Back to Basics – Legend of Ancient Borneo

Fikri Jermadi enjoys this pleasant little film from Sinn Chun Hou.

Take a closer look at the Malaysian film scene, and you’ll notice how Sabahan films and filmmakers have made their mark in recent years. ‘Huminodun’, telling the sacrifice of a goddess to save the Kadazan people, made a bit of a splash a few years ago. That film also starred Marc Abas, who has transitioned from his Van Helsing-inspired ‘Van Lihing’ films to make ‘Avakas’, due a release in cinemas sooner rather than later. For our part, we’ve written about Bebbra Charles Mailin and Putri Purnama Sugua, whose works have focused on stories from the state.

There is more, of course, but for now, the table is set to invite Sinn Chun Hou to the party with the online premiere of his film, ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’. It is based on a comic of the same name, created by Kwan Thung Seng and Robertson Sondoh Jr. It tells the story of a group of warriors, each armed with their own powers (such as the ability to conjure wind or fire). Cast as the protectors of their village, it is a role made complicated by a group of reptiles who sought to steal a dragon’s skull, the community’s totem and source of their prosperity.

To that end, the film works well to tap into the zeitgeist. It’s difficult to deny the popularity of superhero films, and while ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’ doesn’t necessarily situate itself as such, the creation of characters with their own superpowers make for a ‘cool’ factor that will do well with a younger crowd. For my part, I’m tempted to refer to ‘Captain Planet’, a 1990s television show with an environmental slant so influential that, to this day, I still turn off the running tap water when I brush my teeth.

This does not mean the film strays far from its roots. I am reminded of George Gerbner, an academic whose research voices the concerns of influence from far-flung capitalistic entities: “For the first time in human history, most of the stories about people, life, and values are told not by parents, schools, churches, or others in the community who have something to tell, but by a group of distant conglomerates that have something to sell.” Though such values can still be positive, the imbalance he noted is an important one. As such, ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’ is one homegrown hand on the wheel, steering the discourse in the right direction.

It helps that the film’s voiceover fits the bill. Provided by Boni Mosios (who also featured in the aforementioned ‘Huminodun’), it is reminiscent of a bedtime storyteller, making it suitable for the younger audience Chun Hou may be targeting. It also recalls a more traditional image, one based on a people surrounding a fire at night, as the village elders pass down a cautionary tale of the ages for all ages. This intergenerational evocation is another reason why the back-to-basics approach of ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’ is most welcome.

Speaking of which, I also like the fairly-straightforward animation style of the film (which is not to say it is easy to achieve). More recent Malaysian endeavours such as ‘BoBoiBoy’ and ‘Upin & Ipin’ work with 3-D technology. The same goes for ‘Kring!’, one of its peers released last year. Even ‘Batik Girl’ by Irwan Junaidy has a smoother follow through with its impressive 2-D animation. Yet I can fully appreciate the animation work here, not just because its style is very suitable for the tale at hand, but also because it stands out in a sea of other CGI-heavy efforts.

The same applies to the story; yes, it is direct, but what makes it good is the shift in perspective begetting a revelation I did not necessarily expect. That surprise is nevertheless a pleasant one, an example of how morality in this context should be done. A lot of Malaysian films may attempt the same, but they often fall by the wayside, forcing an enlightenment on the audience through preaching and punishment. Here, instead of a winner-take-all perspective, Chun Hou employs an all-are-winners approach, making me more than happy to share the film with my son one of these days.

My only concern is that some media outlets have promoted this as the first short film entirely told in Kadazan. Given the spate of films and filmmakers listed in the beginning, I’m not so willing to stick my neck out and make the same claim; I remember Bebbra’s ‘Ninavau’ to have featured the language strongly as well. Perhaps what they mean is that it is the first animation film of its ilk. Nonetheless, that’s just me splitting hairs in a barbershop where others are more qualified, and it does not snip anything away from ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’.

Overall, this is a lovely little film, with a well-paced story that is also a significant contribution to critical discussions in Malaysian cinema. More importantly, it’s a fun and adorable film, one imbued with positivity and empathy. That is precisely what we need right now; in light of overwhelming adversity, sometimes the best thing to do is to simply fall back on what we know. Even when it represents a more specific community, there’s more than enough to make ‘Legend of Ancient Borneo’ a nice landing for all.

Featured image credit: Gábor Adonyi / Pixabay

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