Argue, quarrel, fight, brawl ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Argue, quarrel, fight, brawl

My rating:

Gadoh is a film produced under the auspices of KOMAS, an NGO dedicated to human rights in Malaysia. The screening I attended was preceded by a speech from Datuk Zaid Ibrahim - yes, the man who quit a Cabinet post in protest over the ISA himself. He spoke on racism in Malaysia and the growing ethnic divide, issues I personally feel strongly about. His very presence was, dare I say, inspiring. So as the lights dimmed and the movie finally started, I found myself praying, "Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck..."


Racial tensions are running high at a Malaysian secondary school - two gangs of Malay and Chinese boys are constantly getting into fights and causing headaches for the principal. One teacher, Ms. Anne, suggests starting a theatre club for the boys, and ropes in old friend and theatre activist Azman to run it. Both gangs, in particular the leaders Khalil and Heng, will confront their own racial prejudices, face temptation to take up a life of crime, and put on a show for their self-serving principal.

The film basically follows the "inspirational teacher" formula, a path well trodden by dozens of Hollywood movies. The key element of this genre is the gradual transformation of the troubled kids to decent, well-rounded young men via the dedication of their teacher... and this is Gadoh's biggest failing. The two gangs can barely stand to be in the same room together at first - then suddenly, everyone's the best of friends. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??

I remember my secondary school days. I remember the rough kids, the gang fights, and the racial tension. This film's portrayal of it simply fails to convince. It's partly the fight scenes, which are in sore need of some stunt choreography, or at least some convincing blood-and-bruises makeup. It's partly their posturing and tough-talk, which is more giggle-inducing than menacing. But above all, it's the fact that this film isn't so much interested in telling a story as it is in preaching. Thus, we are hit over the head with the message that both gangs, violent racists all, aren't so different after all. Kum Ba Yah.

The preaching extends to the laughably heavy-handed script. Yes, everyone's a racist in this film - the kids' parents, the clueless teachers, the criminals who attempt to recruit some of the boys. And they'll express their racism in point-black, on-the-nose, in-your-face dialogue. Then we have the heroic Ms. Anne and En. Azman who will expound on the virtues of racial integration - as well as, for bonus points, the need for someone to believe in these kids - with equal lack of subtlety. There's the one kid who gets bullied sadistically by both gangs - and guess what, he's Indian! And then there's Azman's introduction; on an arty dark stage lit by overhead lights, delivering a ridiculously pretentious monologue that's supposed to let us know how "deep" he is.

The story takes an interesting turn with the aforementioned criminal elements - Heng has friends in the "ah long" business and gets a firsthand look at how they conduct it, and one of the Malay boys Zahir also keeps none-too-savoury company who persuade him to quit school and join them. The film seems to want to contrast the petty quarrels of the schoolboys with the genuine violence of the older gangsters, and this had the potential to work better. Zahir's story, as the most unrepentantly racist of the boys, is engaging - up till the moment when he too embraces his newfound Chinese best buddies, replete with tearful apologies.

None of the characters are anything other than two-dimensional, including the boys who actually have (ineffectual) character arcs. Anne does nothing but deliver speeches. Azman's supposedly inspirational teaching techniques are non-existent; also, there's some backstory about him being a former student of the school that amounts to nothing. There are precious few acting standouts - Zahiril Adzim as Khalil is the most convincing as a troubled and violence-prone young man. Nicholas Liew Davis' Heng is less successful, mainly due to his baby-face looks. Amerul Affendi does the best he can as Zahir, but then he has to do that tearful apology scene. Intan Diyana plays the one female member of the theatre club, and gives an impressively natural performance - too bad her character is the very definition of superfluous.

The film climaxes with the show that the club puts on, for the benefit of their principal and the Education Ministry official he wants to impress. And good Lord, is it made of facepalm. Every talking point the film wants to make about racism is trotted out once more and delivered with the force of a falling anvil - and on an arty dark stage lit by overhead lights, no less. These kids took drama lessons for this?

I can't recommend this film. I wish I could, because I'm more than supportive of KOMAS' mission - but I simply can't. Even if it was meant to be a homily on racial harmony, I have to believe that its message would've been more effective if it had simply been a better movie. (And damn if this isn't the second locally-produced movie I've seen in a month that's a thinly-disguised sermon.) The "inspirational teacher" genre is a perfect fit for a Malaysian secondary school milieu, and one day such a film could be made that's truly inspiring and uplifting. This isn't it. It is far from it.

Note: I saw this film at its launch screening at HELP Institute, where DVDs were also given away. I'm afraid I don't know of any other screenings or where else the DVD would be available. Anyone who knows, please drop a note in the comments thread. I'd like to keep this post updated on the movie's availability, for anyone who wants to catch it.

NEXT REVIEW: Monsters vs. Aliens
Anticipation level: fingers crossed


k0k s3n w4i said...

namron's azman is someone who continuously make me itch to punch him in the face for reasons i cannot fully express. probably has something to do with his gary stu-ish tendencies. he lacks the charisma of dead poet society's john keating or the sincerity of freedom writer's erin gruwell. or maybe i just believe in the Power. Of. Poetry and the Power. Of. Creative Writing more than i do the Power. Of. Theatre. it's probably because robin williams and hilary swank are just infinitely superior actors compared to namron though.

cikgu anne's character is by far the most annoying character in the film, if you ask me.

