Misteri Jalan Lama
The first Afdlin Shauki movie I saw was Setem, and it was also the first local Malay movie I thoroughly enjoyed. Thing is, he starred in it but didn't direct it. Before I started this blog, he had already made films like Buli, Cuci and Sumolah!; popular and successful comedies that were well-regarded for being genuinely funny and non-stupid, unlike most Malay comedies. I haven't seen them. And the one Afdlin-directed film I have watched was Papadom, which I thought was a good effort but not much more. So I guess I've missed the Afdlin Shauki train, particularly so now that he seems to be taking a break from crowd-pleasing comedies and has gone on to something completely different: a fantasy film. Pretty radical departure for a guy most well known for being a comedian and a comedy director.
And it paid off. Few others may agree, but TMBF says it paid off.
Indra (Hans Isaac) and Ilya (Que Haidar) are two estranged brothers. The elder Indra is a ne'er-do-well who owes a large sum of money to gang boss Botak (Nam Ron), and Ilya is a socially-awkward obsessive-compulsive who works for their father Iskandar (Ahmad Tamimi Siregar) - and neither Ilya nor Iskandar has heard from Indra in years. The brothers are reunited after their father's untimely death, and Indra is bequeathed a request to bring his younger brother back to their kampung to attend the funeral. Ilya, however, inherits a strange locket that seems to have mystical qualities - and the journey takes the brothers along a lonely rural road that seems to be taking them into a mysterious, otherworldly realm. Eventually, Indra and Ilya will discover the secret of their heritage, which involves the folk of that realm known as the Nyian, and a ghostly figure that haunts Ilya's dreams (Vanidah Imran).
Wow. There is a lot in this film that impressed me. How it fooled you early on into thinking it's a typical Malay horror movie with long-haired female ghosts, then gradually shifted in tone until it ends as an action-adventure. The transition from the mundane world of gangsters and poker games and offices in skyscrapers, to the fantastical dunia halus. The surreal, dreamlike tone, that in one scene descends into the nightmarish - e.g. the exceedingly creepy scene of a bunch of faceless pakcik orang kampung watching a gory horror movie at a warung and giggling at it all the way. And finally an original, and pretty damn effective, musical score. All things that I could've sworn no local film or filmmaker was capable of pulling off. Add to that solid central performances by Hans Isaac and Que Haidar - especially the former, as a Humphrey Bogart-esque charming rogue whose hard exterior masks a wounded heart - and you have a very impressive movie indeed.
But what really impressed me was the screenplay, credited to Afdlin and Christina Orow. How it never lost sight of the main characters, namely the two brothers. How it took pains to develop their relationship, filling in their backstory, and ending on a beautifully bittersweet note. Even the world-building - an essential part of any fantasy story - was well thought out, involving a creative interpretation of the bunian myths that is exactly what I was lamenting the lack of two months ago. And its mythology is fleshed out in exactly the right way, via subtle dialogue that rewards attentive viewers. (F'rinstance, the orang halus refer to people from the "real" world as orang kasar, which of course they do.) And the plot is soundly constructed; there is indeed a mystery at the heart of the storyline, and its revelation is in turns unexpected, logical and satisfying. In terms of basic storytelling craft, this is the right stuff, folks. Recognize!
So it's a pity - nay, a crying shame - that such a well-written screenplay is surrounded by so many things that don't work. Its technical quality is suspect; Afdlin was clearly going for a unique colour-treated look for his film, but the picture often looks too dim and washed-out. Dialogue sounds like a mixture of on-location recording and ADR, and unfortunately the quality is bad enough to render certain parts unintelligible. Worst of all is some seriously bad production design seen in the third act, where armour-clad warriors engage in a battle scene with savage Orcish-looking creatures called the Ghaul. I don't mind that they look like refugees from Lord of the Rings, but man, that armour - and a CGI sailing ship that also appears near the end. The armour looks cheap and vaguely Crusades-era European, and the ship looks disconcertingly like a modern yacht. Who designed these things?? Why do they look so Westernised? Why not give them a uniquely Nusantara look, for which you just need to do a little research? I for one would love to see what kind of armour Malay warriors of the 16th-18th century might have worn. Wouldn't you?
The sad fact of the matter is, this is a movie whose ambition far outstripped its ability. The climactic battle scene is poorly-staged, and being a fantasy battle, it has folks flying around on wires that frankly looks laughable. The aforementioned armour is clunky and ill-fitting, and the actor who has to wear the thing and try to portray a war leader (whose identity it would be a spoiler to reveal) can't help but look embarrassed about it all. This film is clearly crying out for a bigger budget that could've gone to more elaborate sets and costumes, more CGI shots, better fight choreography, and armour that doesn't look like a cheap Halloween costume. Not to mention an overall longer production schedule, long enough for Afdlin to fully achieve the creepy, mystical and surreal tone he was trying for in the first half of the film.
In other words, it could've used some of that RM8 million that was spent on Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. And yes, I stand by what I wrote up there; this is a far better film than that wannabe historical epic. It's better in the ways that really matter: story, plot, characterisation, emotional depth, world-building, creativity, originality, and ambition. And if Afdlin had had even half of the moolah that KRU Studios forked out, he would've made far better use of it. I stand by the 4-star rating I'm giving, but I feel compelled to make a big caveat: you'll need to be in the right mindset to enjoy this. You'll need to be able to ignore dodgy sets, dodgy costumes, dodgy special effects, dodgy fight scenes and dodgy production design. Tall order, I know - but I'm tellinya, under all that is a damn fine movie. A damn fine movie.
NEXT REVIEW: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 1
Expectations: a celebration of the wonders of childbirth heh heh heh