'Mat Kilau': An enjoyable but flawed box-office phenomenon

·6-min read
Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JULY 9 — As of Thursday, June 30, 2022, Mat Kilau, the local box-office phenomenon that’s been conquering cinema screens all across the country, had grossed RM23.3 million in just seven days, according to information shared by the film’s studio and local cinema operators on social media.

To put that in context, that is already the seventh highest box-office collection ever for a local film, with Mat Kilau then overtaking Polis Evo 2 (RM22.45 million) in the local all-time box-office charts and surely on track to even break the top three, with the third spot being held by Ejen Ali The Movie (RM30.05 million).

It did even more than that just six days later when it became the Number 1 local film in the Malaysian box-office charts by grossing RM53 million in just 13 days.

What’s even more impressive is how fast it got to these numbers, taking into account that most of the films in the all-time top 10 charts reached those huge numbers after playing for around a month in the cinemas, some even more.

So it’s not beyond reason to even hope for it to break the top three for international films in the Malaysian all-time box-office charts.

That number 1 spot is currently held by Avengers: Endgame (RM87.5 million) with Avengers: Infinity War sitting at number 2 (RM71.5 million), and with the hype and controversy it’s still garnering as it enters its third week in local cinemas, more and more people might be enticed to give the film a go.

But what of the film itself? What should a viewer expect? Is it our own version of Braveheart, as some people have dubbed it? A quick view of the film’s trailer should already alert the viewer that the film is actually being sold as an action movie, not a historical epic, and especially not the kind of award-winning historical epic that the movie’s hype train has been touting.

So it’s an action movie then, but what kind? The presence of Indonesian star Yayan Ruhian (of The Raid fame), who’s also credited as the film’s fight choreographer would suggest that the film might have aspirations to hop on the South-east Asian fight flick train, which has seen films like both The Raid films (Indonesia), the Ong Bak trilogy (Thailand), Furie (Vietnam), BuyBust (Philippines) and Jailbreak (Cambodia) gain international attention for their awesomely choreographed and shot fight scenes, which aren’t bad company to be in.

So it’s quite disappointing to see that the action in this film is not delivered in the vein of those films — meaning there’s only lots of shaky cam here, and nothing in the way of meticulously choreographed fights that sync in harmony with the way the camera moves, and the way the editing pieces it all together.

In fact, it even has quite a way to go to catch up with the action in local fight flicks like Geran and Wira.

But the film’s opening scene clearly signals a different kind of action movie.

That scene, in which a whole bunch of defenceless villagers (including kids!) are gunned down in cold blooded fashion by the British and their hired soldiers/goons, is quite simply a throwback to all those cheesy, simple yet strangely effective action films from the 1980s and 1990s, particularly the B-grade ones from Cannon Films, the ones that star Jean-Claude Van Damme and those straight to video VHS-era classics starring people like Chuck Norris, Billy Blanks, Jalal Merhi, Mark Dacascos and Olivier Gruner.

In fact, the film’s plot construction and the way it provokes and manipulates (note that I’m not using the word “tease” here on purpose) emotions out of the audience is very clearly in the style of those aforementioned films.

It uses very simple shortcuts — like cardboard/pantomime villains and extreme examples of injustice/oppression — to get the audience into the film as quickly and effortlessly as possible.

It even commits one of the biggest sins in the art of filmmaking — using reams of expository dialogue to move the plot and explain to the audience not only what’s happening, but also what the film’s “message” is.

I have to admit that even 30 minutes into the movie, I was already annoyed by this whole expository dialogue thing, and the fact that if a scene has eight people in it, each and every one of those eight people will take turns delivering the text, with the problem being that the same text was clearly written from the POV of only one character.

So, it’s like hearing the same speech, but with portions of the text divided between eight people. This basically goes on for the whole film.

But still, approaching it as a cheesy action movie, of the kind that I used to watch on VHS with my late father back in those more innocent and non-PC world of the 80s and 90s, I have to admit that I enjoyed Mat Kilau for what it is — a cheesy, simplistic action movie — in the same way that I enjoyed movies like Lionheart, Showdown, No Retreat No Surrender, and the jingoistic action classics of the 80s like the Rambo movies, Invasion USA, The Delta Force and Missing In Action.

Those movies, just like modern day “nationalistic” Asian movies like the Ip Man movies and countless Bollywood/Kollywood movies, often have some deeply problematic issues, especially in their portrayal of minorities and of course, their villains.

And these same problems have resulted in the whole controversy surrounding Mat Kilau right now, with it being called racist and even fascist, which I totally understand as even I found it quite disturbing that the non-Malay characters in the movie are all being portrayed as two-timing cardboard villains, with the only Malay two-timing villain given an honourable death by the film’s end.

Saying it’s only a movie is not going to solve these problems, but trying to give more meaning to what’s clearly a business and money-spinning venture is also not going to help much.

I’ve always said that as a nation, we absolutely deserve the popular films that come our way and become mega hits, because like it or not, that’s the majority voting with their wallets and that is the pulse of the nation as of that moment.

Make of that what you will.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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