It was a late summer’s night. Having said that, that’s kind of cheating, because almost every night in Malaysia is pretty much the same; Shakespeare wouldn’t have gotten started on his midsummer’s night thingymajee if he was Malayan. The thought boggles the mind: “All the world’s a stage, and all the people in it are bumis…”
Her name is Linora Low. She is my junior at university, and someone trying to make her way as an actress. We have, in fact, worked together twice before, and I think she is good enough to get to where she wants to go. Unfortunately, her feature film debut won’t quite be in my ‘Transformers 5’, for that honour will forever go to Jason Chong’s ‘Belukar’.
“I don’t know,” I said slowly, deliberately so, merely to stoke her flames even more. “I mean, I’m heading up to Penang next week to send off my sister to college, I don’t know if I’ll have the time to watch it…” “Just go watch with your sisters lah!”It does sound like a possibility, and in fact, my mother and sister spend half of their time practically camped outside of GSC Queensbay. It is one of their favourite pastime activities; perhaps, with a little bit of nudging her and there, I might be able to persuade them (in the end, though, they decided to go for ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’, a film that a ticket was bought for me, but I was so exhausted I couldn’t get up for it).
‘Belukar’ tells the tale of a professional insurance con woman named Eve (Daphne Iking). She has spent some time swindling insurance companies of money, by staging accidents and claiming the money for herself. Tired of this, the company, ABG, has tried but failed to catch her red-handed, and are now relying on Nik (Bront Palarae) to do the business for them. Unfortunately for them, Nik ends up falling in love with her, and becomes less and less interested in entrapping her for her efforts to claim RM100 million for herself. All the while, Eve’s past catches up with her, with more than just a few shady characters wanting to make sure that Eve doesn’t get away with her acts this time.
‘Belukar’, as a word, is often used in conjunction with hutan, meaning forest. Hutan belukar means the deepest, wildest part of the jungle (if I am not mistaken), a place so difficult and complex it’s hard to breathe. You won’t quite get that experience here (the difficult to breathe part, I mean), but the plot is rather twisty. Each and every character, it seems, is interested in their own selfish objectives. You have to watch you own backs here, and turn back once in a while to make sure that no one is quite ready to stab you. At least, not until you’re ready to stab them first.
That’s assuming that their objectives are clear-cut to begin with. This complex plot is what is attempted here by first-time feature film director Jason Chong, and I quite liked the parts. On their own, they seem to work quite well. Consider, for example, the actors. This is the first time Daphne leads a film, and I thought that while she didn’t quite set the screen on fire (her accent when she speaks Malay puts me off. Of course, that’s a little rich, coming from me, but still…it made me wonder whether she’s actually Indonesian in parts). That minor complaint aside…well, I don’t have any other about her. She played her role with spunk and attitude. That’s cool.
I’ll say a similar thing for Bront Palarae, but not before getting at his name first. What kind of name is Bront Palarae? It makes me think of Charles Bronson, for some reason (probably the Bront part). I spent some time thinking about the possible backgrounds to this guy. Is he Malay? Is he Indian? Mixed? Malaysian, even? It doesn’t matter, of course, but it is an intriguing thought. As I did some research for this film, it turns out that his real name is Nasrul Suhaimin (which sounds Malay enough, I suppose). I don’t have a problem with this, not at all, but I wonder why, out of all the names, Bront Palarae is his weapon of choice. As it turns out, he’s been in a number of films I’ve seen, such as ‘Anak Halal’, ‘Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang’, and ‘Castello’, but for some reason, I’ve missed him in those. I couldn’t miss him here, not just because he’s the lead, but also because his is a performance of great charisma. Yeah, that’s the word…charisma. He’s charming when he needs to be, cool when he wants to, but it is his downbeat moments of confusion, frustration and anger that really caught my eye hook, line and sinker. Some people say the leads had great chemistry, and while I thought they did have something going there, I somehow preferred each of them on their own.
There is, however, an exception. It’s a scene when Eve lost her temper (though there’s quite a number of those), and starts to throw things around the room. She smashes a vase, which had flowers in it. Moments later, she said that Nik never buys her flowers. “OK, I’ll go buy some now,” he flustered. “No,” she said, killing his momentum, pointing to the ones she had just thrown, “I want those flowers.” There was a moment when I held my breath, wondering how far he would go. Would he risk more cuts to pick up the flowers amongst the shards? I suppose he would, but for the moments when it seems like it’s still up in the air, it was fascinating. A great cinematic tool.
As a whole, however, the film didn’t quite gel as I thought it might have. It had a promising start, two great leads, and a literally ass kicking Monash material girl in Linora Low, who, in a way, beat me to having her name flash up on cinema screens across the country (I wonder if other Monash graduates had the honour before her. I think not, to my recollection). The backing cast members included Azhar Sulaiman, who will forever be in my good books for ‘Abang ’92’. The soundtrack is also pretty entertaining, with the list playing out almost like a Who’s who of the independent Malaysian music scene. Unfortunately, not having my ear on the ground as some would, I don’t quite know who they are, but they all sound great on the screen (perhaps, however, a little more ‘score’ and a little less ‘song’ would be useful).
Unfortunately, it gets somewhat lost in its own maze, and it confuses this watcher a little bit more than necessary. By the end, there is an extended sequence that puts everything into place, but as I watched it, I realise that some of the so-called revelations were impossible for the audience members to have guessed. That’s because the clues that you need to decipher the whole story on your own weren’t planted properly. Twist endings are fine, but I suppose the audience needs to be given a chance to figure it out on their own as well. I’ll stop for the fear of revealing more than I should, but it does leave me feeling pretty…cheated? Powerless? Take your pick.
‘Belukar’ is a complex little movie, in terms of its narrative (and a little bit of its narration as well. Narrative: the story. Narration: how the story is told). I feel that it’s a movie worth watching for the elements that are worth learning from, both the good and the bad. I’d like to see Jason Chong go on and make another film, though, because ‘Belukar’ is so close, and yet so far at times. If he can flesh things out and stitch the parts together (a la ‘Smokin’ Aces’, another film with a very similar structure to ‘Belukar’), then it would be far more engaging. It should do, for I was more than tempted to ‘tutup sebelah mata’ at certain moments of the film.
Go watch the film, because if nothing else, it’ll shut Linora Low up. 🙂
Fikri’s name came out as Pickery at Lotte Cinema in Hongdae, Seoul. Win some, lose some…