In the wake of a turkey-stuffed haze, I sat myself down on the bed to finish watching Yasmin Ahmad’s “Talentime”. Her final feature film, Talentime weaves an incredible web of multi-cultural families, politics, race, religion, language differences and young love. It was very much a typical Yasmin Ahmad movie: simple cinematography, complex characters and great scenes of normal Malaysian life. How many movie industries can claim to showcase the life of the nation and people they claim to represent? Hollywood certainly doesn’t.
International politics aside, I do have some critiques of the movie. First, it was a tad melodramatic for my taste, especially with the wide angle, landscape shots of the park and the school and the many sighs of the teacher hosting the talent show. This definitely put a dent on the flow of the movie, giving a rather choppy feel as it skipped from one family and storyline to another. This would definitely confuse a non-Malaysian to no end, especially with the multiple language switches (English, Malay, Tamil, Chinese, Cantonese, sometimes all at once).
The Yorkshire accent of Melur’s grandmother was also very confusing… I’ve never quite understood why she had to speak to slowly, but perhaps Yasmin was planning to parody the many movies that feature a token English(wo)man. Nonetheless, the addition of her English grandmother definitely gave the movie a more authentically Malaysian feel. We cannot deny that as Malaysians, we often suffer from something of an identity crisis. Are we Chinese, Malay or Indian? Are we Eurasian? Are we European? The multi-faceted and intensely multi-cultural element of the movie definitely made my day – especially the part where we all find out that Mei Ling, the family’s Chinese housekeeper, is a practicing Muslim. I’ve never seen this addressed in any other form of media! It was fantastic.
Overall, the love story between Mahesh (an Indian boy) and Melur (an Eurasian girl) almost becomes a side story. Yasmin gives almost equal screen time to all the main protagonists, and elucidate the different storylines together. This is not a simple, formulaic movie. It’s incredibly complex, without being pretentious. There are no scenes of deep longing, or the lovers staring into each others’ eyes. Their conflicts are straightforward, and the racial, cultural and political barriers are immediately obvious when Mahesh’s mother forbids him from interacting with Melur.
The saddest (and in my opinion, the best) scenes in this movie were those between Hafiz (a secondary character) and his mother, who is hospitalised for god-knows-what. They pull off their scenes with such brevity of emotion, comedy and sadness that shocked me. The love story between Mahesh and Melur is also strictly PG-13, which is normal for a Malaysian film, but unusual for international audiences. Nonetheless, it was tremendously important to the plot that their love story remained that way, because it provided the film with an avenue to illustrate cultural differences and the idea of ‘maksiat’, as vocalised by Mei Ling the housekeeper.
It’s drawbacks aside, the movie deals with many important issues: the disjunction between race and religion, inter-cultural family relationships, gender and cultural barriers, language difficulties (illustrated by the Cantonese-Chinese speaking boys) and underneath it all – the racial politics that underline Malaysian society.
As Yasmin (the director) expressed, the film gives a glimpse into the lives of the anthropological ‘other’ – the person whom you’ve met and seen but never knew how they lived. It answers some of the questions of, ‘Do they live like me? Am I unique in my cultural practices?’ The sense of social commentary was immensely strong, and I am thankful for it.
This is one of those films that make you feel like you’re a step closer to Malaysia. It shows the complexity of the country and its people. Though far from perfect, it is definitely a must-see for audiences wishing for a departure from formulaic Hollywood and independent films.
The film moved me to read up on some of the events that inspired the film, such as the Kampung Medan incident, which involved violent clashes over an Indian funeral and a Malay wedding. I now feel rather inspired to write something (perhaps another stab at screen/playwriting or a short story) about Malaysia. Can I do it? I haven’t written any fiction in years, but I can try.
Maksiat is usually defined as an act that is forbidden in Syariah law. Though in this situation it serves to indicate sexual impropriety of unmarried couples.