By Fajar binti Benjamin
Edited by Nimue Wafiya
It’s that time of year again. Across Malaysia, students are getting flags tangled in the ceiling fans of their classrooms; cars are sporting adorable miniature decorations; ads geared towards unity are being blasted from the TV; and Malaysian Youtubers are racking their brains to put together beautiful aesthetic pieces on the food we all love to eat together. Yes, it’s merdeka (a.k.a. independence day), a time for gratitude and patriotic pride. There are many ways to express both, but none is as fun and more in demand from our art scene than supporting the film industry.
Only last year, we were discovered to be a nation of avid YouTube viewers, with us Malaysians spending 65 per cent of our video-watching time on our mobile phones, compared to a global average of just 50 per cent. If we could only divert our attention from all that free entertainment and spend some money on screenings of local movies and investing in local projects, Malaysia could be well on it’s way to having its own illustrious film industry ⎼ with Hollywood crowning the American economy, anyone can see why we would want to tap into this sector.
But wait, it’s more than that:
The beauty of Malaysian film is the way it caters to the uniqueness of our humor and language. What Hollywood film is going to celebrate the occurrence of conversations in three different languages simultaneously? And the puns exclusive to the mixture of these languages? How about the jokes that only make sense within the context of our lives saturated with kopitiam culture, terrible drivers, goofy politicians and the like?
Ok, so maybe that’s just my dream for Malaysian cinema. As it is, the scene is pretty bleak Commercially at least, most of our films just can’t measure up to the level of artistry and success of our next door neighbors: Thailand and Indonesia. Bad Genius or Pengabdi Setan anyone?
However, there is hope for us yet? I swear, each Malaysian movie that comes out is better than the last. So without further ado, I present my top picks.
- Pulang (Translation: Return Home)
Pulang is a drama/romance which leans too heavy on the suspense and not enough on the chemistry. However, it is a beautiful film. The first 30 minutes contains an absolutely thrilling sequence that showcases a time in history most of us cannot even begin to truly comprehend: the Japanese invasion. For these thirty minutes alone, it is already well worth the watch.
Unfortunately, after a tight first act, the entire experience drifted ke laut (for context: our main man skips off to sea, leaving behind his wife and kid because he “wishes to be rich enough to drape his wife in gold”), becoming slogged with unnecessary drama, toxic masculinity and other unsavoury conventions. For those who can turn a blind eye to the douchebaggery-ness of our protagonist, Umar’s actions, you’ll be rewarded with an emotional rollercoaster with great pay off (I’m told?), for those with stone cold hearts, you’ll still enjoy the scenery, the wonderful friendship, the history and some spiteful glee at how bad the CGI is.
- Polis Evo 2
A movie that can best be described as ‘watching an awesomely choreographed Call Of Duty game”, Polis Evo 2 had most people walking out of the theatre with huge smiles on their faces, both from the adrenaline hit and the heartening message regarding self love and duty that the movie managed to seamlessly thread in with the shooting, grenade tossing and quirky one liners.
Taking the man well-known for being our “raja lawak” Zizan Razak and turning him into a brooding police officer, one with tragic baggage weighing down his slim shoulders was a risky move, but it works. That’s not the only risk this movie takes. The main bad guys shooting up the island, holding locals as hostages and setting traps for our heroic police officers? Religious terrorists.
Both the villains and heroes are handled with a nuance that is commendable, and for that alone, you need to see this movie. Besides, Indonesian actress Raline Shah is just amazing in her (physically demanding) role as Rian, showcasing a Strong Independent Undercover Police Officer™ who holds her own alongside Khai with his biceps the size of her head. Definitely the most fun movie on this list.
Guang is a movie brimming with heart. A mostly Mandarin film, shot entirely in the Cheras area of KL, the story centers on a pair of brothers, one autistic and the younger one not. Their lives are simple and unglamourous, the younger brother works whatever service job he can pick up, earning enough for their rent and meals in warung everyday, with no indication that they wish for anything more. However, Guang, being autistic, has trouble communicating and concentrating, making it impossible for him to hold down a job. This of course, is a source of extreme frustration to his brother whose love for him shines brightly throughout the film, even in the face of yelling and loss of temper.
