Well hello Malaysian film, long time no see. There've been no local movies released the whole of last month, due to FINAS' decision to ban them during Ramadhan. (The last one was Senario The Movie: Ops Pocot, which I wanted to catch but seemed to have ended its run quite early. Here's hoping that means it flopped.) A ridiculously arbitrary decision I must say; they do it under the pretext of "menghormati bulan Ramadhan," but how exactly is it un-Ramadhan-like to go watch a Malay movie? Muslims can watch stuff like Captain America, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Cowboys and Aliens while they're fasting, but Farid Kamil or Shaheizy Sam or Yana Samsudin on the big screen will weaken their faith? Sigh... file that under my personal Stuff About Malaysia I Will Never Understand (a folder that every Malaysian possesses).
But after a whole month of no local films, I gotta say, this one was worth the wait.
Ali (Gambit Saifullah) is a photographer for the scandal rag Wadah Rakyat, works with his colleage Aman (Shawal Ruslan) for their overbearing boss Datuk Razali (Emman Manan), lives with his roommate Yoga (P. Jagen), and is in love with Sarah (Melia Aimellia). But Sarah is somewhat above his league, coming from a wealthy family, being an Al-Azhar University graduate, and having some kickass silat skills - not to mention a thing for curry puffs. He woos her, and she seems to like him - big doofus that he is - but when he gets insecure about her childhood fried Arman (Ery Zukhairi), who has l33t religious credentials, he blurts out a lie that he, too, studied at Al-Azhar. But wacky rom-com hijinks aside, trouble brews when Datuk Razali digs up dirt about a scandal perpetrated by his rival - a scandal that also involves Sarah's father (Afizudin Fazil), and may ruin their family.
Othman Hafsham was once one of the most popular local film directors, if not the most popular. His heyday was in the '80s, and his Mekanik - the one with Azmil Mustapha and Susan Lankester - is still hailed as a modern classic, particularly for its enjoyably inclusive muhibbah spirit (none of that 1Malaysia nonsense yet back then). Or so it is hailed. I haven't seen it since I was little, so I couldn't say for sure if it deserves that accolade; I only remember that goofy scene in which Azmil and Susan eschew a roadside food stall for an "upmarket" restaurant whose kitchen happens to be the very same back alley stall. (I'm reasonably certain Hafsham ripped that joke off a Lat cartoon.) But having watched Karipap-Karipap Cinta, his first theatrical film in 20 years, I'm ready to believe what they say about Mekanik. It's in here too.
No, Hafsham did not deliberately set out to make a "1Malaysia" movie. (That's been done, and it didn't turn out good.) What he has made is a film that displays boundless affection for its characters, its story, and its uniquely Malaysian setting - specifically, KL. It's clear, from his penchant for mini-montages of the colourful hustle-bustle of KL life, that Hafsham simply loves the city too much to depict it as anything other than the multi-racial cosmopolis that it is. (He's even daring enough to show a quick shot of an "Abolish ISA" graffiti tag!) And that's why, as much as its a singularly Malay story about Malay-Muslim concerns, he gives the hero an Indian best friend and a Chinese neighbour (Patrick Teoh) and makes them both likable. Which is an incredibly welcome change from the typical parochialism of most Malay films, who often depict non-Malay characters - if they even have any - as idiotically offensive stereotypes.
He also makes the heroine the single smartest and most capable character in the film, which means you can add "respects women" to the list of Things That Make Hafsham Better Than Every Other Malay Film Director. And his affection for the characters extends to the nominal villain, who has a change of heart by the end; and even Aishah (Syamira Azmil), the psycho neighbour chick of Ali's whose subplot involves her obsessive crush on him. But perhaps credit for the storyline ought to go to Nazri M. Annuar, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel. His writing is a lot smarter and cleverer than most local films, poking fun at things like the populist media, Malay drama clichés, superstitious beliefs, JAIS khalwat raids, and even its own "curry puff as True Love" metaphor. The dialogue is witty and enjoyable, and the cast are game enough to deliver it in a natural manner.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite stick its ending. This would be where the formerly-lovably dumb Ali turns into a moron, a coward, a drama queen and a crybaby. Which is the problem with the hackneyed old "guy pretends to be something he's not to tackle the girl" plot; it invariably ends with the deception being revealed, the guy tearfully apologizing, and the girl forgiving him and accepting him anyway. What a great lesson to teach would-be Romeos in how to win a girl's heart: lying and cheating totally works! Oh okay, I suppose it's mitigated in this case by the fact that the girl saw through his bullshit from the beginning. Still, it's a stupid plot device, and the ending is where the film's charm and good-naturedness could no longer quite make up for the stupidity.
The charm and good-naturedness makes up for quite a lot though, including the acting. Veteran Emman Manan has fun hamming it up (and Hafsham even has him let out an honest-to-goodness Evil Laugh), making him the most enjoyable of the supporting cast. Syamira Azmil is perhaps a little too attractive to be the kind of girl that a guy like Ali wouldn't give a second glance to. But as for the leads, Gambit Saifullah has the screen presence, but here he lets his grin do all his acting for him. Melia Aimellia is cute and perky, but that's about it. Neither of them have much in the way of chemistry; while Ali is clearly all hot and bothered around Sarah and she clearly enjoys his company, these two crazy kids are more like kakak-adik than lovers. That's a larger problem with Malay romantic films as a whole, in that they never know how to depict the passion of falling in love. I picture Ali and Sarah's sex life in future, and all I can see is awkward fumbling and embarrassed disappointment.
Still, Karipap-Karipap Cinta is a perfectly pleasant little movie - and that makes it a bloody rare and precious thing in Malay cinema. As is Hafsham's much-missed affection for Malaysia, Malaysians, and their stories. Twenty years is far too long a hiatus, and I'm hoping his return to the big screen presages more movies in future. We need you, Hafsham! We need your warmth, your humour, your insights, your honesty, and your clear and obvious love of filmmaking. Because quite frankly, our film industry is sorely bereft of all these things right now. We need you to show these morons how to do it right.
NEXT REVIEW: Hantu Bonceng
Expectations: I shall be objective, I shall be objective, I shall be objective...