Oh em gee, I am seriously behind on my local film reviews; so much for my vow to consistently watch and review Made in Malaysia productions. But this one looked like one to catch. Full disclosure, I was actually contacted by one of the directors who invited me to a preview, which I had to turn down. So I paid a full price ticket to watch this, and I was happy to. It's pretty clear this movie isn't going to make much money at the local box-office, simply because it's neither a rempit movie nor horror movie (nor a rempit horror movie) and doesn't star Shaheizy Sam or Zizan Razak. But it's partly for this same reason that I thought it worthy of a watch, and why I chose to support it with my ringgit.
And it is... I guess. But more for its intentions than its actual merits as a film.
Two loosely-connected stories feature the denizens of Chow Kit, perhaps the roughest and grittiest slum area of Kuala Lumpur. The first concerns a group of street kids and close friends, Ajik (Muhammad Izzam Syafiq), Achat (Muhammad Izzam Izzudin), Reda (Muzhaffar Shah Shahrul Asran) and Tika (Nur Nadzirah Rosi). Tika and Ajik are children of prostitutes (Lana Noordin and Airis Yasmin), whereas brothers Achat and Reda live in a cardboard shack with their father (Namron). For them, life is either running about the streets, begging for change, or doing odd jobs for a kindly shopkeeper (Yasmin Hani) - but tragedy strikes when one of Tika's mother's "friends" (Saiful Ghaz) takes an unhealthy interest in the little girl. The second story is about Ah Kuan (Mers Sia), a petty criminal who has just returned to KL and his partner-in-crime Mojo (Beto Qusyairy), who get caught in between a war between gang bosses David (Brandon Yuen) and Che Wan (Mohd Razib Salimin). Meanwhile, the innocent Ai Leen's (Janelle Chin) mother has been forced to sell her virginity to a pimp named Chong (Chen Puie Heng), whom Ai Leen's friend and neighbour Salina (Dira Abu Zahar) also once worked for.
Both this film's directors, Rosihan Zain @ Dhojee and Brando Lee who each helmed one of its two segments, have stated their intentions to shine a light on the real-life stories of Chow Kit residents - the homeless, the destitute, the victimised and the desperate. As the "Berdasarkan kisah benar" title at the movie's beginning implies, these stories were culled from the experiences of charities who work in Chow Kit (in particular, the Rumah Nur Salam children's shelter), which lends a poignant verisimilitude to what we see. But to fully bring out that verisimilitude, to tell a heartbreaking story that's also true and to make us believe in its truth, requires a great deal of filmmaking skill. Sadly, neither Dhojee nor Lee are fully successful at it.
The first segment is the more affecting, simply because street kids are more compelling than adult protagonists. But the plot suffers from an aimless quality; it spends more time on how miserable and impoverished these kids' lives are rather than telling a story with a proper beginning, middle and end. Yasmin Hani's character is entirely superfluous, as are scenes with Hairie Othman as - I think - a director of a children's welfare organisation (and who doesn't seem to provide any help at all). The portrayal of these children is also far too precious, which feels emotionally manipulative and not very honest. These are the sweetest and most angelic bunch of crime-ridden-slum-area kids you've ever seen - and they're supposed to be the kind of kids who extract their own brand of rough mob justice on those who have wronged them.
That being a pedophile who raped one of their own. Yes, there is child rape in this film, and in its depiction, it faces the same problem that marred Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War. How do you depict a stomach-churningly ugly act with the best of intentions and not end up making something (even unintentionally) exploitative? What you need is an exceedingly skillful touch - and in this particular case, spectacularly talented child actors, which Chow Kit does not have. Don't get me wrong; they all give quite impressive, naturalistic performances, and with greater experience and guidance they - especially Muhammad Izzam Syafiq and Nur Nadzirah Rosi - could be very good some day. But in this film, that delves into such disturbingly adult territory, far too much is asked of them. You'd need an Elle Fanning or a Chloë Grace Moretz to play these roles right.
The second segment suffers from the same problems to a somewhat smaller degree; smaller, because its subject matter isn't as sensitive. Unfortunately, it also recycles a lot of old Hong Kong gangster movie clichés that does no favours to its attempts at depicting the "real" Chow Kit. Kuan is your typical tarnished-but-noble hero, sporting a facial scar (and a flashback that explains how he got it) for extra cool points. His relationship with Ai Leen - and yes, they do have a connection - plays out like something ripped off of A Moment of Romance, that semi-seminal 1990 Andy Lau gangland weepie melodrama. Dira Abu Zahar gets prominent placing on the poster, but her character is minor, not to mention disconnected from the main plot. And there's a fair bit of gory bloodshed - plus a Reservoir Dogs-style Mexican standoff - that indicate that Lee would've much rather made his own Hong Kong-style crime thriller movie. (Albeit a compromised one, since it ends with that good ol' FINAS-approved PDRM-shows-up-and-arrests-everyone ending.)
Acting problems abound as well; Merz Sia has the look of a male runway model and the acting talents to match. Janelle Chin looks to be in her early 20s but plays Ai Leen as an airheaded 16-year-old. But Chen Puie Heng as Chong the pimp is the one that's emblematic of Lee's approach here. At first, we are told that Chong is one of the "good" ones, who takes good care of the prostitutes who work for him; Salina sure seems pretty friendly with him. Later he turns out to not be a very nice person at all, and this isn't a spoiler because Chen's performance blatantly telegraphs it from his first scene. Just like Dhojee making the street kids as innocent and blameless as possible, Lee makes his villains as one-dimensionally villainous as possible. The pedophile rapist from the first segment also shows up here as a psychotically vicious gangster, because of course he is.
But for this film at least, I chalk it down to an earnest-to-a-fault attempt at depicting the tragedies and miseries of Chow Kit. Its earnestness comes across in little ways, from Dira Abu Zahar's performance - the one truly affecting one in the movie - to the song that plays over the end credits, Butterfingers' "Mati Hidup Kembali". That is one beautifully, heartbreakingly lovely song, and even if it wasn't composed for the movie (it was released in 2009), I can't help but become more kindly disposed toward Chow Kit after hearing it. I believe in this film's intentions; I believe Dhojee's and Lee's hearts were in the right place in making it; I believe they were genuinely stirred by the real-life stories they heard, because that emotion does manage to shine through. That it managed to shine through some poor filmmaking choices is no mean feat.
NEXT REVIEW: The Lady
Expectations: none too high - it is Luc Besson, after all