Well this has been a month of firsts. Saw my first wild boar, saw my first pet monkey, saw my first Orang Asli village... and now I can say I saw my first Malaysian movie at the cinema, 'Sepet'. It was pretty good too! I'm glad Emily (from my cell/small group) asked us to go and watch it. I was a little skeptical at first, because local movies are notorious for sucking big time (a fact that one of Sepet's main characters actually points out). But this time I decided I'd give it a go, since I'd never dished out 9 RM for a local movie at the theater before.
Sepet is a Malaysian movie through and through... it's not exclusively in Malay. Far from it, in fact. The dialogue is a mind-boggling mix of Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, English, and Manglish. It's set in my parent's hometown of Ipoh, which I thought gave it a nice Not-In-KL feeling. I mean, I live in KL. The less I see of it, the better. The story, a tragic interracial romance, is pretty interesting... to us Malaysians. To the rest of the world it may lose some of it's power, since these sorts of issues have been dealt with over and over in cinemas abroad. We're only just starting to learn to talk about interracial matters locally without getting huge sticks shoved up our nether regions. However, Sepet handles its subject matter extremely well, and should strike a chord with many Malaysians on several levels.
The plot is pretty simple: An Ah Beng named 'Jason' Lei Siew Loong (the definition of 'Ah Beng' has been handled on this blog previously) meets a Malay girl named Orked, and they fall in love. Said love ends in tragedy. Sounds very done-before... but this movie manages to avoid most of the easy cliches associated with such tales. Instead, it delivers something far more poignant and insightful.
This movie is a really good showcase of the hodge-podge of cultures that makes Malaysia what it is. A bunch of racial and cultural stereotypes are laid bare, with hilarious results. Sepet doesn't stop at the surface, though, and digs deeper into its characters motives and desires. Along the way it kinda makes the point that while the stereotypes may be true in a lot of cases, that doesn't make the targets of those stereotypes any less human and worthy of esteem.
Sepet doesn't get preachy, however, and there's plenty of humor and joy to be had along the way. This movie is genuinely funny, and it's pure gold when the stereotypes come out and give you the full monty. The romantic interludes between its ill-fated lovebirds do tend to get really bad... but that's understandable in a way. Chinese folk can get pretty corny and melodramatic when they're in love. But that still doesn't stop the movie from grinding to a screeching halt when Jason drops stuff like "I've been waiting for you all my life". ACK. That said, I couldn't think of a better way to portray an Ah Beng in love. Another thing I found distracting was the stoner look that Loong had on his face the whole time... but yet again that's classic Ah Bengness right there. At the very least I cannot fault the movie for realism!
In an intellgent twist, the parents of said lovebirds are not stumbling blocks to the relationship. The movie forgoes that cliche for something a little more complex and fulfilling. Orked's dad does voice his hangups, but mostly towards the end, and even that is used as a setup for a poignant and heart-wrenching response from Orked's mother. Apart from that, Orkid's parents are just plain fun to watch, as they play out the their old-folks-who-love-each-other-and-their-daughter roles with aplomb. Jason's family life is much darker; his father, before he was crippled in an accident, was abusive and adulterous. In the few moments in which you see Jason's mother, you get a sobering sense of the cycle of anger and tragedy her life has become.
Jason's and Orked's friends also get some screentime along the way, and that time is well spent. Characters are just solid all round... it didn't feel like anyone was given the shaft (save for a few perfunctory characters whom I certainly didn't feel the need to know more about).
When all is said and done, this has been one of the more pleasant surpises of the week. Kudos to Yasmin Ahmad (who's blog can be found here, FYI) for making a great movie. Nevermind that it's Malaysian. We really need to get over that Boleh-land hump. We can do great things... this movie proves it. For crying out loud, can we stop reminding ourselves of that, as though we aren't sure?