It is interesting to note that once again, a Yasmin Ahmad film will have its screening in Singapore before making its bow in Malaysia. Interesting, because, as the lights dimmed for the credits, I noticed that the longest and largest group of people in the credits list is the list of people who had converted.
I had not specifically noticed it to begin with (as best as I can recall, it’s not as if the list itself was headed with ‘Cheers, Muallafs!’ to begin with), but as the list went on and on and on, I paid more attention to it, and the names in the list. With the number of people who have ‘Abdullahs’ in their last name, I finally realised that Kak Yasmin was thanking the many people who had converted who had, one way or another, contributed to the making of the film.
The thought that lingered hammered the final nail in the coffin: yup, this film is not likely to be released in Malaysia. I wondered sometimes whether Kak Yasmin is deliberately inviting trouble unto herself with her films. Perhaps she is in a position where she doesn’t actually care, and consistently tries to make the films that she wants to make, full stop.
Very well too, I hasten to add. ‘Muallaf’ (‘The Convert’) is a film that, I think, ranks amongst the best that she has done. Granted, she’s not even touched five yet (though that would allow me to list this in the top five films made by Yasmin Ahmad), but quite frankly, it very nearly comes close to displacing my own personal favourite of hers, ‘Sepet’. Maintaining a theme of providing Sharifah Amani with employment, she went a step further and took in her younger sister (Sharifah Alesya) as well. They both play the part of Rohani and Rohana respectively. The two sisters are actually on the run from their abusive father (effortlessly performed by Datuk Rahim Razali). Not particularly liking life with him or their stepmother (Ning Baizura), they find themselves living in the small time; trying to make ends meet, Rohani works in a nightclub, while still sending her sister to school.
At the same school, we meet Brian (Brian Yap), a 30 year-old Catholic school teacher. That’s not really saying much, though; he has a difficult relationship with his mother, who encourages him to go back every weekend to go to church with her. Being frustrated with his mother, he finds his interest piqued when he meets Rohani. Despite their obvious differences, the two of them finds comfort and solace in one another, as the world outside rages on with its storm.
OK, so the last line is a little over-dramatic, but it does put the focus on the issue of relationships, with a particular slant towards the familial. In the post-screening question and answer session, Kak Yasmin herself admitted that she didn’t know where the story would lead her when she did start it. Perhaps there is a sense of wanting to keep her secret, or perhaps she really doesn’t know. Nevertheless, I thought that she told a very strong story in a very strong way.
One particular scene that caught my attention was not the one that stirred the biggest controversy before the film was even released. Quite frankly, watching Sharifah Amani being bald wasn’t all that nice, but it wasn’t a particularly big deal for me. A bigger deal, surprisingly, is a young child being abandoned, naked, by the roadside, as a form of punishment by his father. It didn’t just catch my attention, it grabbed it, shook it like crazy, and strung it on a twenty feet pole with sharks swimming in a small pool beneath it. Simply put, it was quite easily one of the most powerful scenes I have seen in a very long time.
If anything, the above illustrates the severity of punishments within the structure of a religious family. Herein lies the biggest conundrum for me: apart from ‘conundrum’ being quite probably the biggest word I’ve used on this blog, the story really isn’t about religion at all. In fact, on the surface of it, we have the characters giving their salams as they meet and part. We have girls endlessly quoting the Bible (Ed’s note: more Qur’an that Bible, as per the comment below). We have a principal who is also a church leader. We have a mixture of all the things that wouldn’t be out of place in a church and more. And yet…
…and yet it’s not about religion at all. Kak Yasmin may not be forthcoming about what it is actually about, preferring to leave that part to the audience. I’ll stick my neck out here and proudly proclaim that, intentionally or otherwise, the film’s core subject matter looks at relationships. Familial relations, to be more precise, and all the strife that goes with it. I run the risk of actually giving things away here, and I’ve thought for a while whether it’s appropriate for me to say it. I’ve decided not to, but believe me when I say that religion really isn’t the main issue here.
As I said before, this is a very well-made film, but to be honest, having been relatively familiar with her work up until this point, there is nothing that is particularly surprising or new in this department. This extends itself to the casting of the extras, with Ho Yuhang making yet another appearance, this time as a private investigator. I await Kak Yasmin making the plunge and casting him in the lead someday, Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien-style.
‘Muallaf’, then, is a movie that’s more about the conversion of the heart than of the mind. Yes, to a large extent, you’ll have religion somewhat stuffed down your throat at every other corner of the film. Nevertheless, if you get through that, you’ll find a film that has a lot of heart, a fair amount of laughter, sprinkled with some pretty good acting (I especially like Tony Savarimutu’s portrayal of Brother Anthony). Whether she is conscious of it or not, there is definitely a fair amount of Yasmin Ahmad. This film, in short, is very her. I am not entirely sure how to further describe it.
I do know that it will be a loss for those who don’t, or can’t, watch it.
Fikri wants to see Kak Yasmin make an action film.
Featured image credit: Umi Salamah