Part of my own relationship with Netflix is not just to watch the mediocre romcoms it seems to endlessly generate, or the addictively trashy TV shows like Selling Sunset (for which I can effectively turn off my brain), but also to actively search out films directed by women, or from places or film cultures I’m less familiar with, which is how I got to this Malaysian film. Director Yasmin Ahmad died unexpectedly from a stroke at age 51, the same year this film was released, but she has an intriguing career, including studying politics in Newcastle, employed variously as a banker, a marketing exec, and an advertising director but also — and, inevitably, I quote Wikipedia — “she moonlighted as a blues singer and pianist by night”. I want to know more about that! Anyway, her last film is pretty good, and a few other ones are on Netflix too, so probably worth checking out.
Despite the English language title, this is a Malay film about a school’s talent competition, apparently a national series (whether in real life or within the world of the film). Indeed, part of the film is just dealing with the actual range of languages and cultures that exist in Malaysia (whether the broad Yorkshire accent of one grandmother, the Indian family with their deaf son Mahesh, the Chinese Muslim maid who is initially discriminated against by a posh Malay relation, and every other permutation of background).
I get the feeling that Malaysian viewers will get a lot more out of this in terms of references, but it still resonates because the story is pretty easy to relate to, being one in which a number of different school kids are going through their own family dramas (most notably Mahesh as mentioned above, but also Melur and Hafiz, the last of whom has a dying mother in hospital), but who all pull together at the talent competition. There are moments when this threatens to be a mawkish TV movie but mostly it avoids that by not overexplaining the situations and just letting the emotional moments linger quietly. It’s the last film by its director before her own untimely death, and she has a deft touch at delineating all these characters and finding a way to unite them despite everything.
Director/Writer Yasmin Ahmad; Cinematographer Keong Low; Starring Mahesh Jugal Kishor, Pamela Chong, Mohd Syafie Naswip; Length 120 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Thursday 11 March 2021.