Culture with a Capital C – Rock Oo!

movies_rock_oo

In his review of this throwback film, Fikri Jermadi definitely rocked it. Or so he would think.

First, the basics. ‘Rock Oo!’ is a sequel to the film ‘Rock’, released nearly nine years after the original in 2005. I had that film for the longest time, for my family had purchased the VCD, but I never really got round to actually watching the film. You know what it’s like, you buy a film, you want to watch it…and it remains unwatched a decade later. At least by me; I’m sure my family gave it a few spins.

The same could be applied for books. Oh man, books. I have more books than I have time to read, but I can’t seem to actually stop buying them.

Gotta love books.

Water group Rimba Bara is. #thekol
Water group Rimba Bara is. #thekol

Gotta love what is in the books, and what is in the films. ‘Rock Oo!’ is a film that takes place six years after the band in the first film, Rimba Bara, disbanded. Amy Mat Piah (Que Haidar), however, was not happy to sit back and take it all in. He worked hard to bring the team back together, which means that Jijo (Khir Rahman), Slash Haji Tapah (Pekin Ibrahim) and Mi Black (Azmi Black) must put aside their differences this time for another shot at the big time in the big city. Is that it? Essentially, yes. It’s what I like about a lot of Mamat Khalid films; the trick lies not in the complexity of the story per se, but the layered execution.

The interesting thing about this film is its representation of cultural capital. Let me put it this way. Around the same time this film was released, I remember reading a review of the film (or was it a tweet?). Someone wondered about the respective failure of this film to truly break out as a huge box office hit (yes, it picked up a shade under RM4 million, which is a very fine figure in a depressed market, but the other Mamat Khalid flick ‘Husin, Mon & Jin Pakai Toncit’ hit closer to RM6 million). It lacked a number of top level stars of Malaysian cinema, for sure (though it does not mean it lacks charisma and screen presence; we’ll discuss that shortly). However, what I remembered put it in a succinct and accurate manner: “’Ted’, a film that revels in nostalgia = success. Rock Oo!, a film that revels in nostalgia = fail.”

Police help them. #thekol
Police help them. #thekol

Putting aside the fallacy of comparing two films produced by very different cultural industries to begin with, at the heart of the matter both films called out to those whose childhood was represented on screen by a number of off hand references. It probably says something that I’m better able to understand and laugh a bit louder at Ted than I was at ‘Rock Oo!’ Though I was born in the 80s, I could hardly be described as a child of it (a deep love for Bon Jovi and Bryan Adams notwithstanding), but I enjoyed ‘Ted’ very much.

I wasn’t able to do that as much with ‘Rock Oo!’, at least through a nostalgic approach, simply because I wasn’t imbued with the necessary cultural capital for that. A distinct lack of knowledge about the times of the time meant that scenes with Rimba Bara being stark naked in a lake would have provoked huge laughter amongst those who are now old enough to have a family. It was a parody of an album cover of a popular rock band at the time. See, even that I found out after the fact through Wikipedia. Speaking of which, the film’s Wikipedia entry is arguably the most complete of many modern Malaysian films, with references and trivia aplenty.

A former colleague of mine went to watch the film with all her family. They all had a rip-roaring time, laughing every half-minute or so. She has a laughter that would shock the devil, so I can only imagine what the experience must have been.

That’s not to say that I failed to get it at all. Mamat Khalid remains one of, if not the most important filmmaker working in Malaysia today. Of all the top-level directors big enough not to worry whether his films are successes or not, he has stuck to a certain satirical style that has not veered that much off course. By this I mean his ability to slip in more than just a slap to certain aspects of society.

Girl rockers are rare.
Girl rockers are rare.

I’ll give you an example. The rockers, after having gotten back together, suddenly had their former manager turn up at their metaphorical doorstep. On the previous trip to the city, he had left them to fend for themselves, to the point where the band, starving for food, had to boil potatoes. Allied with an appropriately melodramatic rock kapak song, the scene was so ridiculous you had to laugh. On a side note, not for the first time we see an urban/rural divide, in which the urban is represented as the setting for success; in stories such as these, it matters not what you have achieved outside of (cultural) capital cities, apparently (“Kuala Lumpur! I’m coming!”).

Anyways, he begged for them to hire him as their manager again. He talked about how with him, they can help to fulfill the Vision 2020 ideal held dearly by all. Jijo, feeling so inspired by the speech, blurted out: “My friends, it’s been a while since I heard such a political speech.” There is little chance this was not meant sarcastically, given how almost everything is tied to the country’s political developments. I suppose you could say that about any country, really, but can you say that about any film? I think not.

Speaking of Jijo, played by Khir Rahman, the versatility of this performer cannot be understated. The rest of the cast did fairly well; I always have time for Sofi Jikan, and Pekin Ibrahim’s Slash Haji Tapah is a strange cross between Johnny Depp and Jonathan Davis of Korn. It must be the hair.

Colonial rock.
Colonial rock.

The man who holds everything together, though, is Khir. I had to remind myself that he directed the ground-breaking ‘…Dalam Botol’ a few years back, and his other performances have been grounded in a lot of drama as well (at least, as best as I can recall). Here, he flexes his comedy muscles to great effect. One particularly memorable scene was when he repeatedly repeated his “huh.” It’s difficult to write about this, simply because it’s one of those ‘you must hear it to know what I mean’ kind of thing. It’s a particularly Malay inflection as I understand it (though I suspect it’s not limited and exclusive to the Malays), and while there remains many aspects of Malay culture that escapes me, I personally know many people who would do the same; the exaggeration here works well because I could relate to it.

And therein lies a part of the conundrum. This film is one that celebrates as much of Malay culture as it does Malaysian. Many have pinpointed the ability of a film like ‘The Journey’ to highlight different aspects of their own culture as a reason for its success. I am not entirely sure myself whether we could limit it to that, but the same could be said here for ‘Rock Oo!’. Due to the way the characters speak the language, you may not necessarily get the humour at times. Plenty of times I’ve found myself lost (I thought him comparing the fate of the band to a cat was pretty funny, but not as funny as my friend had found it), but then something else would happen that would suck me right back in.

I seriously don't know how to caption this.
I seriously don’t know how to caption this.

It happens even when I’m not sure I’m supposed to get it. Perhaps I am imagining some of these things. I would preface this final part with a quote by…Donald Rumsfeld, the former Secretary of Defense for the United States, of all people. “There are things we know we know, and things we know we don’t know. There are things we don’t know we know, and things we don’t know we don’t know.” Due to the multilayered directing of Mamat Khalid, sometimes I wonder whether I am actually understanding things the way he wants me to understand it.

There was a scene where the band prepares to depart for Kuala Lumpur, a standard destination for those wishing for success in any field. There was an extra, a very minor character, with a son who was described as being mentally unwell. The son had a tendency of looking only upwards, making weird twitches with his eye. The key thing was he had on a Motorhead t-shirt; the band’s lead singer was well-known of his tendency to place his mic a foot above his own height, so that when he’s singing he is forever…looking upwards.

By the way, do you know how I know of that? Motorhead performs the entrance theme for Triple H, a professional wrestler.

Culture with a capital C.

Fikri looks for the innocence amongst the dust. This film was nominated in the Best Film, Best Director (Mamat Khalid), Best Screenplay (Mamat Khalid), Best Supporting Actor (Khir Rahman), Best Original Story (Mamat Khalid), Best Costume Design (Akma Suriati Awang), Best Original Theme Song (Rimba Bara), Best Sound Design (Mohd Rashid Othman) and Best Art Direction (Zahid Othman) categories at the 26th Malaysian Film Festival.

Featured image credit: Owen Bush

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