Unkept Words – Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa

‘Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa’ is a film that promised much to its expectant viewers. It stands almost alone in being a film that dares to forage that far back into the history of what could possibly be termed as Malaya 1.0. For that reason alone, props and credit should be given for using a source of Malaysian history/legend as an impetus to make films.

However, this does not mean that the film itself should necessarily be taken as an accurate version of what many consider to be somewhat sacred. In fact, even its potential influence as a revisionist work of art should be cast in a different light, but this shall be explored slightly later on.

The story starts with someone writing and narrating the history of this particular kingdom, as is the case for many films like this. The Roman Empire, in an attempt to consolidate its rule, decides that a union with the Han Dynasty would be beneficial, and both decided to marry together their prince and princess, Marcus Carprenuis (Gavin Stenhouse) and Meng Li Hua (Jing Lusi). Struck down by the sea, the Romans turns to a local rogue, Merong Mahawangsa (Stephen Rahman-Hughes), to lead them to the meeting point. Of course, along the way, things doesn’t quite go to plan, with the evil Garuda pirates (typical), with their magic and sorcery, sticking their oar in where it’s not welcome, and it is up to Merong Mahawangsa to save everyone from their respective disasters.

Rakan Muda's camping trip was a success.

Storywise, there are a number of interesting elements to behold. The reversal of racial roles are interesting to consider, especially given how Caucasian characters have usually taken center stage in films like this. Darker skined characters are always considered to be more mysterious, and probably more savage; while we can see evidence of this throughout the film, the reversal of such portrayals suggests a small step forward, perhaps. The portrayal of women, however…well, let’s just say they’re good for screaming and being rescued, objectified and all.

Also interesting is the fact that the tale was told, according to the narrator, in an attempt to keep history alive. We must remember, he said. Now, then, what to make of the film? I must admit into strolling into the cinema by myself, although I was not alone in making the journey. I had failed to cajole and conjure enough support as companionship for this particular film, and so the ticket I have pinned on the board in my office (where I also tend to pin other, not-so-film related stuffs) shall remain by its lonesome company. Simply put, within a strong enough segment of society, the kind who would regularly and almost non-consciously agree to foreign offerings of a similar ilk, the interest in watching the film is almost next to nothing (although the fact that the film more than made its money back would suggest that it did at least hit the spot for some).

KRU's next project: a live action Street Fighter film.

There could be several reasons for this. First, an attempt by the filmmakers, KRU Studios, to transcend the obvious limitations often faced by many such productions in Malaysia is seen as somewhat lame, poor and cheap. On the last score, the accusation does not stand as strongly as the accusers would like, this being a RM6 million production. On the others, I do believe that having seen the film, the inconsistent effect affected was disconcerting in parts. I know they did not necessarily film all the outdoor scenes on location, so with that in mind, I was fairly impressed with the tendency to match the effects and the lighting from one cut to the next, from one scene to the next. It has to be said, however, that I was less impressed with the follow up to such scenes with a very quick and very, dare I say it, fake-looking shot of a moon. It detracted from the quality of previous efforts, and also distracted, which, in such a context, is nothing less than a cardinal scene of sorts. I leave it to you to see other examples for yourself.

Last night, TV3 screened the film, ‘Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade’. In the final sequence, we see Indy and friends ride their steed through a narrow passageway, before making it out to the final shot of the film of them riding into the sunset. The sense of liberation that the open plains offered was enhanced precisely because of the narrowness of its immediate predecessor. This is an example of how the understanding of film language could and should be used to maximize whatever emotions and impacts we feel. An overwrought one, for sure, but a relevant and necessary reminder all the same: emotions and feelings are built over a sequence of shots, rather than concentrated within a singular framing. I did not personally expect the Halim brothers to become Spielberg overnight, but this being the third offering in the director’s oeuvre, I had higher standards. I shall let you see this and other examples for yourself.

"Don't worry, stranger. Take my daughter."

Second, we will come back to the aforementioned point of this film apparently offering a revisionist and somewhat essentialist perspective to Merong Mahawangsa. For those who did not know, the original text from which this film was evidently inspired was different from what we finally get to see on the silver screen. As is the case with such adaptations, there is a sizeable enough group who is not particularly happy with that. More to the point, the very fact that the word ‘Hikayat’ was used in the film’s title clearly them. Now, as much as I can understand and somewhat relate to some extent (given that the primary challenges I faced with my last film was to do with the fact that I was adapting from real life to reel life), I do not believe that such a case could be made. History as afforded, created and subjugated to us is always going to be more complex what whatever we can put on screen within 80 minutes or so.

Just as history could not be considered a reliable enough indicator of actual events, so should film not be judged as an automatic purveyor of history, and I believe and hope that people aren’t stupid enough to consider it as such. We should be thankful that religion wasn’t a central theme in the film: we might have a million people demonstrating at random stadia otherwise.

The graphic designers Photoshopped her a bit too much...

So some people missed out on the film, based on a matter of principle. What did they miss out on? I’ve mentioned about the incongruity between certain aspects of the film, but what of the story? Indulge me as I refer to the opening line of this review: “‘Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa’ is a film that promised much to its expectant viewers.” Not unlike the initial notes of dissatisfaction expressed above, I find that promise to be one that is not as fulfilled as I had expected. It played very much to type, with a rogue character in the lead. Merong Mahawangsa was a character with much hype, but I did not find him to be as strong or as true as he was promised. A part of that lies in the inconsistency (that word again!) of his characterization. One minute, he is somewhat suspicious of the Romans, but within the next he is opening up to the Romans about his early childhood. Initially, he was nothing more than a mysterious stranger rescued and rehabilitated by the village headman; by the end of the next montage, aided, it has to be said, by a very liberal use of voiceover narration, we see him winning over the said village, becoming its king in the process: “And as such, every king needs a queen.” Cut to a shot of the girl looking on, and you get that they’re already in love. That is it. Empires are great because the voiceover said so, when the visual evidence of a few tents and huts along a beach suggested otherwise. People are great because you are told that they are great. There is little room for the characters to grow, to actually be real, ironically enough. I am not sure whether this was a deliberate strategy, but I do wish I had been shown more of the budding seeds of love, or potential plot points, rather than being thrown into the pool at the deep, sink all the way to the bottom, and then rise for air all within five continuous seconds.

Visually, once again, there is a kind of splendor that was interesting to behold in some scenes and locations, but sorely lacking in others; I honestly have seen my sister do more interesting things. The caveat of her being an animation student has to be added, but nevertheless, for a film with so much hype and money spent on it (apparently it is the second most expensive Malaysian film thus far), I find it to be very disappointing.

It is a film that promised so much, and did have much promise, but my God how it went unfulfilled. This might be something worth protesting about…

Fikri can’t get his money back. This film won the Best Film, Best Cinematography, Best Original Music, Best Art Direction, Best Original Theme Song, Best Costume, Best Poster and Best Visual Effects at the 24th Malaysian Film Festival.

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