Tale of two princes
This heartfelt biopic of the friendship between Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail may be far from perfect, but its heart is in the right place.
VIEWERS mostly want to be engaged when watching a movie. Many of us don’t even care about (nor do we even notice) technical issues like continuity and soft focus shots. What we want is to believe what we see on screen and feel what the characters are feeling.
Which is why Tanda Putera, the latest film from one of Malaysia’s few women filmmakers Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba, is quite an engaging experience. It is a historical epic that encompasses a period of more than six years, but having to cram everything into a two-hour movie means that an episodic narrative structure is in place. The movie also uses less-than-believable CGI shots to recreate some of the period settings, but even that is forgivable given the kind of (fairly small) budget that local films usually have.
However, the biggest oversight is in the casting choices for a majority of the film’s characters.
Don’t get me wrong – the actors have done a pretty admirable job in general. However, central characters Tun Abdul Razak and Tun Dr Ismail were both already in their 50s during the period depicted in this movie, but the actors playing them looked too young, even with all that makeup.
In fact, Dr Ismail – the older character – is played by an actor who is younger than the guy playing Abdul Razak! How does one expect an audience to believe anything that’s happening on screen when the age difference between the actor playing Abdul Razak’s second son Johari and the actress playing his mother is merely a year?
If you can set aside all these niggling faults, though, then you may just find Tanda Putera a pretty good watch. Chronicling the close friendship of second prime minister Tun Abdul Razak (played by Rusdi Ramli) and his deputy Tun Dr Ismail (a convincing Zizan Nin, despite the fact that he didn’t look old enough to play the character), the film begins with the tumultuous events of May 13, 1969, when racial riots tore through Kampung Baru in Kuala Lumpur and parts of Selangor.
We also get to see bits and pieces of the two men’s personal lives, surrounded by their children and wives Tun Rahah (Abdul Razak’s wife, played by a regal Faezah Elai) and Toh Puan Norasyikin (affectionately called Neno in the film, played by Linda Hashim).
At the same time, we’re also privy to the lives of a group of friends – Allen (Alan Yun), Johan (Zoey Rahman) and Zarah (Ika Nabella) – who are students at Universiti Malaya and their tutor Kara (Kavitha Sidhu); The film jumps between these two parallel storylines. We are shown how Abdul Razak and Dr Ismail try to tackle the riots and the many acts of terrorism committed by the Communist party, as well as witness the consequences of the riots on the friendship of Allen, Johan, Zarah and Kara.
The episodic nature of the narrative means that we also get to witness important historical moments like the birth of the Malaysia Airlines System, the New Economic Policy and Petronas, and in what could’ve been a beautiful piece of symbolism (which came undone when Zarah literally and verbally declares the symbolism), the great big flood that hit Kuala Lumpur in 1971.
There are also a few heartbreaking moments like when first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman (Kamarulzaman Taib, in a standout performance) sees all that he had worked so hard for almost come crumbling down. However, this being a biopic of Abdul Razak and of his friendship with Dr Ismail, these history lessons remain only fleeting in nature, with most of them happening in “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” moments throughout the film.
Even if we do get a sense of the camaraderie between the two, at the end of the day Abdul Razak remains a bit of a cipher. He holds so many secrets (he even kept the news of his terminal disease from his wife and family) that he was pretty much an enigma in the film. All that Tanda Putera presents to us is the man’s kindness, his courage and unwavering sense of duty towards the nation.
Then again, you can’t really ask for much more than that from a Statesman.