Hoist the flags and puff up your chest, cause this week we’re celebrating 61 years of glorious national independence. Malaysia has come a long way and we’ve seen a lot of changes, both politically and socially. We have seen new trends, new successes, new challenges and even a new government. We’re not the same nation we were all those years ago but one thing that hasn’t changed is our collective love for cinema. I remember my parents used to sneak out in the middle of the night just to catch a drive-in movie in their college days. And every now and then, I see an old classic on TV 1 like Ali Baba Bujang Lapok. Then there are the more contemporary films that try to tell a more modern story like Polis Evo and Bersalji di Kuala Lumpur. But no matter how young and old you are, we’ve got a great lineup of Malaysian films that for everyone from atuk to your hipster English educated whimper snapper. These are five films that are sure to get you swelling with patriotic pride.
5. Ola Bola (2016)
I can think of no better way to raise our spirits and make us dream of the impossible than a good ole inspirational sports film. Make no mistake though, this is no run of the mill The Mighty Ducks ripoff. Rather Ola Bola is more reminiscent of South Africa’s Invictus, using the avenue of sports to discuss something that speaks to the social and political fabric of a nation, namely a moment in time that changes or defines a country.
For Malaysians, it’s the story of how the Malaysian national football team manage to qualify for the 1980 Summer Olympics. Director Chiu Keng Guan very much constructed this in the vein of 1Malaysia, showing the struggles of that the players of multiple ethnicities have to face. Most of the screen time dedicated to captain Chow Kwok Keong, striker Ali Ahmad and goalkeeper Muthu. Though a tad on the cheesy side, Ola Bola will eventually win you over with its impressive production quality (especially those gorgeous nature shots). Competently shot and framed by Chin Ting-Chang along with editing by Gwyneth Lee, Ola Bola makes for one of the better local cinematic experiences in terms of visuals.
If that doesn’t do it for you, perhaps the gripping drama of Chow, Ali and Muthu will. I’ll admit following Muthu’s story did make me tear up a moment or two seeing how determined the young man is to steer his own destiny. Kudos to actor Sarankumar A/L Manokara for his stirring performance. Ultimately Ola Bola is a film about a moment in our history when Malaysians united for the cause of a common goal, to make our name known in the world. So hold your head up high as you shovel popcorn into your face.
4. Nasi Lemak 2.0 (2011)
Satirist and artist Wee Meng Chee aka Namewee has provided no shortage controversy in Malaysia but one thing we can all agree is that the man certainly entertaining. Making his director and actor debut in 2011’s Nasi Lemak 2.0. Namewee is Huang Da Xia a struggling restaurateur, trying to keep his business afloat. However, Huang sees an opportunity to turn his life and his business around when he gets involved in a Chinese cooking contest that could decide the fate of a major restaurant. Things get weird when he seeks help from an enigmatic hawker lady who whisps him away on a mystical, culinary journey. Throughout his odyssey, Huang discovers what it truly means to cook like a Malaysian from culinary gurus and masters and to uncover the hidden truth behind the nation’s most iconic dish, nasi lemak.
If there’s one thing I know about Malaysians is that they freaking love their food. Nasi Lemak 2.0 is a love letter to our national love for cuisine. Namewee brings his signature biting wit while also dialling back on some of the satirical edges that has landed the man in hot water in the past. The man strikes a balance between melodrama and comedy. He ’ll have you engaged with Huang’s struggles while laughing at some of the more deliberate Malaysian stereotypes depicted in the film. Namewee had to go through a ton of drama to get this film approved and screened in Malaysia and I have to got to say that it was worth it. Nasi Lemak 2.0 is a fun romp and a celebration of Malaysian cuisine.
3. KL24: Zombies
This film wasn’t just made by Malaysians but also funded by them as well. Indie director James Lee managed to raise RM200,000 in crowdfunds to bring us one hell of a Malaysian take on Shaun of the Dead. The film follows three distinctly Malaysian stories. The first one follows three white collar workers (reflecting a rather 1Malaysia motif) being forced to work late hours in the office with their nasty boss. There’s one that’s actually a pretty interesting deconstruction of the classic extended Chinese family dynamics when one of them brings home a Malay girlfriend. The final subplot even takes a jab at the traditional idea of polygamy within Malay culture, with jealous housewives squabbling among one another.
