Now here's a neat idea for a film: a Love Actually-style (or God forbid, Valentine's Day-style) series of interconnected stories that each represent the various relationship statuses that Facebook allows you to post, namely Single, In A Relationship, It's Complicated, Engaged, Married, Divorced and Widowed. (What, no Separated?) And at the same time, a look at modern love and romance in the era of online social networking. Not a bad little high-concept idea at all, one you'd expect someone in Hollywood to have come up with before Khairil M. Bahar, the Malaysian filmmaker who wrote, directed, edited and even acted in it. I've seen his short in 2009's 15Malaysia project, which I thought was cute but otherwise unimpressive; also, he appears to be part of - or at least close friends with - Perantauan Pictures, under whose banner this movie was released, and whose previous feature film I found to be less than impressive (although it seems Khairil wasn't involved in that one).
Fortunately, Relationship Status is definitely better than The Joshua Tapes. But it kinda stumbled in the last lap.
Dave (Gavin Yap) is a magazine writer in an open relationship with Anna (Davina Goh) - or at least, he was, until they had an argument. His roommate Joe (Khairil Bahar) is still recovering from a bad breakup. His editor Selena (Susan Lankester) is still coming to terms with the recent death of her husband. The IT guy at his office Eugene (Benji Lim) is ready to propose to his filmmaker girlfriend May (Amanda Ang), but faces opposition from his family, particularly his sister (Adeline Ong). Two subjects in May's documentary film are Nina (Shuba Jay) and her boyfriend (Alfred Loh) who met on Facebook. The office's receptionist Hawa (Ruzana Ibrahim) is pregnant and happily married to her husband Ramli (Baki Zainal). Her old schoolmate is Trisha (Daphne Iking), who is going through a divorce from her husband Jason (Tony Eusoff) following his affair with Anna - whose torch that she still carries for him is partly the cause of her argument with Dave.
Relationship Status is that rarest of animals: the Malaysian-made film that caters to an urban, sophisticated, English-speaking audience. Which is pretty damn rare in a film industry that almost exclusively targets unsophisticated Malays and Mandarin-speaking Chinese (even if that second market was created a scant 2 years ago). And I think it's one that that audience would enjoy a lot. The script is witty and often very funny, with occasional ribald humour and even a masturbation joke. There are a couple of mentions of Sid's Pub, a KL watering hole whose regular clientele are exactly the kind of people this movie is aimed at. There's even a Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy reference, which isn't explained for anyone who doesn't recognise the line from that book. One of the joys of local films is getting to see people, places and situations from your own life up on screen, and this movie has it in spades for a segment of Malaysians who've never had that opportunity.
Particularly in regards to its depiction of love and romance in the Facebook era. Khairil's screenplay displays a great deal of insight into how online social media affects relationships, and I'm sure it'll evoke many a pang of recognition - whether it's the heartbroken guy who keeps stalking his ex's FB profile, or the grieving widow trying to guess her late husband's password in order to access his still-active page, or the disapproving family who cites pictures of the girlfriend partying at clubs as grounds for their disapproval. But despite its insightfulness, there's still a somewhat, well, gormless approach to Facebook and online social media. It's like Selena's magazine's upcoming cover story on social media. Yes, just that - social media. Anything specific about social media? No, just social media - like it's still this shiny newfangled thing worthy of magazine cover stories in freakin' 2012. That's what I mean by gormless.
Which brings us to the film's biggest problem: it has no ending. I'm not kidding. Almost every single one of these stories ends with absolutely no resolution; one exception being Dave's and Anna's, and even that one employs the cliché of the guy running across the city to tell the girl he loves her. (The other one being Selena's, who manages to come to terms with her husband's passing - but then again, does she ever actually find his FB password? We don't know!) Does Eugene stand up to his asshole family? Does Joe get over himself? Does Hawa's and Ramli's marriage survive? Do Trisha and Jason reconcile? None of these questions are answered, which is just bloody frustrating. Every couple's relationship in this story either starts off rocky or becomes rocky, and the movie pretty much just leaves them there. And for the ones who start off happy but become troubled, it's always because of Facebook.
Seriously, I think most people will come out of this movie with one takeout: "Facebook ruins relationships!" Which is just an annoyingly Luddite attitude that I'd been led to believe this film was above. I don't know if it was deliberate or accidental, but with a character like Nina - the Facebook addict who suspects her boyfriend is cheating on her just because he talks to someone on the phone whom she doesn't know, which makes her a bloody shallow and insecure twit - it doesn't seem very accidental. It's like Khairil wants to raise the question of whether Facebook is a good or a bad thing, and seems to learn toward the latter - which is a bad answer, because it's the wrong question. Facebook is neither a good nor bad thing; it is a thing, that has already irreversibly changed the way we communicate. Just like it's past time for any magazine that has any shred of relevance to write stories about social media, it's past time to ask whether it's good or bad. What we should be asking is how to make it good and avoid the bad; to use it well, instead of allowing it to magnify our worst instincts.
For a while there, Relationship Status was almost the movie to ask, and attempt to answer, that question. The fact that it failed is why I didn't rate it higher - but the fact that it's still an entertaining, well-written, well-crafted little film is why I didn't rate it lower. (Reasonably well-acted too; nothing outstanding, but nothing jarringly poor either. With the exception of Will Quah, who seemed to forget that he's playing a guy who's father had just died.) I'm still quite mightily impressed by Khairil's writing and direction, and I'd love to see more from him. I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to its target audience of English-educated, Facebook-connected, in-love-or-seeking-it young Malaysians, as I'm sure they'd enjoy it. And it's still got a killer high concept, one that may even earn it some attention from overseas. It's just a pity it didn't fully live up to all that potential.
NEXT REVIEW: Ah Beng The Movie: Three Wishes
Expectations: bit iffy about this one