Lelaki Harapan Dunia is a breakout delight
In general, people tend to think that there are two types of films: those that are made to win awards and those that are made to win over audiences. Sometimes when the stars align, one film manages to cross over from one type and become the other as well.
What’s different about independent filmmaker Liew Seng Tat’s second film Lelaki Harapan Dunia – his first in Bahasa Malaysia and also his mainstream debut – is that he’s obviously striving to do both, equally and simultaneously.
Liew has travelled the world and won multiple awards (in festivals like Rotterdam, Busan, Fribourg, Deauville and Pesaro) with his first film, the gently funny and very touching Flower In The Pocket. You would be forgiven for expecting Lelaki Harapan Dunia to be another one of those “festival films”, especially since it’s been backed by quite a few of the world’s leading film funds like the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program, Torino Film Lab, Hubert Bals Fund, World Cinema Fund and Vision Sud Est.
You wouldn’t be wrong either as the film has already premiered or been selected to compete at such highly regarded festivals as Locarno, Toronto, Vancouver, Taipei Golden Horse and Busan.
What might surprise everyone, though, is how all this international exposure has been achieved by what is essentially a hugely funny, absurdist satire disguised as a broad Malaysian–style mainstream comedy – one where the satire is very, very local in content.
International reviews have been mixed so far, with most complaints aimed at what the reviewers are (mistakenly) calling racist and homophobic jokes that litter the film, which is understandable given their presumed lack of knowledge of local context.
Malaysians, however, will have a field day trying to decode the film’s many hidden meanings and subtext in addition to laughing at ourselves, courtesy of the merciless way the film pokes fun at everyday Malaysian things.
To give you an idea, the movie starts off normally in a kampung, as a group of villagers led by Pak Awang (veteran Wan Hanafi Su) plan to move an old house by physically lifting and moving it from inside the jungle into their village, as a wedding gift for Pak Awang’s soon-to-be-married daughter.
Parallel to this story, we get glimpses of an African man named Solomon (Khalid Mboyelwa Hussein) trying to make ends meet by selling watches and belts in the Chow Kit area, before being chased out of Kuala Lumpur by gangsters.
The two story strands meet when Solomon takes shelter in the old house that Pak Awang and the villagers plan to move, and a series of misunderstandings and mishaps, both comic and ultimately tragic, result from this simple encounter.
This being a satire, the film is populated with stereotypical (or maybe they’re archetypal) kampung characters, like the village junkie Wan (played by everyone’s favourite screen gangster, Sofi Jikan), the village head (Roslan Salleh), the blind Tok Bilal (Jalil Hamid) and the village clown who’s nicknamed Cina (winningly played by Azhan Rani).
Liew basically runs riot, setting his film up basing on our well–known obsessions with superstition, ghosts, respect for authority figures (especially local assemblymen); all these become fair game in a series of comic set-pieces that will have you laughing your head off.
After Wan the junkie caught a glimpse of the tall and lanky Solomon in the abandoned old house, reports of an orang minyak sighting ensue, resulting in the villagers engaging the service of a witch doctor (an extremely funny Hishamuddin Rais, gleefully chewing the scenery in one of the film’s funniest scenes).
This brings us to the film’s highly memorable images where the village men dress up as women and the women dress up as men in order to trick the orang minyak.
It’s only from here on that the film stumbles. As accusations fly, the tone gets darker, and certain characters reach a breaking point, resulting in a few tragic acts of madness. There may be plenty in this stretch of the film for those who want to “read” more into things, but it’s the film’s one unfortunate flaw: that the village’s emotional and psychological descent into madness is not convincingly staged.
The result is a film with many brilliant and potentially brilliant parts that ultimately do not fit together very well, even though they could have, if handled better.
But that’s just me nitpicking over what is still, in the end, a highly enjoyable mainstream film with enough smarts for those who want smarts to go with their entertainment. If this is where Malaysian mainstream movies are heading, then I sure as heck am not complaining!