Widening the Canvas – Rise to Power

Fikri Jermadi puts on his hood, and gets back to the not-so-gritty underworld of Kuala Lumpur.

‘Rise to Power’ is a feature film spin-off of the chronicles first featured in ‘KL Gangster’. Released in 2011, that film was the centerpiece of a movement which featured a number of stories from the underground, highlighting more of gangsters and mat rempits (mats rempit?), and trending all the way to the top of the charts and into history books. This latest installment, allying Skop Productions with iFlix, takes it to the next level, expanding not only on the cinematic universe already existing through the ‘KL Gangster’ and ‘Abang Long Fadil’ films, but also iFlix’s own ‘KL Gangster Underworld’ television show.

Intriguingly, it is something of a prequel, setting the stage for May Wong (Dynas Mokhtar) and Zan (Hasnul Rahmat) as its leads. They are key characters in the television show, so this film fills in much of the gap from that story. The primary focus is on Wong, as we are encouraged to see the story from her perspective. Married to the heir of one particular family ruling the roost in Bangsar, she is equally involved with Ayah Zan, a key figure from another family in Kampung Baru. Theirs is a romance tinged with a hint of Romeo and Juliet, a love blossoming in the dark.

It had to, because May’s husband, Eugene (Calvin Wong) is the son of Dato Francis Tan (Chew Kin Wah), the South King. At the same time, her brother, Jason (Elvis Chin), is also interested in raising his own status in the game. It is connected to having influence in places like Kampung Baru, where Tok Mat (Dato Rahim Razali) is the main man. Aiding the aforementioned Zan are Che Mi (Tony Eusoff), Shah (Beto Kusyairy), Adi (Zahiril Adzim) and Belut (Amerul Affendi). All these elements interact violently in a game of politics between one gang and another.

I have not seen the ‘KL Gangster Underworld’ television show, but I am familiar with its original entries. Along with a number of other films, ‘KL Gangster’ formed a key part of my own academic research. One of the readings I made is of the all-seeing Petronas Twin Towers, a stand-in for the authorities of the day, serving as the panopticon which observes and rules all. They are a mainstay in many Skop Production films and television shows, which often err on the side of those in power. Here, while we remain firmly couched with those outside of the official limelight, the brief shots of the Twin Towers remind us of how these characters are empowered only insofar as the government has allowed them to be so.

This is particularly pertinent, given how Malaysian cinema has ebbed and flowed from one point to the next. While the ‘KL Gangster’ films, along with the likes of ‘Kongsi’, precipitated a trend in filmmaking focusing on the likes of gangsters and mat rempits (mats rempit?), recent years have seen blockbuster films (re)centering themselves on protagonists firmly located within the authority, as can be seen in ‘J Revolusi’ and ‘Paskal’. These are broad strokes to paint with, but the point remains that I am highlighting how films like ‘Rise to Power’ are important in showcasing the existence of power even within greatly restrained rooms for their performance.

For instance, I am quite encouraged by the character of May Wong, seen in this context as the first female boss. The fact that she becomes one while pregnant is also quite significant; that aspect was tweaked because the actress herself was with child, but it is nevertheless a rare portrayal not often seen in the context of Malaysian cinema. The actual performance itself is actually not the most convincing, with Dynas’s uncomfortable switching between dialects a little jarring at times, lacking the natural flow to make her character less of a caricature.

At the same time, I am also pleased to the other actors on screen. We wrote recently about Tony Eusoff in ‘Shadowplay’ and the performance of Beto Kusyairy in ‘Hujan Panas’. The appearance of icons such as Mustapha Kamal and Rahim Razali is also quite heartening, particularly given the health issues faced by the latter not too long ago. I also namechecked Amerul Afendi and Zahiril Adzim above, and hope that they have bigger roles in future entries in the franchise.

I was most struck by Hasnul Rahmat’s portrayal of Zan. In terms of his actual appearance, he seems like a man stuck out of time, his costumes suggesting someone unwisely fascinated with 1980s street anti-culture. Yet his actual acting and fighting skills were impressive, making me wonder what a cinematic clash between him and Yayan Ruhian would look like. In the real world, Yayan would win that hands down, primarily because he is a fighter who acts. On screen, however, Hasnul is an actor who fights, and here, I like his performance on both fronts.

As much as the film found my favour with some of its actors, it is not infallible. In addition to some unconvincing performances, the narrative structure (utilising primarily flashbacks) did not have an immediacy (and thus, a sense of high stakes) that a more linear form of storytelling would bring about. Simply put, I was not as worried because I knew that our main characters would be fine. There is also a sense that because this is seen as an entry in a bigger cinematic universe, some parts are incomplete. For those in the know, I suppose it can be pleasing. For those who aren’t, it leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth.

Then again, such is the state of filmmaking today. We mentioned something similar in our review of ‘Gundala’, an Indonesian film expected to kickstart its own cinematic universe. Plenty of loose ends were left dangling, which could feel a little unsatisfying for those expecting a more traditional closed circle story, but in the bigger picture, it could lead to greater fulfilment. For iFlix, if it plays its cards right, it could be an incredibly smart move, forming a modus operandi unique amongst the region’s streamers.

Perhaps it is I who need to do more digging, but as far as I know, there’s been little by way of a regional television show or film series that has translated consistently well across borders. By that, I mean that we have yet to witness the kind of fluency hinted at in shows like ‘Gomorra’ or ‘McMafia’, European powerhouses with episodes set in different countries around the continent. ‘Rise to Power’ could be a seed growing into that bigger picture, one whose closely-integrated narrative would position iFlix as Southeast Asia’s leading streamer.

If, as hinted at in the film, we have a spin-off set in Manila, it would be an intriguing development in the context of Southeast Asian television and cinema; having long been seen as cinemas of poverty (many of the award-winning films from this region are predicated upon images of oppresion), it would be good to reframe this discourse. Much like ‘Rise to Power’, it is a chance for us all to reconstitute power in a different way, widening a canvas that restrict the expansion of these ideas to begin with. Seen in that light, ‘Rise to Power’ is a good start.

Then again, well-begun is only half-done.

You can watch the film here. We previously reviewed ‘KL Gangster’ and ‘KL Gangster 2’, as well as looking at the leaking of the latter before its release.

Featured image credit: Leon Macapagal / Pexels

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