now, let me get into the part i enjoy: the part where i disagree with you :)

azman's backstory of being an alumni of the school did not amount to nothing. i think it made a pretty strong point about how figure of authorities frequently refuse to understand the people they are responsible for - and in this case, a principal's relationship to his students. once when i was in primary four, a prefect who disliked me sent my name up to the discipline teacher, slandering me for talking in an unattended class (when i did nothing of the sort). i tried to explain the situation but the discipline teacher wouldn't listen, preferring instead to just cane me. this parallel how mr chua still wouldn't listen to the boys' explanation of why they got into the fight in which they saved the persistently racist malay boy. it highlights the egotism of people in power, which might have been a cliche if it isn't still so very true and relevant in malaysia.

the simplistic stage show at the end might have been deliberately amateurish - and i'm willing to give brenda danker and co the benefit of the doubt on this. the timeline of the film is poorly delineated but i got the impression that the kids hardly received any theatrical training. namron's character spent the first half of his time with the boys not knowing that he had to put up a show. coupled with mr chua moving the deadline forward, i consider what he and the kids came up with to be genius. what the "pementasan" is to the the principal, the datuk and the audience in the film is what gadoh is to our government and the people of malaysia. it's a competent analogy. great even.

The preaching extends to the laughably heavy-handed script. Yes, everyone's a racist in this film - the kids' parents, the clueless teachers, the criminals who attempt to recruit some of the boys.

you complaint would have been valid if the film's exertion doesn't also happen to be perfectly true. maybe you live in a better, happier place but growing up here in provincial malacca, the script is eerily spot on. everyone can be cordial to everyone in public (with the exception of the two gangs), and all the racist characters only act racist when they are in the privacy of their own home or when they are with people of their own race. it's this ubiquitous, pervasive, "acceptable" racism that the film wanted to highlight. it's this brand of racism which poisoned the kids' minds, and it's true. i used to be a product of such poisoning myself.

anyhow, i didn't think shin - the chinese ah long - to be racist at all. he has an indian bloke working as his enforcer and he readily does business with malay thugs. khalil's mother is also not racist, as demonstrated in an off-screen conversation which khalil overheard.

k0k s3n w4i said...

while gadoh has strong elements of the "inspirational guru" trope, i think might be a better film if we do not think it as such. from my reading; while i don't think that namron's character brought about the eventual friendship between the two gangs of boys, he certainly facilitated it. they got together because their gang leaders - khalil and heng - got together. and the reasons for khalil's change of mind was meticulously shown on-screen, in-universe - things that the filmmakers want audiences of this movie to experience as well. khalil saw a chinese girl helped a blind malay guy cross the street. khalil heard how casually racial crony-ism occurred between his father and a datuk. khalil saw heng helping his father at the yu char kuay stall late at night, and came to the realisation that heng is a human being just as complex as he is.

the only thing i find unrealistic is how easily deliquents such as khalil and heng set aside their differences (based from my own personal experiences with such people). gadoh could have gone hyper-realistic and show how the theatre club breaks down, but that is not the movie brenda danker, namron and pals wanted to make.

the other element which united them, of course, is the emergence of a common enemy: the principal.

i initially had problems with the depiction of the datuk, which struck me as impossibly irrational. i couldn't see why he would have problems with the message of the show azman and the kids put up - but that was before i found out about how FINAS refused to allow gadoh be screened in theatres, going as far as to use the police to stop private screenings. as it turns out, real life is just as incomprehensible, and gadoh's crime, if any, is to be a rather accurate portrayal of that illogical, unbelievable irrationality.

not to make allowances for a local production, but since you referenced TVTropes, i shall do so too. this is clealy a case of YMMV. if you ask me, some anvils need to be dropped. the message that gadoh needs to get out there have to reach the lowest common denominator, the demography where all the racists reside. to bastardise a quote by gary oldman's commissioner gordon, "this is not the movie we deserve, but it's the movie we need right now."

TMBF said...

@k0k s3n w4i: You've almost made me re-evaluate the movie. Almost. ;)

I know what Gadoh is trying to say, and I agree that it - sorely - needs to be said. I just think it could've been said better, and that it would've been more effective if it had. I judged it as a film and as a story first, a polemic second.

And ultimately, I judged it on the standards of the genre that it is clearly a part of. I agree that the kids' pementasan is an analogy of the film itself - amateurish, heavy-handed and pretentious. A movie like this should be uplifting. It is, after all, a story of how a bunch of kids put their animosity aside and become friends. It should end on a high note, and it doesn't have to compromise on the ugliness of racism.

And yes, I still think the "everybody's a racist deep down!" thing is still laughable. It may be true, but that's all the more reason to say it well.

I've heard accounts of the police halting screenings too, and I'm curious to know if you have a source for this. I may have disliked it, but I'm still more than willing to promote it and advertise where it can be seen. Frankly, until your comment I hadn't heard a thing about it since I saw it.

Nana Eddy said...

Wow. a heated conversation here. I would say I agree with the both of you.

In terms of substance, the movie certainly had an A++ going there. The issue, the real-life (unfortunately) situation here in the country, the portrayal...

But in terms of the quality, the second-grade acting (except of few good ones such as khalil), the poor camera handling, weak punching scenes, and etc., wouldn't allow the movie to go far.

I agree that what is said, needs to be said, and I agree that it could have been said better.

Fadlee said...

For a film that's made in Malaysia, it was superb, bravo to all that's involved in it!!! But overall, it's not as good. I would definitely called this film as kind of Malaysian's version of Hollywood's Crash. I especially loved the casual & uncensored dialog. It's one of the only thing that's missing from mainstream films. If there are more films like this in the future, I will most likely become a fan of Malaysian-made films, instead of just boycotting all of it & just watching Hollywood's & indonesian's films.

Two thumbs up! ;)