- RatedPG /GenreComedy, Drama, Romance
The late Malaysian filmmaker Yasmin Ahmad, an admired and oft-polarising force in her too-brief directorial career, brought many key qualities to her final film, Talentime.
Art imitates life for the film resembles an amateur singing contest: It is vastly uneven, with a number of high points and some low-lights. Still, the director known by some here for her emotionally charged eulogy-themed commercial for a Singapore government body delivers on touching and sincerely earnest moments that outweigh the bad, shrill occasions.
Her ability to string together a large ensemble cast, and the deft humour and heavy humanism that is vintage Yasmin, shines through, enough for you to forgive her dropping the ball at a few points.
The characters are brought together in a basic premise of a school organising a talent contest with seven participants, each of whom are picked up - unsurprisingly for Yasmin fans - via scooter by students to partake in rehearsals.
As a mirror held up to life across the Causeway, the film focuses on how the contest brings together differing elements of the population and, through their interactions, intimates the racial tensions of multi-cultural society.
First, the highlights. Harith Iskander, arguably Malaysia's best comic talent, provides much levity, with Mukhsin actor Syafie Naswip, who won an award at the Malaysian Film Festival for his performance here, carrying some of the film's most memorable moments. His role as Hafiz, which has him coming to terms with the inevitable demise of his ailing mother, engenders genuinely moving moments.
Another stand-out performer is Mahesh Jugal Kishor, whose mute Indian character is one of the designated drivers assigned to pick up contestants. He forms a bond with his charge Melur (Pamela Chong), a well-to-do girl from a mixed-race Muslim family. The two eventually fall for each other, an interesting development that unfortunately creates plot problems.
The low points of the film include how the disapproval of the boy's family, on religious grounds, of the budding relationship sees high-handed, over-pitched drama ensuing. Another conflict, that of Hafiz and an envious Chinese student Kahoe, is also underdeveloped, with an all-too-convenient resolution, while an equally shrill note is struck when Melur's mum explains to a Datin, in a lecturing manner, why she has a Chinese cook at home.
Nevertheless, the sound of music may soothe many. Though none as rousing as from Malaysian musical Sell Out!, screened in Singapore earlier this year, Talentime spins together a fair number of listenable tunes.
And the film, thankfully, bears Yasmin's fingerprints all over it. She gave herself a lot to do, for managing such an ensemble was always going to be difficult. Despite that, the final product is often poignant, a piece of work that sadly is her last attempt to challenge the numerous assumptions about Malaysia and its race relations.
Ever since Sepet first brought her widespread attention in the region five years ago, what has shone through in the director's works has been an unflinching honesty and willingness to confront tough questions, something well-exemplified in this entertaining film.
In a sense, it is a fitting final chapter in Yasmin's oeuvre. As has been customary, her labour of love may be dismissed by some critics as lightweight and lacking. But truth be told, there is much more going on here than just a simple talent show.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990).