Paskal is a good movie. And it is an important movie.
It is a good movie because it contains, to an impressive standard, all the features most moviegoers expect when they shell out money for a ticket: fine acting, a gripping story, believable action scenes, awesome stunts, slick special effects, a solid soundtrack and superior marketing.
The characters are complex, dealing with moral dilemmas that are palpable even if the viewer has no prior exposure to the institutions being portrayed. And it is in the education of those institutions that this becomes an important movie.
Many people did not even know what Paskal was about. Initially I too wondered, when being invited to watch it, whether it was a film about Blaise Pascal in a similar vein to The Imitation Game (about Alan Turing) or The Theory of Everything (about Stephen Hawking).
No – although the film does reference the French mathematician – Paskal here refers to Pasukan Khas Laut or the Malaysian Naval Special Warfare Forces, whose many important missions are largely unknown to the public.
The film follows the careers of some of its members, portraying their involvement in two missions: the United Nations Angola Verification Mission II (Univem II) in 1998 and the rescue of hostages from the MV Bunga Laurel, which was hijacked by Somali pirates in 2011.
A third mission, which is fictional, sees the story move into engrossing territory that leaves the viewer intrigued to see whether some sort of redemption or repudiation occurs at the end.
Such tension does not tend to accompany Malaysian movies about hallowed national institutions. Usually, films about the police or army are blatantly one-sided, and there are even stringent rules about how to portray the marksmanship of the Royal Malaysian Police compared to the bad guys.
Paskal benefits from comparatively greater creative direction, though it is clear that the Royal Malaysian Navy itself was involved in ensuring accurate depictions of training and protocol, while the assets seen – including spectacular footage of the submarine KD Tunku Abdul Rahman – are real (and appear to be functioning as intended).
Importantly, the onscreen representations of the force are multi-ethnic, as they are in real life.
Such depictions in popular culture can have a tremendous effect on the national psyche. In the United States, military movies fortify the prestige of the armed forces and its central role in the national narrative. Indeed, there are so many films that you can divide them into the five service branches of army, marine corps, navy, air force and coast guard.
But now, thousands of young Malaysians are re-enacting Paskal’s most riveting scenes, spreading the notion that a future career in the military is a possibility.
For a young person, there is no greater inspiration than seeing people like yourself do amazing things. You too can go through the rigorous training that will enhance your mental discipline and physical capabilities. You too can go around the world saving people from terrorists. And you too can bring pride to your family and country through righteous service.
Of course, many of these terms are politically and ideologically loaded, but envisioning such romanticised notions is an important part of growing up.
Still, before you dismiss this film as being solely propagandistic, the dialogue does make several references to the futility of Malaysia’s UN contributions, the incompetence of those in authority and the lack of reward for offering the ultimate sacrifice to the nation.
Having made audiences think of these questions, the door is open for historians, pacifists and other contrarians to make their case. After all, criticising the government is no longer seditious (though, following a recent Federal Court ruling, it may be defamatory).
Still, I expect most viewers will gain new sympathy for the welfare and legacy of soldiers, sailors and pilots. It is this sort of public support that can galvanise political action on, for example, the salaries of personnel (i.e. Paskal’s wages), the condition of barracks and the quality of weapons and protective gear.
The audience in the hall I watched it in – with the exception of the Colonel-in-Chief of the Royal Signals Regiment and Royal Electric and Mechanical Engineers Corps, and an Honorary Commander of the Navy Volunteer Reserve – had little prior exposure to Malaysian military institutions.
But all left with a brand new appreciation for Malaysia’s contributions to the international community, the particular role of Paskal and the navy, and the future of Malaysian film.
Congratulations to the director, Adrian Teh, the actors and all involved in the production and financing of the movie – RM10mil of private sector funding with not a sen from Finas.
Tunku Zain Al-‘Abidin is an Honorary Major in the Malaysian Territorial Army.