I personally love this movie for providing insight into the lives of those who aren’t fortunate enough to end up in places of higher education. Our fellow Malaysians who must take life one day at a time. Even the journey of an autistic man- left without support systems from the government or parents -to find his calling, takes a backseat to just how much we learn about what life befalls the orphans and blue collar workers of Malaysia. A simple tale of love and talent, Guang is worth braving the subtitles for non Mandarin speakers.
- One Two Jaga (English name: Crossroads)
This movie is spicy. While the filmmakers, unfortunately, had to pull their punch in the final act to appease the censorship board of Malaysia, the buildup towards that punch is still a thrilling and eye-opening ride. Plus, the original (read: controversial) ending of the movie is the version showing on Netflix.
One Two Jaga is a showcase of three different fields of injustices happening commonly in Malaysia, intertwined into one narrative, sparking connections between the different levels and parties involved. The root of the corruption starts in the police force, superintendents high up the food chain who are in cahoots with the syndicates they should be shutting down. A police officer taking small bribes so that he can afford to make his wife happy; a foreign worker, here illegally, who just wants to give his son a good life; a domestic worker who was abused by her employer, trying to flee the country by whatever means available after her passport is taken from her. Who is the bad guy? Who deserves what the law has coming to them? Which side do we take when it comes to this war between people just trying to live and their negative effects on society?
This movie, I believe, is our guiding light for the future of film in Malaysia. Gorgeous to look at, simple to understand yet it deepens your knowledge and understanding without you even noticing.
- Sepet (Translation: Slanted Eyes)
You knew this was coming. No list of good Malaysian films is complete without mentioning Yasmin Ahmad’s comedy-drama masterpiece. Vibrant and sharp tongued Orked, a well-to-do Malay girl falls in love with quiet and introspective Jason, a Chinese boy living in less than ideal conditions. Their love, already naturally challenged by their differing personalities and miscommunications, must also stand against racially charged social pressures.
This movie, as well as its sequels Gubra and Mukhsin are just beautiful films. Even the hardest of hearts will be softened to the charms of Orked when seen through Yasmin Ahmad’s lense. A must see for all Malaysians. (You can find the CD to this one in our Sunway Library!)
And now for a quick round of honorable mentions who didn’t make the cut.
Paskal is a legitimately entertaining film as well as a box-office record breaker here in Malaysia. It’s an action flick about our very own special operations force of the Royal Malaysian Navy taking down a terrorist threat that comes from within their own forces! Thrilling, well directed and easy to swallow it’s a fun ride but never tries to stray from cliches or do more than what’s safe. Regardless, the portrayal of unbreakable friendships between these (multi ethnicity) soldiers as well as the juxtaposition between their macho and loving sides was very moving. Available on Netflix, It’s worth the stream!
2) Jagat (Translation: World)
This is a Tamil Malaysian film available on Netflix. Jagat won awards for its portrayal of the life of a little Indian boy as he is swayed by the bad influences in his life. Between teachers who don’t appreciate his creativity, a father who is more concerned with appearances than his son’s feelings and an uncle who is infinitely cooler than anyone else in his life, but also happens to be caught up in gangsterisme, this movie sounds like it’ll be a fun ride. However, it doesn’t have that commercial gloss or pacing that would make it easier to swallow. This one needs to be seen with someone who can translate some of the context behind the choices made.
Malays sure do love their horror movies. We have countless indistinguishable horror-comedy movies about common folklore ghosts, pocong, pontianak and evil eye. Munafik however, stands out from the rest with its step back from over-the-top melodrama and replacing it with a tight, high-stakes, realistic level of fear and build up over the movie. Not quite The Conjuring, but still, pretty good.
Begitulah kawan-kawan, those are my picks for Malaysian films worth seeing. Drop a like if you agree or a comment if I left out one of your favourites!