‘Imam’ and ‘Mentega Terbang’ prove the message isn’t everything when it comes to cinema
MARCH 25 — It’s not every year that I find myself writing about Malaysian films back-to-back for three weeks straight here, but that’s exactly what happened in February and March earlier this year.
But as they say, all good things must come to an end, and so did that surprise run of good (and even great) things being written about Malaysian films.
I’m sure there will be more opportunities for me to write about local films later on in the year, and I haven’t even managed to find the time to catch the controversial Pulau, which has done pretty well at the box-office so far, with RM2 million collected during its first week of screening.
For now, let’s turn our attention to two relatively new Malaysian movies; one released in cinemas and the other on a local streaming platform (which had to later pull the film from release after controversy arose surrounding the film) and both with religion as its main topic and message.
I’ve seen more than enough films that were praised — especially by casual filmgoers — just because they had a “good message.”
And even though I totally understand their point of view, especially since they are casual filmgoers after all, I’ve always made it a point to try and make people understand that a “good message” in a crap film won’t make it a good film, and great film with a “bad message” will still be a great film (see the Nazi propaganda film Triumph Of The Will by Leni Riefenstahl to see what I mean).
So, with religion front and centre in both Imam and Mentega Terbang, and both also carrying the message that religious fanaticism and using religion to hold on to power or control people is never good, will that be enough to make these two films good?
The pedigree behind Imam the film is certainly very promising — it’s adapted from national laureate Datuk Abdullah Hussain’s legendary novel of the same name, directed by highly respected film editor Mior Hashim Manap (who plays the dad in Imaginur) and stars local giants M. Nasir and Faizal Hussein — but unfortunately a good pedigree counts for nothing if the execution leaves much to be desired.
The story, set in the 1980s, is about Imam Haji Mihad (M. Nasir), who has recently returned to his village after a long absence, and is appointed the new village Imam.
Trying to bring progress into the village, he tries to turn the mosque into a sort of community centre, where youths can play sports and even sing nasyid songs (complete with guitar as part of the backing instruments), but he runs into opposition from the village’s old guard, who see these things as sinful and haram.
There are definitely great things mined from the epic novel here (and I can still see the novel’s intention of making the village an allegory about a country), but it’s done in such piecemeal and episodic fashion, that everything here turns into random events just sort of happening, without much being explored in terms of motivation and background.
Things just happen one after another here without any narrative thrust that the film starts to feel like a compilation of events plucked out from the novel instead of a proper film adaptation of a novel which usually requires quite a bit of streamlining, chopping, changing and elimination of elements from the source novel.
And don’t even get me started on the intrusive and absolutely overbearing film score that will make you feel as if you’re watching a horror film or an action thriller, instead of a social drama.
In short, it’s shocking how awful Imam the film turned out to be, despite how great the source novel (and message) is, which proves once again that a good message can’t save a movie from being crap.
'Mentega Terbang' was hit by a wave of controversy once local netizens started picking up on the fact that its lead character is a teenage Muslim girl trying to learn about other religions in order to figure out where her dying mother would end up when she dies. — Picture via Instagram/MentegaTerbangMovie
A small, low budget (and practically homemade) independent film that somehow got picked up by a local streaming platform for release, Mentega Terbang was hit by a wave of controversy once local netizens started picking up on the fact that its lead character is a teenage Muslim girl trying to learn about other religions in order to figure out where her dying mother would end up when she dies.
I won’t comment much about the film’s message or whether it’s blasphemous or not, because if you do watch the film all the way to the end, you’ll understand the context of the controversial things shown in the film, as they’re simply stupid acts of rebellion from an introverted teenager learning about comparative religion, so the things she does like eating a char siew bao and pretending that she’s drinking holy water is in a way her version of other teenagers doing stupid things like trying drugs, having pre-marital sex or getting involved in gangsterism/illegal racing.
Even the film’s ultimate message, conveyed through the permissive attitude of the girl’s dad — that one can’t inherit one’s faith so one is encouraged to seek and affirm it on one’s own — is not blasphemous, even if it’s possibly insensitive if viewed from certain angles.
But the film’s real sin, for me at least, is in how poor some of the execution is. My biggest gripe has to be that there’s just too much “telling” going on instead of “showing.”
Just like in Mat Kilau, the dialogue here feels like it’s taken from one text written from only one point of view, but passed along for other characters to mouth, so instead of talking about how Malays are not united like in Mat Kilau, we get a long lecture about comparative religion instead.
And even simple visual things like blocking and camera pans can feel quite amateurish here.
So whether you think the message here is good or not, it will not change the fact that Mentega Terbang is unfortunately quite a weak film, though it’s still nowhere near as bad as Imam.
And considering that this is director Khairi Anwar’s debut film, and it was more or less a homemade project made using chump change, to avoid being as abysmal as the bigger budgeted Imam is already some sort of an achievement.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.