KL24 by today is one of the smartest Malaysian comedies I’ve seen in a long time. The film is a great bit of good scary fun to see how we would react in the face of a zombie apocalypse. Heck, there’s even a sort of crazy Mad Max angle that’s taken near the end. But what truly sets it apart from the Jangan Pandang Belakang Congkak’s is its witty and rather cynical look at what we often think of as quintessential Malaysia.
More often than not, Malaysian films these days always have a sort of preachy moral core or unity message crammed in. Not here though, Lee’s jet black sense of humour, talented cast and gory subject break all the normal conventions we’ve come to expect from Malaysian cinema. The film doesn’t shy away from controversial racial discourses, family dynamics and sexuality while also giving us the gory goods. KL24 is a step forward for progressive Malaysian cinema and frankly, it’s about bloody time!
2. Kil (2013)
If you like films like Memento and TV shows like Black Mirror, then, first of all, you are one disturbing individual and second of all, you’ll enjoy this local mindf*ck courtesy of Nik Amir Mustapha, Kil. It’s rare to see psychological thrillers, especially local productions, make a breakthrough in our cultural scene. So you can imagine the how delightfully surprised film buffs were when Kil had made its way into theatres.
The premise of the films follows a man named Akil (heh get it) who has failed to end this life on several occasions, not from a lack of trying. Frustrated and desperate, Akil reaches out to a suicide assistance service provider known as Life Action Bureau to (LAB) to help end his life. Only he isn’t sure when it’ll happen or who will be the one to off him. Soon, however, life starts to look up for Akil as he falls in love with a mysterious girl named Zara and realizes that life is worth living. Now Akil and Zara will do everything in their power to terminate his contract before he gets terminated.
Backed by powerful performances the likes of Redza Minhat as Akil and Cristina Suzanne as Zara, Kil delivers a powerful and melancholic parable about life and suicide. The chemistry between the two leads elevates the film from a clever premise to a well-crafted piece of dystopian sci-fi drama mixed in with a little bit of romance as well. Not unlike its predecessor on this list, Kil dares to break the comfortable and conventional mould of popular Malaysian cinema to deliver something that speaks to a modern audience. With modernity comes great alienation and despair and Kil manages to encapsulate that zeitgeist of 21st century Malaysia in relatively short run time of 90 minutes.
1. Anak-ku Sazali (1956)
Now we couldn’t possibly have this list without including the father of Malaysian cinema, Mr P.Ramlee. The man has over 60 films under his belt and a total of 401 songs that the man himself composed and often sang. And while there are a plethora of films to choose from his Malay homage to the Three Stooges in Do Re Mi to his take on a beloved local hero in The Legend of Hang Tuah, one film that truly shows his range as an actor has got to be Anak-ku Sazali. It’s ironic that one of his most critically acclaimed masterpieces would come from Singapore but even that fact can’t rob the majesty of the man’s performance.
The film is a melodrama done to perfection. The film revolves around the titular Sazali, born of two worlds, his father’s humble origins and his mother’s wealthy pedigree. Sazali’s mother, Mahani dies during childbirth leaving his father Hassan to watch over the child, the apple of their eye. He lavishes his love upon the boy, granting him his heart’s desires. As the year past, Sazali begins to go down a dark path and soon Hassan must decide what he ought to do with his dear boy Sazali.
This is Ramlee at his most charismatic as he plays the narcissistic and ruthless Sazali. We see him to go from light-hearted and jovial to foul and cruel in a blink of an eye and it is a treat to watch. As the drama of Sazali’s life unfolds, we watch his father Hassan as his heart breaks for his son. He is torn between his paternal duties and his sense of morality. This is dare I say almost even Shakespearean to see the man wrestle with the monster he’s made out of good intentions. Poignant, brilliant and heartbreaking, Anak-ku Sazali will forever be a testament to P.Ramlee’s legacy as a thespian and a monument of Malaysian talent, locally and internationally.
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