Maha-wannabe ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Monday, March 21, 2011


Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa
My rating:

Enough ink has been spent on how ambitious this movie is, what a major leap forward it is for the local film industry, how we should all be proud of it, yadda yadda yadda. And it's that last that raised my cynicism levels, because seriously, why should we be proud that Malaysia made a historical epic film? Why not a good historical epic film? Because every review I've read of it so far has noted its shortcomings, but ended by saying we should be proud that we've finally made a movie like this, which I don't buy for a hot second. KRU Studios made a fantasy musical that I thought was decent, but a historical epic action-adventure is a whole nother ball of twine - because I like historical epic action-adventures, and I know what makes a good one. So damn straight I'm gonna judge this movie by international standards, and not make weaselly comments like "bagi filem tempatan, kira baik jugaklah".

And by those standards, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa - sold overseas as The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines, an utterly meaningless title - just doesn't cut it.

It is the year 120AD, and a marriage has been arranged between the world's greatest kingdoms of the time, China and Rome. Prince Marcus Caprenius (Gavin Stenhouse) and Princess Meng Li-hua (Jing Lusi) are to meet on neutral ground and a "kingless land" - the Golden Chersonese. But the Roman expedition meets with misfortune along the way, and are forced to hire their passage in the Indian port of Goa - and thus they meet the vagabond sea captain Merong Mahawangsa (Stephen Rahman-Hughes). He brings Marcus to the Golden Chersonese safely, where they rendezvous with Admiral Liu Yun (Craig Fong) of the Chinese entourage, and Marcus meets his betrothed bride and her handmaiden Ying Ying (Nell Ng). But then a tribe of sea pirates called the Gerudans attack, led by their sorcerer Taji (W. Hanafi W. Su) and his general Kamawas (Khir Rahman), kidnapping the Princess and leaving Merong for dead. Until he is rescued by Kesum (Dato' Rahim Razali) and his daughter Embok (Ummi Nazeera), who inform him of a prophecy that foretells his great destiny.

At its best, it's reminiscent of old-fashioned Hollywood swashbucklers like 1938's The Adventures of Robin Hood and 1940's The Sea Hawk. That'd be high praise coming from anyone but me, because I didn't much like either of them. There was an affected pageantry to costume epics of that era that I often found campy and artificial, and I felt the same way about Hikayat - though I'm pretty sure that "affected pageantry" wasn't what director Yusry Abdul Halim was going for. Because at its worst, it's like a school play put on by a fresh-out-of-Maktab-Perguruan teacher with more enthusiasm than sense. Everyone, Yusry included, seemed like clueless kids trying to play grown-up.

Oh okay, it looks good. The best thing it has going for it is its production design, with some neat-looking sets (or neat-looking CGI compositing, which is fine either way). But when it comes to actual flesh-and-blood people, it is mostly LOL and facepalm. For one thing, the Chinese characters are saddled with this ridiculous accent that has Princess Meng saying things like "I wan you to hell me wizzis". For another, everyone speaks English. No, not English for the benefit of modern audiences that is understood to be Mandarin or Latin or whatever period-and-culture-appropriate language they're supposed to be using - because there are parts when they speak actual Mandarin and Latin and helpfully inform us when they're doing so. And when they do so, the dubbing is painfully obvious.

And Stephen Rahman-Hughes is fail. The London-based actor claims to be unfamiliar with BM, but he delivers his English lines in the same stilted and self-conscious manner, and his overly-theatrical body language betrays his stage training (which doesn't work for screen acting, brudder!). All he does is swagger about shirtlessly, mug shamelessly, toss his perfectly-coiffed kutu rock hair, and generally behave like an epic hero without actually doing anything heroic. The first we see of him is beating up the brother of some Indian princess he seduced, and this somehow qualifies him for the position of ambassador for the Roman royal wedding party. Later, he becomes king of the proto-Malay tribes of the Chersonese via prophecy, the favoured trope of Designated Heroes everywhere. Some achieve greatness, some have greatness thrust upon them; Merong lives in a world that automatically assumes he's great.

Which is as much the fault of the screenplay as it is of Rahman-Hughes. Now, screenwriter Amir Hafizi sounds like a smart guy (and has excellent taste in reading material), and perhaps his faux-Shakespearean dialogue might have sounded better coming from actually capable actors. But the nuts-and-bolts of the plot are weak. It isn't till a third of the way in that the story for Merong, the ostensible protagonist, actually begins; and when it does, it takes too many shortcuts in turning him into a leader of an entire kingdom. His romance with Embok makes no sense, and is told through a narrator VO - the same shortcut The Last Airbender took, which is a movie no good filmmaker should emulate. And it ends in a head-slappingly abrupt manner, leaving unresolved every plot thread and character relationship it took pains to develop.

