FEB 2 — January’s come to a close, and as usual I’ve made it a point to go and see as many Malaysian films as possible and with the exception of “Wawa Semput”, a sort of sequel-cum-spin-off of the box-office hit “Adnan Sempit” which came out on the day of my deadline for this piece, I’ve seen everything that’s been released in January 2013. Looking at the trailers that precede the films, 2013 looks set to be another overkill year for Malaysian films, similar to the one we had last year.
If 2011 saw the boom with two films hitting the RM12 million box-office mark and many others comfortably grossing beyond RM5 million, 2012 saw no such thing in terms of box-office hits. There were still hits last year, but nowhere near the exhilarating numbers in 2011 and it’s pretty obvious we were going downhill, and judging from the trailers that I’ve seen so far, we may be going even more downhill this year.
But, and this is quite a big but, January has surprised me with two pretty good and well-made films. So good are these two that even the awfulness of “Minyak Dagu”, a horror film so lazy, boring, clichéd and predictable (though it’s done pretty good business, raking in RM2.35 million so far after 18 days), didn’t manage to dampen my spirits and hope for a better 2013 for Malaysian cinema.
The first good film was a Chinese film called “Paper Moon”, which is a true-blue Malaysian production, but directed by and starring people from Hong Kong. Offsetting this Hong Kong-ness is the film’s setting in Kelantan, and the story it tells of the tragic love life of a master Wau Bulan maker played by Hong Kong star Gordon Lam (“Ip Man”, “Infernal Affairs”) and the mysterious arrival of a young girl who looks just like his long lost love, both played by Hong Kong sex symbol Chrissie Chau.
It’s a pretty good idea for increasing the film’s export value, putting in recognisable Hong Kong stars alongside local actors in a Malaysian story, which I think has already paid off as the film has secured distribution with highly regarded company Distribution Workshop, who’s handled international sales and distribution for major hits like “Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate”, “Monga” and even notable arthouse titles like “A Simple Life” and “24 City”.
But all of this is nothing if the film itself is terrible, and I think many will be surprised at how well-shot, emotional and affecting it all is, despite some obvious marketing gesture by including quite a few steamy love scenes involving Chau (which didn’t survive the local censors’ scissors, obviously). It is definitely an export quality movie, which is not something you encounter much here, trust me.
The biggest surprise though is how good “Juvana” turned out to be. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, “Juvana” was a popular TV series about kids trying to survive in a school for juvenile delinquents. There’s the wrongfully accused kid, the corrupt warden, the alpha male school bully, the inspirational teacher and many other archetypes for viewers to identify with in the series that its success meant that it’s only logical that a movie be made next to follow the further exploits of the characters.
Knowing how light and fluffy most Malay mainstream movies are, it’s highly refreshing to see a local film, obviously targeted at the mainstream Malay market, that doesn’t pull its punches. Just like “Songlap” and “Chow Kit” from recent memory, this is a gritty Malay movie with a dogged commitment to depicting the real. Using the template of prison movies combined with another common template of “ex-convict trying to lead an honest life but faced with society’s prejudices” for its main subplot, “Juvana” offers so many thrills and emotions that it’s unlikely that you’ll ever be bored watching it. There’s even a shocking scene of male rape (implied, of course) that will leave all the guys in the audience clenching their buttocks afterwards!
Despite its many sensational content, which is sure to get the Harian Metro-reading crowd’s blood pumping, the movie is never less than serious about the issues it’s trying to address, namely the futility and vicious cycle of violence in a world where the main principle is the survival of the fittest. The acting by the young leads are all very solid, but I think Adlin Aman Ramlie totally stole the show as the school’s lead guard, blindsiding us at first with his take-no-shit attitude, only to later reveal more layers to his character, resulting in us siding more and more with him as the film progresses. Best Supporting Actor candidate for this year’s Festival Filem Malaysia? I think so.
The movie only wobbles a bit towards the end, which is a bit of a shame since it’s written, directed and acted with a surprisingly steady hand for most of its running time. But still, there’s no going around it, even this early on in the year “Juvana” is already the Malay movie to beat this year. I’d be ecstatic if there are more to come with this kind of dramatic quality.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.