Syamsul Yusof makes schlock. Which isn't a very complimentary label, but then again, his stuff isn't very good. There are movies that aim to be purely mindless entertainment and succeed with sheer craftsmanship and flair; Syamsul's films, on the other hand, are cheap, exploitative and junky. Hence, schlock. It's a sad statement on the local film industry that he won Best Director at last year's Festival Filem Malaysia - the local Oscars - solely for the (admittedly impressive, on a technical level) stuntwork on Evolusi KL Drift 2. Allah forbid a filmmaker who can actually tell a story, what more an original one, could win that accolade someday - or that local audiences, starved for the tiniest glimmers of quality filmmaking, could learn to reserve their praise for something that's more than mere schlock.
KL Gangster is probably Syamsul's best movie to date. Which isn't very complimentary, because it's still schlock.
Malek (Aaron Aziz) is fresh out of prison, after having done 5 years for armed robbery. His former partner in crime Ajib (Shoffi Jikan) is ready to offer him a place in his gang led by Dragon (Adam Corrie), but Malek would rather take up with small-time hoodlum Fadil (Zizan Raja Lawak) and lay low. He's got plenty of problems of his own; his mother (Ku Faridah) is destitute, his sister Zeti (Sheera Iskandar) is a skanky drug-dealing ho, and his brother Jai (Ady Putra) is another of Dragon's lieutenants, but loyal only to money. Malek used to work for King (Ridzuan Hashim), another gangland boss and Dragon's rival - but King's right hand man is his stepson Shark (Syamsul Yusof), who hates Malek with a passion. Tensions escalate between the two factions, exacerbated by Shark's growing hunger for power... and just when Malek thinks he's out, they all pull him back in.
Syamsul Yusof is a terrible filmic storyteller. Of all the dumb ways to start a movie, he chooses to have a voice-over that basically reads out the film's press synopsis, spelling out who's who and on whose side. Dude, do you really think the average Malaysian moviegoer is that stupid? We can learn these things just by watching the damn movie. But what makes Syamsul a schlockmeister is his penchant for ripping off other movies - and I do mean rip off, not pay homage to or reexamine with a fresh perspective. It's A Better Tomorrow meets SPL, with none of the first film's themes of honour and friendship, or the second's tragic irony, or either's emotional weight; just a vaguely similar premise and some clearly similar locations for the fight scenes. The subplots about Malek's sister and mum are superfluous, and nothing is resolved between him and Jai.
Syamsul Yusof has gotten better at writing dialogue (if he wrote these himself, that is). It is highly entertaining; everyone speaks in unashamed bahasa pasar rife with enough "lu"s and "gua"s and "kasi"s to make a BM highschool teacher quit her job in disgust. There's even plenty of authentic-sounding Malay gangland slang that fleshes out this comicbooky world of badass gangsters. Syamsul may suck at storytelling, but he's definitely penned some deliciously cheesy lines for his cast to chew through. (There are, as a matter of fact, English subtitles, but the only way to enjoy the dialogue is if you speak Malay.) If he has little interest in fleshing out Malek's familial issues - beyond a lazy attempt to paint him as "good" in contrast to all the other "bad" folks - he's clearly more keen on making an unashamedly macho action movie in which its almost all-male cast try to out-tough each other.
Syamsul Yusof is not a bad actor. He's not a particularly good one either, but a role like Shark only needs him to sneer, glower and yell, all of which he can do just fine. He stands out as a nicely hateable scenery-chewing villain, which does him credit as an actor at least - because as a director, he lets everyone chew scenery. Shoffi Jikan and Ady Putra are equally gonzo in their wild-eyed "intensity", and someone really should've told at least one of them to switch to decaf or something. The extras who play various unnamed lowlifes attempt the same macho posturing with embarrassing results. Zizan Raja Lawak was painfully unfunny, not so much for his acting as for the fact that his character is a total moron. And I'm quite disappointed for Aaron Aziz; for him, not in him, because he's a charismatic presence, but there's nothing in his role for a decent actor to get a handle on.
Syamsul Yusof is a pretty good stunt coordinator. KL Gangster delivers on its trailer's promise of ferocious action scenes; they're not gonna compete with Donnie Yen's choreography anytime soon, but they're nicely gritty and brutal. They would also be more effective if Syamsul didn't keep shaking his camera all the damn time. The cast seem to have trained quite well for their fight scenes, and if Syamsul could've just used a freakin' tripod to film them, they may have looked even better. But as I mentioned above, this film's depiction of gangland violence in the streets of KL is definitely more manhua than Michael Mann. These guys blow each other away with guns in broad daylight, in the middle of Petaling Street! And then there's Shark's ridiculous "tribal" tats, or Jai's penchant for substituting baby oil for a shirt. Still, this is the world the movie takes place in, and it can be cheesy fun if you can buy into it.
But ultimately, Syamsul Yusof simply doesn't care about things like realism, or plot cohesion, or characterization, or moral depth. All he cares about is that there's a punch-up every ten minutes, and that the acting is as over-the-top as possible, and that he gets to make his version of a Hong Kong triad action movie. And he certainly doesn't care about giving us a satisfying ending; the movie doesn't end, it stops, right after the last bad guy has been pounded into submission. And then the voice-over comes back on, and helpfully explains that all these wicked, horrible, no good, very bad criminals end up arrested by the excellent Royal Malaysian Police - off-screen, that is. Well done, Syamsul, you've managed to appease the Censorship Board. I'm sure our local film industry will give you another award for that.
NEXT REVIEW: Super 8
Expectations: none, and that's the way I want it - have nicely avoided spoilers so far