Out of Tune? – Karaoke

Hot on the heels of ‘At the End of Daybreak’ comes ‘Karaoke’. Like ‘Daybreak’, it was well-recognised on the international film festival circuit, being the first Malaysian feature film to be selected for the Cannes festival in a long time. Also like ‘Daybreak’, I have somewhat followed the career of Chris Chong, given the limited opportunities I have found for myself. His ‘Block B’, a short film made out of several very long takes set in a Brickfields flat was incredibly creative and, simply put, a brilliant work of art. I was piqued from start to finish, and I find myself wondering how he managed to do what he did.

But that’s the tricky deal with long takes. You either get it or you don’t. The first film I saw that exclusively employed this was ‘Russian Ark’, which boasted so much about its technical achievement. Unfortunately, it bored me to submission before I even reached the halfway point, though I did manage to appreciate it. The film following that, ‘Magicians’, by Song Il-gon, proved to be more fruitful; I was to be inspired to the point where I would make my own single-take short film in ‘Bound’, which stands as arguably the most satisfying work I have done so far.

But this is not about me, it’s about Chris Chong. Rather, it’s about his feature film debut: which side of the fence would ‘Karaoke’ fall on? Would it make me tap out the way ‘Russian Ark’ did, or would it weave its wand around like ‘Magicians’ and his earlier ‘Block B’?

P. Ramlee's old house wasn't a popular tourist attraction.

We follow the plight of Betik (Zahiril Adzim), a man who returned home from the big city of KL to his hometown after having studied there. Hoping to continue what his mother Kak Ina (Mislina Mustapha) already has, he hopes to be able to maintain the karaoke bar enough to make a living there. At the same time, he meets and falls in love with Anisah (Nisaa), a young girl who seems to be sincerely and genuinely interested in him. In an effort to make ends meet, he would also help out a karaoke music video director on his productions. Eventually, he would manage to make his way ‘up the ladder’ and was cast as the lead in such a video himself. However, things around him are beginning to fall apart; with his mother planning to move away with his uncle, Betik finds himself in a dilemma, of whether to continue and maintain the illusion that he can merely pick up where he left off upon his homecoming, or whether he can accept the harsh but simple reality that life, quite simply, changes.

I can totally understand and relate to this on a personal level. While I am blessed enough to have experienced opportunities rarely afforded to others, it does make the making of the ties that bind that bit more difficult to hold on to, and even more so to maintain. I find myself being able to imagine and somewhat feel the moments of the past when I am in a familiar place, years and years ago, one that has now become somewhat unfamiliar. It is not a particularly pleasant feeling, especially with the realisation that these spaces can no longer be visited in the same way.

 

Karaoke videos has never been so mesmerising before.

It is these spaces that I feel Chris Chong is trying to refer to in ‘Karaoke’. Perhaps, having had a brief look at his own biography and realising that he actually came to prominence in Canada, he feels the same way. We see how Betik tries hard to hold on to whatever that is left of his past and of his father. In a scene with Anisah, as she visits him inside the old shed housing his father’s old work machines, she asks him what he plans to do with them. They are not being used anymore, why don’t you just sell them, she asked. No, he said, they still function and can be used. And they belong to his father, and therefore he doesn’t want to sell them.

 

As I listen to this exchange, I thought of the scene in the ‘Transformers’ animated feature from many moons ago, when Megatron, having been severely damaged in battle with Optimus Prime, was thrown out into space by Starscream. “I still function!” he screamed. Ah, the memories of yesteryears came flooding back. Is this what the director trying to inspire?
The drought made the Ents all weak and bendy.

I say listen, because by this time I have to say that I was tapping, absolutely tapping in submission to the film. It must be added, unfortunately, that I was rather sick at the time of the screening, and perhaps the best idea would be to actually not watch the movie at that time. But I knew that once I miss this, the opportunity would never again present itself in this way for a very long time. So I went, and I think a large part of my submission. By submission, I mean, “OK, lets rest my eye here for a bit.”

So this was one of the scenes when I rested my eyes. I rested them because Chris Chong, it seems, had an incredible fetish with long takes. I think he could have made 6 or 7 ‘Block B’s with ‘Karaoke’. In fact, for the above exchange, I shut my eyes, and opened them to find, in some horror, that it was still the absolute same cut. I may well have shut my eyes for a few minutes, but that’s how long that part was. I find myself feeling the same way when Betik joins up a karaoke music video production for the first time; one very long shot at the beach, with little change save for a few pans. The music itself was done by Shannon Shah, a man whose music instincts I find pleasant to listen to.

What, then, went wrong? What made this an experience so different from his previous short film? With the obvious exception of my being ill, I personally find that there is a lack of energy that comes from these long takes. The camera sticks itself there, and its fine, but what does it do? What happens when the camera doesn’t move? What happens when there is very little on screen that actually happens? I find that in any movie (including my own), when this happens, the lack of energy and movement quite simply bores me, and would have metaphorically killed audience members who do not really give a toss about such movies.

They got a head start on the Christmas decorations.

Which would be a pity…because having considered all of the things together, ‘Karaoke’ is a movie that has something to say about us in a very unique way. The selection of the title, for one, is not a coincidence, a reflection of the kind of reality that inhabits karaoke videos and bars. We sing, we enjoy it, but we know it’s not real, in a way. It is an illusion of what we wanted, perhaps even what we could have been. Betik’s involvement in them, then, serves as a kind of irony, more than just hinting at the futility of his effort to hold on to the past, and the pointless of the reality he is in. As everyone else is looking to move on, he is looking to stay rooted in one spot.

Which is perhaps the most ironic of ironies to be seen in ‘Karaoke’. I feel that the film has a statement to make about Malaysia as a whole, and I suppose people may well get something very useful, something that will hit home if they watch it, and watch it well.

Unfortunately, I feel that that won’t quite be the case.

But then again, what does Fikri know? He wasn’t the one who was invited to Cannes, was he?

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