'Mat Kilau': Breaks no new ground but serves its market

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JULY 7 — So, how does our Braveheart fare? Mel Gibson’s Hollywood retell of Scottish resistance, of William Wallace to English rule in the 13th century unfurled in late 20th century (1995) fuelled the successful devolution of power and the formation of Scotland’s parliament in Edinburgh.

Mat Kilau: Pahlawan Bangkit (The Rise of A Warrior) opened in June and still scorches box-office returns today.

Before delving deep into the Syamsul Yusof movie, it is necessary to separate the man — Mat Kilau — from the movie about the man.

Because the movie, oh man! I walked into the cinema hall prepared to fight my liberal instincts and give the film every chance to be measured by its own merits. Unfortunately, the movie was objectively easy to grade. It was a collection of values declarations — on repeat — by various characters at random junctures. The producers traded story for reinforcements of prevalent state views of Malaysia’s socio-political construct.

In short, almost two hours of dogma about the inevitability of Malay power as justified by religion and actions of vengeful external forces.

Is it fair to demand storytelling from an action movie loosely based on an actual historical figure? Probably yes. Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and even local Jins Shamsuddin’s Bukit Kepong tend to age better. Michael Bay styled mindless actions like Pearl Harbour, not so much.

'Mat Kilau: Pahlawan Bangkit' opened in June and still scorches box-office returns today. — Picture via Facebook/ GSC
'Mat Kilau: Pahlawan Bangkit' opened in June and still scorches box-office returns today. — Picture via Facebook/ GSC

'Mat Kilau: Pahlawan Bangkit' opened in June and still scorches box-office returns today. — Picture via Facebook/ GSC

It is safe to suggest Mat Kilau will not merit repeat views even among those who identify strongly with its ideals. For it is neither an action spectacle nor appealing as a tale.

Yet, all movies have a place.

Those who accuse the production team of racial-religious overplay, be mindful art — which movies are part of — is about perspectives and by nature divisive.

Those who hesitate to slam down overdone Christian/gospel productions (American critics hold back judgement constantly) or even jingoistic Bollywood/Kollywood films, should exercise similar restraint here.

Movies come from creative sets backed by financiers. And when viewers pay for tickets or streams in excess of the cost to produce then they are successes.

At RM52 million and counting, as far as local blockbusters go, Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan is a screaming success.

Yet, ticket sales cannot silence criticism or the continued gaze of history’s critical eye.

Where can reasonable comparisons begin for Mat Kilau in terms of a movie serving its constituents while abrasive to others? Gone with the Wind remains in present-time value the biggest box-office film, even ahead of Avengers: Endgame.

The film, based on Margaret Mitchell’s bestseller, underplayed slavery and celebrated the Southern way of life firmly tied to its bigoted past. The 1939 movie was par for the course in pre-war (World War II) America.

The movie captivated women across the country for its narration of a resilient young woman who fights for her family as the south burns down.

While it inspired many, it drew flak as its Black stars were barred from its premier in Atlanta. Georgia’s capital was firmly segregated in 1939. Hattie McDaniel was good enough to win the first acting Oscar for Blacks but not worthy to watch her own premier.

Gone with the Wind’s contradictions continue to dog it more than 80 years after its production, more so at a time of Black Lives Matter.

Our blockbuster does less in entertainment but more for identity politics.

It offers strength and confidence to conservative Malays even if at the expense of the Malaysian character. This is the price of an unapologetic theme. Though the producers might care little about that.

Mat Kilau was not distracted by complexities, it bypassed them completely.

For example, in 1890 Pahang, there were more Malay constables (142) as compared to Sikhs (104), and the most senior Malay officer was Tuan Kechot, as shared by Polis DiRaja Malaysia (PDRM) in its website. The troubles related to Mat Kilau was in 1891, it is fair to assume the makeup of the British forces were somewhat the same as the year prior.

The rebels faced a high number of Malay British constables. The movie only recognises Sikh constables, which conveniently lines up abused Malays versus armed, vicious Sikhs led by white officers with one Borneo henchman. He was community management consultant trained in the way of Gengis Khan.

The repeats of lines on who is Malay, who is not, and who owns the land and who does not, and one throwaway line about why kafirs should not rule, encapsulates the overt racial zeal of the movie.

Here as a breakaway from other analyses, I’d suggest even if the intention was to win political points the movie’s backers lost a big opportunity.

Movies are always propaganda. The trick is to be subtle about it so the message can grow. Otherwise, it only appeals to the base, galvanises opponents and frustrates the intention to take new ground.

Mat Kilau refused to put a premium on entertainment to its own detriment.

Every scene was one or several characters lecturing others on god, truth, responsibilities and entitlements.

There was not one moment of mirth, of lightness among characters to suggest beyond core objectives and struggles these were people.

A huge pity.

For it is the humanness of stories and even the futility of the endeavours which connect viewers to the tale.

All Ned Kelly films do not cover up the criminal side of the Irish migrant in the Australian Bushes. He ends up caught by the Victorian police and hung after being tried. This does not stop the character from being romanticised by generations of Australians for he fought British law and lost.

Here’s another example.

Malaysians tend to be negative about Africans based on encouraged xenophobia by media about their citizens living in our cities.

Then Black Panther comes along. It investigates honour and dignity in fictional Wakanda, in which two cousins contest a different view of black lives with CGI laced action sequences.

It explodes in Malaysian cineplexes as it did worldwide and young Malaysians cross open palms with flapping fingers to signify the Wakanda symbol.

The movie resonates because the characters and story connect.

Mat Kilau could have taken pointers from those movies. It could have had both blockbuster ringgit and a message for the ages. Instead, it settled for the former and sacrificed the latter.

Syamsul’s previous blockbuster Munafik 2 (2018) worked on the supernatural and religion to spur ticket sales, and it worked.

What it did not do was affect the way people look at ideas, it only fed their insecurities. Mat Kilau is formulaic in that same vein, this time race love and religion, and streamed into a river of shared insecurities.

It does not nourish souls, only hardens opinions. But it does give all involved healthy bank balances. In these testing times, that’s financial comfort even if it discomforts race relations.

I cannot even end with a memorable line from the movie. I’ve imagined one: Toga sudah mati (Toga is dead).

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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