Ini ko panggil kurun ke-18?? ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ini ko panggil kurun ke-18??

Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang
My rating:

Remember Puteri Gunung Ledang? Five years ago, that was like the great hope of Malaysian cinema - the most expensive locally-produced film, the first Malaysian submission to the Academy Awards, and the first film that could cross over to audiences who normally wouldn't be caught dead watching a Malay movie. Yeah, that didn't happen. It was let down mostly by poor storytelling, which was really unfortunate, because it had a lot of things going for it - a great cast, terrific art direction, beautiful cinematography, solid production values, and a director with a vision.

Now here's another Malay historical film that has none of these.

Awang (Farid Kamil) and Dayang (Siti Elizad) are engaged to be married. When Bachok (Zul Huzaimy) earns a Datukship, his father Panglima Merah (Hattan) persuades Dayang's father (Kuswadinata) to send Awang on a three-year voyage to Makasar to bring back a wedding gift for his bride-to-be. While Bachok continues to climb the social ladder and plot to seduce Dayang, Awang encounters pirates, a vagabond traveler named Dekar Agas (Aziz M. Osman), the somewhat piratical seafarer Nakhoda Galigor (Khir Rahman), and the Dutch trader Claudia (Lynette Mei Ling Ludi) - and comes into possession of two mystical spears that are tied to his destiny.

I gotta say, I had trouble figuring out this story. I still don't know why Awang had to go on his journey in the first place, beside some vague goings-on about "adat". The dialogue is in classical Malay, and once again there are no subtitles. (They don't even care about the non-Malay market, do they?) Even worse, the audio quality is pretty goddamn terrible. You can tell that some of the recorded dialogue is unusable, and some lines had to be post-dubbed - and the post-dubbing isn't even in sync with the actors' lips. The volume levels aren't even balanced; the music and sound effects always tend to drown the dialogue. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the same sound guy who did Skrip 7707. He seems to have gotten even worse.

But the most damning thing about this movie is its laughable production values. This isn't a remotely believable 18th century Tanah Melayu. Everyone's clothes are too clean and too brightly coloured, and the buildings and houses all have fresh coats of paint and shellac. And once we get to Makasar and meet some Dutch folks, it gets truly ridiculous. Does no one involved in this film know how Westerners dressed in the 18th century? The first white guy we see is wearing a sport coat. And then there's Claudia. Bad enough we're asked to believe a single woman can serve as a Dutch East Indies trading officer, but on top of that, her outfits look straight out of Zara and G2000.

I can't believe director Majed Salleh and his art department are that stupid; I think they didn't have the budget to recreate the period with any authenticity, so they just main lantak je. And so we get scenes like Awang fighting pirates on what's supposed to be the deck of a ship, with a badly-composited ocean behind him. At one point, Awang wears the same outfit we saw Bachok wearing in an earlier scene. I laughed out loud during one part where Awang and Galigor are escaping the Dutch, who fire on them with what are supposed to be muskets but look like toy cap guns. No, they're not stupid - they just expect the audience to be stupid.

But wait - Awang fights pirates? Sounds cool, dunnit? It would be, if the fight scenes had any decent choreography. There are enough of them that this movie could qualify as an action-adventure, but they're all amateurish and dull. None of the cast seem to be trained martial artists; they look like they've had all of a couple hours of silat lessons. And then there are the "mystical" elements. Awang's spears glow red and make electricity sounds. No, seriously. Later on, there's a scene in which the villain fights two old guys with lightning shooting out their hands. Force lightning! Ko ingat ni Jedi lawan Sith ke?! The scene with the muskets made me LOL, but this one made me yell "Apa niiii?!" at the screen.

Speaking of things that made me want to yell at the screen - there's a goddamn blatant racist caricature in this movie, in the character of a Chinese merchant in Makasar. I really wish I remembered the actor so I can name and shame him - he's a Malay guy doing a Cinapek accent that makes me want to sic the ISA on the entire production. Korang ingat kelakar ke, mengejek bangsa lain macam ni? Good thing he was only around for the Makasar scenes - this is the kind of distasteful crap I give one-star ratings for.

But no, I'm giving it one-and-a-half, so now I'm going to say something good about it. The first I heard about this movie was this synopsis, which is some weird shit about a cursed spear that makes its victims use it to kill someone else before dying. I'm assuming this is from the Malay legend the film is based on - and truth be told, it does a not-half-bad job of expanding on and making sense of it, right down to the ninety-nine dead. The bare bones of the plot is solid, and the script could actually make for a decent period romantic adventure - if it weren't for the annoyingly on-the-nose dialogue. And I don't care how much a part of budaya Melayu it is, people speaking in pantun is just goddamn pretentious.

Farid Kamil looks like he's sleepwalking through this film. Zul Huzaimy's Bachok is so slimy and loathsome, I wonder why anyone even wants to be in the same room with him, much less let him marry their daughter. Siti Elizad is a damsel in perpetual distress. Lynette Mei-Ling Ludi tries to play a femme fatale and fails. Everyone seems to have wandered off a bangsawan play; their performances are stiff and affected and completely phony. And in the time-honoured Malay film tradition of having "comic relief" characters that behave like total retards, we have Tamrin Ibrahim Pendek (likely the son of the Ibrahim Pendek) as one of Bachok's stooges.

I can't help but compare Puteri Gunung Ledang to this movie. PGL was an impressive failure, but it did so many things right that this one did wrong. It proved that it's at least possible to make a period Malay film that looks authentic, as long as you've got a strong vision and attention to detail - and, probably, a big-ass budget. This one doesn't have any of those. All it has is a lazy-ass director and crew who are out to insult the intelligence of Malaysian moviegoers. Here's one last example of how stupid this movie is: There's this bit where Awang plays a game of chess. When he wins, he says "checkmate".

He says "checkmate". In 18th century Tanah Melayu.

NEXT REVIEW: Jennifer's Body
Anticipation level: well, I liked Juno


TMBF said...

Oh, it's failing all right. GSC pulled it off their screens, and the cinema I was at was almost empty. Confirmed flop.