‘Tanda Putera’ follows the story of Tun Abdul Razak (Rusdi Ramli) and Tun Dr Ismail (Zizan Nin). The former is the second prime minister of Malaysia, while Tun Dr Ismail was recalled to cabinet as his deputy to assist in the running of the country. Unbeknownst to the other, both have debilitating diseases that could (and would) prove to be fatal a lot sooner rather than later.
So that seems straightforward enough, right? It does, in a way, except that the film does not just concentrate on that. It takes on certain historical events that proved to be key in the shaping of the nation, as well. Most notably, it highlighted events that occurred during May 13, 1969. A number of other key historical figures also made appearances here as well, such as Hanif Omar (Norman Hakim) and our first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman (Kamarulzaman Taib). At least in that regard, it becomes an interesting tour de force, a who’s who of Malaysian political history.
On one level, the film should be applauded for attempting to portray a part of Malaysian history that has rarely been explored on-screen before. Many years ago, I wrote, “If the Americans have Tunku Abdul Rahman as their own historical figure, they would have made at least two movies about him, no doubt about it.” There is a noticeable lack of texts that looks back at ourselves and our history, and while things have changed for the better since then, these explicitly historical films are still far and few in between. Others have alluded to events like May 13, some have depicted aspects of it, but its bravery in presenting a strong and certain representation should be noted. Is it the truth? Well, a lot of it is bullshit, to be honest, but it takes a stand, and it is through this stand that a certain discourse, debate and discussion will hopefully follow.
However, on another level, this stand is also unfortunate because it results in a very disjointed film. The opening segment, perhaps tempted by the potential sensationalism, had too many characters, and too little time and space for us to know enough of them to care. I suspect if I had stopped the film after the twenty minutes or so, and asked the members of the audience who the main character or protagonist was, they would fail to provide a conclusive answer based on the screen time and emphasis given to these characters. Many of the characters who died in the film, I can’t even truly remember their names. A bit of thinking helped after the fact, but as it happened, these characters, such as the chief of the police force or the army, were already given no chance whatsoever in establishing a relationship with the audience.
For example, a university lecturer, Kara (Kavita Sidhu), plays a leading light in the group of students she hangs out with, but her feelings about a certain student, Zarah (Ika Nabila) shifts and changes like the wind, without much logic. Actually, screw that, the wind would have more logic. We don’t know why the change is effected, and we don’t know how it occurs. A number of other characters were given the same treatment, hence I was not able to feel any sympathy for them whatsoever as we are given very little space with which to create this relationship with them. People being gunned down or having their heads chopped off, therefore, was more likely to induce laughter than tears.
You would think that by the time we get to Tun Dr Ismail and Tun Abdul Razak things would look up. Unfortunately, the film remains stuck in this Möbius strip, with very unrealistic dialogue lines that made me cringe. A brief scene sees Tun Dr Ismail explain why he’s wearing the sweater he was wearing to Tun Abdul Razak, as the latter noticed its eccentricity. However, both men were standing next to the swimming pool at a private function. Surely they had met earlier and walked together to this point, and surely Tun Abdul Razak would have noticed the sweater earlier. It is a conversation starter of sorts at a point in time when the conversation should be a bit more mature by now. It is this lack of realism that makes this film, purportedly based on true events, seem so hokey in parts that I simply laughed out loud, not out of an agreement with the humour on display but because of how bad it is.
Tun Dr Ismail would die earlier than Tun Razak, and while this allowed us more time to concentrate on Tun Razak’s condition and its effects on his family, it resulted in an imbalance that, once again, makes me feel cheated as to how the film had been represented to me. I had expected an exploration of both men’s relationship with one another, but we hardly see the two of them together. However, the film picked up once we did get a closer look at the remaining lead character. We actually get to spend time with the family, at least somewhat superficially. This gave us a bit more of a chance for us to relate to them, and to feel more for them once they do find out about the truth of Tun Razak’s illness. I am not saying that we do actually feel this, for it occurred a little too late into the film for my liking, but at least by now that door of understanding and relation is creaking that bit wider.
Of course, the door then slams shut in our faces by way of the editing of the film. The presentation of the narrative made me feel that this film, which apparently cost quite a whack of wonga, is nothing more than a television drama in disguise. Transitions from one scene to the next consists of the white flashouts commonly used. Sometimes, it even cuts off the end of a certain dialogue, which ultimately cuts whatever rhythm that was built up, once again giving us disjointed parts instead of a unified whole. What we then get is a very different pace from different parts of the film. The first half, with the more sensationalist ideas in tow, were presented at break neck speed, as we breeze through the days leading up to May 13 and its aftermath. The second half, in comparison, was relatively slow, as we start to see a bit more of the main characters and their respective entourage.
Flashbacks are also common here, which is unfortunate as it separates the moment we see and the moment we understand something. For example, after Tun Razak’s death, a gift package of a tie and shirt was sent to one of his assistants in the office. Upon receiving it, we can see he was emotionally affected by it, but we don’t specifically know why. Cue a flashback, one that explains why he had tears forming in his eyes. My argument is, why wasn’t this flashback scene presented a lot earlier in the film in a more linear way? It would have given us a better chance of not only immediately understanding its significance, but also directly relate to the character on-screen, enhancing further Tun Razak’s empathy for a humble school teacher he had just met.
And then there is the sound design. Sweet mother of all that is holy and unholy, the sound design. It was so inconsistent it was maddening. Some scenes reached the peaks of the art, making me turn around to wonder whether the murmur of the crowd was from around me or the film. Others would have very lopsided conversations, switching between the kind of sound that surrounds and the kind that comes from one side of the speaker from one shot to the next. This may not be something that many people care about, but I happen to be a firm believer in the idea of sound design and music enforcing the story. The director has completely lost the plot with the sound design and the endless music that gave us very little room in which to breathe.
The filmmakers may have been involved in the production of some iconic films in the past, and while I once again applaud their effort in the making of the film itself, they should have stuck to the promise of exploring the relationship of the two main characters. In the end, it becomes a film that is so bloated with characters and events that makes it difficult for me to relate to them. You could almost literally cut out the May 13 segments and still have a fairly coherent story and film, perhaps even one that we could care about. As it stands, the stand it took made me fail to care for the demise of shallow interpretations of 2D characters that populate a story told in a way that tries to force tears and emotion out of you through incredibly hokey dialogue, inconsistent sound design and very bad editing.
What it largely got from me was laughter, and for a film that’s not a comedy, that was more than it deserved.
Fikri was momentarily excited to see his boss had one and a half lines in the film. Seriously…one and a half.
Featured image credit: The Manic Moose