But frankly, most of the blame ought to go to Yusry. His direction is simply asinine, and never misses an opportunity to pick the entirely wrong shot or angle. He overuses digital colour correction to the point where certain scenes - one that used the day-for-night technique, in particular - turned out noticeably grainy. I wasn't at all impressed by the fight scenes either; the choreography was decent, but they were shot and staged with no inkling of how to make them exciting or dramatic. (And features a 1st-century Roman warrior displaying impressive skill with, of all things, Eskrima sticks.) The large-scale battles failed to hide their low-budget limitations, and there's always a LOLworthy extra in the background (sometimes foreground) who doesn't know what he's supposed to be doing.

Worst of all is how he directs his actors, which is to say, not at all whatsoever. It's clear that he simply left it up to them to do their own thing. Craig Fong is wooden. Gavin Stenhouse is blandly earnest. Jing Lusi wants to be a kickass kungfu heroine in a movie that doesn't have one. Nell Ng would much rather be in a Jack Neo comedy. Dato' Rahim Razali phones it in. (And I have no idea why Kesum wasn't in the climactic battle, seeing as how the story already set up his vendetta with Taji.) I was about to give kudos to Ummi Nazeera, who displayed a glimpse of talent, until she got relegated to the background. I suppose Khir Rahman was alright as the villainous heavy, and the dialogue I see quoted in the reviews I've read (that are far more generous than mine) are all his. He does get a pretty cool exit line - he uses his dying breath to gloat about raping his killer's woman.

See, it's stuff like that that I was hoping for. Some genuine awesomeness, some legitimate epicness, something that would've justified making a historical epic action-adventure. But there's precious little of it; all we get is a grab-bag of clich├ęs and ideas stolen from other movies, listlessly strung together. If a comparison is to be raised between this and Puteri Gunung Ledang, I'd say that one was better, even with its many failings. At least it attempted to be a uniquely Malay historical epic film, with its own lush and stately tone. Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa is a poor imitation, a wannabe with no personality of its own. I'm sure I'll be the lone voice of dissension in the wake of all the "bagi filem tempatan, kira baik jugaklah" praise being heaped on it, but someone has to keep an objective eye. Yusry and KRU Studios have made a historical epic. They haven't made a good one.

Expectations: wow, what's with these great reviews it's been getting?


Anwari Ashraf said...

Alas, a review that isn't pretentious & ass-kissing.

"Yusry and KRU Studios have made a historical epic. They haven't made a good one."

A historical epic fail, maybe?

TMBF said...

@Anwari: Nah, it wasn't so bad as what I'd deem an epic fail. But it is fail nonetheless.

Also, I hope you meant "at last". :)

Anwari Ashraf said...

iPhone autospell. got to hate them.

well it was an epic film that was a fail. so i stand by my literal 'epic fail'


fadz said...

bravo bro! just love it!

TeratoMan said...

Haven't watch this yet. And with this review it seems that I never gonna.

Lookng fwd to your Rango review.

DivaScarf #scarfwithstory said...

omg i love ur writing.

zulfadhlimansor said...

the truth (your writing) is more entertaining than all the heap of praises (and the movie itself).... praises for nothing (and to sedap the hati one)..... better criticize than all the praises... it reminds me of the emperor without clothes story....

The Mahablogger said...

Look its easy to talk, you guys can talk till the cows come home. How about any one of you start popping out some NEW ideas of making THAT Perfect movie that you're all dreaming about ?

I mean even Micheal Bay's Transformers has great awesome graphics still kinda fail to impress critics in terms of the story line. Now its not easy to turn a very far-fetched story based on Fiction into an epic fantasy movie, ESPECIALLY here in Malaysia. Its NOT THE BEST, but it aint that bad either. Its a start and thats what matters most.

US Hollywood movies would not become what it is today, if theyre own people werent supporting them from day 1. For goodness sake, please start to give credit when its due. This was a big attempt and yes it was the right way to go. Let the world start to take notice of us, thats a start. Later on we can fine tune it and make amendments. For me, Lets start thinking about the Sequel. Im sure through the sequels we could at least start to amend the past mistakes.

TMBF said...

@The Mahablogger: Wrong. "US Hollywood" movies did not become what they are today because their own people supported them - they become what they are today because they were good.

Unknown said...

Your review just made me want to watch the movie after all. Guess I'll be spending some dough on Astro First. I wasn't interested initially as i fell asleep 20 minutes into PGL when it came out in theaters, but I'll give this "Epic" a go.

Keep "freedom reviewing"!
-Fellow movie critic, just w/o a blog.

p/s That Mahablogger is such a clown!