Despite getting a comment from the director herself in my last film review (though it’s not necessarily a compliment), I have to admit that it wasn’t particularly the best review that I have done. Feeling the internal pressure within me to publish, coupled by the lack of any actual original content over the past two weeks or so (and, I have to admit, my ego wanting to write a review of a ‘world premiere’), I put my thoughts down on paper and let it go. Perhaps it would be more accurate to describe it as tipping and tapping my fingers and thumbs on the keyboard, and letting my mind weave its magic. Evidently, my mind let slip of some things, and I think that though I managed to get down what most of what I wanted to say, it wasn’t done in a way that truly justified the movie that I had wanted it to be justified.
Not minding all that, then, I set out to do better in this review. To describe it well, to do it justice, to be far more eloquent in my expressions. What a pity, then, that the next movie up is Yeo Joon Han’s ‘Sell Out!’, which is about as difficult to describe as any movie that I’ve come across in recent times.
That’s not to say that it is not any good. Far from it; ‘Sell Out!’ is the kind of movie that I started this blog for. Well, me and Fazil, who is unfortunately buried behind a mountain of insurmountable banking work. He has his own reasons, but I wanted to have an avenue to give some breathing space for works of art, specifically films, that I think deserve slightly more than just a passing mention. I wanted to create something that is able to lift up the subject matter itself, to expose a little more quality that wouldn’t have been exposed to a wider audience otherwise. All the better if the heart of the matter is a Malaysian itself. In that regard, then, ‘Sell Out!’ is a perfect fit, not just because it I had a rip-roaring time watching it, but also because it is just about as Malaysian as any other movie you’re likely to come across.
Why, then, is it difficult to describe? A perfect metaphor for this would be a key invention in the story, an 8-in-1 soya bean machine. The creator is Eric Tan (Peter Davis), who works for a company called FONY. Evidently, as the name suggests, their mission is to be original, but not in necessarily original ways. They are a multi-conglomerate, so while Eric works for their creation division, they also hire Rafflesia Pong (Jerrica Lai), who works for the company’s TV arm. Bored with her work, the company threatens to replace her with a host, and a Eurasian one at that. She got ‘lucky’, as she managed to record her boyfriend’s death on camera. Buoyed by the instant ratings success, she seeks out more deaths to record. At the same time, Eric’s bosses, so infuriated by Eric’s creativity, tried to exorcise that side out of him. What they accidentally created, however, is not one, but two Erics: a practical Eric, and a creative Eric. The remainder of the film, then, sees the two of them clashing over each other in deciding what to do with their ‘baby’, the soya bean machine.
So what, then, made the movie what it is? What is it that this Venice Film Festival award winner has to offer that a lot of other films don’t? Well, pretty much everything, to be honest. As I mentioned earlier, the soya machine would be a somewhat-appropriate example of what this film is all about. It is a musical, a music video, a comedy, a romance, a satire…and even a karaoke video to boot. In truth, as I sit here and write down these words, thinking of the various categories and genres that it could fall into, it does sound a bit ridiculous. Nevertheless, Joon Han has somehow managed to make it all work together, somehow. From one scene to another, he manages to critique society’s love of pan-Asians, basically interviews himself in a deprecating manner, shows how Malaysians are more likely to give money to thieves than to charity, and weaves a love story in there somewhere to boot, almost as an aside to the proceedings.
I’ve often thought of a particular trick I’ve read somewhere about comedy. The basic idea is that comedy is arguably the best genre out there. Not just for the laughs and enjoyment that we get from it, but also the amount of social criticism that we’re able to slip in under the radar, so to speak. To a certain extent, I feel that ‘Sell Out!’ is as much a social film as it is a comedy. Perhaps there’s no real genre called ‘social film’, but nevertheless a big amount of the comedy works primarily because it hits so close to home. We can see this in one particular scene, where Rafflesia, upon finding an old man who’s about to die, asks whether there is anything in particular that he would like to say, since he’s about to die and know that he won’t suffer any of the consequences for his comments. The old man, slightly inspired, lifts his head, and croaks softly, “I think that the government ah…” Out of the corner of his eye, he sees the rest of his family waving their hands around desperately, telling him to shut up. The social bit also extends itself into the musical sequences. Not for all of them, mind you, but “Money, why do you like rich people?” is pretty self explanatory. That’s not to say that only Malaysians will get the jokes, but there will be extra mileage for those who are.
Perhaps much of the credit can be credited to the director’s own struggles as a filmmaker, in deciding whether to ‘sell out’ to another branch altogether, or stay true to his own calling. At the heart of the film, then, lies a central idea about…well, selling out. We see this in the struggles that the two Erics face, as well as in Rafflesia Pong’s decision to no longer interview artists. Perhaps the most evident evidence of this is the opening sequence, in which he totally took the piss out of the form and content of other, award-winning Malaysian independent films (including his own). A relatively tricky subject, told in a tricky way, and could have easily end up being a very messy film. It was, however, very well sewn up by the end (Joon Han also did the editing himself); come in with an open mind, and you’ll have a great time.
In the production notes, Joon Han wrote, “As if the language wasn’t commercially toxic enough, people in “Sell Out!” occasionally break into song. But please don’t tell anyone.”
Sorry, Mr Director. I can’t shut up about it.
Fikri wouldn’t mind selling out. Selling out the cinema, that is.
Featured image credit: Bloomberg / Today Online