blame it on "filem genre sebegini masih lagi tidak dapat diterima masyarakat kita." We can terima it just fine if it were good.

Expectations: Ridley Scott yay, Robin Hood yawn