Evo(lution) of an Industry

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Something interesting is happening these days in the Malaysian film industry. Polis Evo‘s success – RM13 mil at the box-office on more than 100 screens to date – together with the right mixture of circumstances, has created an almost superstitious atmosphere. It seems no one is allowed to speak ill of the movie, lest it brings the local film industry back on its knees.

You see, the last few years have seen a gradual decline in the box-office performance of local films. Quite simply, no one seems interested in local productions anymore, despite the industry’s best efforts. Not even the typical dumb comedies, even dumber horror films, and gangster actioners brought in the crowds that they used to.

This is understandable. A simple observation would show that with Hollywood’s increasing focus on the cinema of spectacle – big blockbusters riding on the wave of the latest effects technologies – and with the increasingly stifling economic climate, moviegoers would tend to save their money for the big spectacle. Our local industry will, in no way, be able to match Hollywood’s juggernaut.

So, when Polis Evo came along and played Pied Piper to local moviegoers, everyone hushed, even if they knew the movie to be one of the most unoriginal ever made. The thing you always hear is: “This is good for the industry as a whole.”

It’s as if one bad word about Polis Evo would jinx the entire industry, as if any criticism would pull the plug on the box-office momentum and on the general (revitalised) interest in local films.

But the question is: is there really a momentum for the industry as a whole?

Unfortunately, no. Take the example of melodramatic weepie The Journey (2014), which today still maintains its record of RM17.2 mil in takings. After its surprise success, interest in local films continued to dwindle. There was no sudden surge of interest or confidence in local audiences. It was simply a one-off phenomenon.

Now, here’s where the real fact lies. Both The Journey and Polis Evo are produced by Astro Shaw. The film arm of satellite broadcaster Astro marketed and promoted the heck out of these two films, with endless TV spots and even a preview of the first 20 minutes of Polis Evo. It’s hard to deny that this is a major factor that led to the successes of both films. Granted, both films have slick, commercial storytelling as a plus point. That’s also hard to deny. And even though Media Prima and Grand Brilliance are doing the same for Rembat, Astro is still the one with the bigger reach.

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Cops and loan sharks

There are currently two movies featuring Shaheizy Sam and Zizan Razak – Polis Evo and Rembat. And strangely, both films feature Thai people near the end. No, I’m not insinuating anything; they’re just mere coincidences!

But the two actors’ roles in the two films couldn’t be more different. Sam plays a tough-as-nails supercop in Polis, and a dopey loser in Rembat. Zizan plays a no-nonsense police inspector from a village in Polis, and then a looney hip-hop loan shark in Rembat.

Polis Evo, down to its bare essentials, is really Breaking Bad told from the cops’ perspective. I’m half kidding, of course, but the truth remains that it takes its main cue from that popular TV series. In fact, Polis Evo is a “Frankenstein movie”, a film that takes parts of other films and puts them together to create a functioning whole. This cut-and-paste method of filmmaking is quite entrenched in the local film industry. But to just merely copy would be dismal. Instead, Polis Evo cleverly localises the tried-and-true Hollywood buddy-cop formula by using Terengganu as a setting and the local lingo as its main form of communication.

Otherwise, everything else is there, all the buddy-cop action tropes. Sam’s Khai is a tough cop with a dark past. Zizan’s Sani is the straight-as-a-plank foil to Khai, a family man of conservative values. Both are at loggerheads at first, but have to work together to fight a common enemy. And by the end, they become fast friends, each learning something from the other. There’s even a 360-degree rotating shot of the two back-to-back shooting at the bad guys a la Michael Bay and Bad Boys. It’s like a game of Spot the Movie Reference. The filmmakers slyly placed posters of Heisenberg and Breaking Bad in one scene, as if to say to the audience, “Hey, look, this is an homage, OK?”

Its’s difficult to give Polis Evo high praise because of this. But what it has going for it is that it refuses to dumb down for its audience and doesn’t resort to the lowest common denominator, especially when it comes to humour. But don’t bother looking for anything original here.

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Meanwhile, Rembat also uses a tried-and-true Hollywood formula – a romantic-comedic road movie. Where it differs from Polis Evo‘s cut-and-paste filmmaking is how it uses a template but constructs the story, and the film as a whole, with original elements. It is not Dumb and Dumber, it is not Trains, Planes and Automobiles. It is a wholly Malaysian story addressing the current woes of our nation. It is applicable to our times, relevant to our situation, and resonates strongly with our mentality. And it is also the first film since Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet to have two actors of different ethnicities sharing top billing.

I’ve not seen Shamyl Othman’s previous film Kami Histeria, but it would seem comedy of absurdity is his forte. Rembat is ridiculous, absurd and at times completely bizarre. But it is also very, very funny. Well, in the first half at least.

Shamyl is the son of the legendary Othman Hafsham, the man who gave us Mekanik and Pi Mai Pi Mai Tang Tu (the longest running TV series in Malaysian history). The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree, as we can see Shamyl’s penchant for witty observations about Malaysian life. Ah Niu is surprisingly effective as Chin Chye, the ne’er-do-well Ah Beng gambler who ends up collaborating with Sam’s geeky Malik to make sure the Malaysian football team loses against the Thais. There is a boundless, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink reckless abandon, and energy and attitude that make this comedy so enjoyable (as opposed to Polis Evo‘s strictly regimented form and very formal structure). But at times, this is also its downfall, as things sometimes get a wee bit too ridiculous (especially one very disappointing “twist” that is an overused, tired old cliche of comedy). Also, I’m not quite sure what the whole brassiere saleswoman gag is about. I might be missing a pertinent point.

Rembat is really a throwback to the days of Mekanik, when comedy came from funny situations and dialogue, not from actors acting stupid and wearing stupid wigs. Even though its second half deflates slightly and seems to run out of steam and ideas for a while, its rather sweet ending reminds us that there is no wrong in using Hollywood formulas, just as long as you have something of your own to say in the process.

The difference between Polis Evo and Rembat is really that Polis lets the template drive the story, while Rembat does the complete opposite.

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The films we need, not the films we deserve

Cinema is best when it’s reacting to the times. Currently with the country rocked by political scandals and controversies, we must admit we do live in interesting times. We yearn for solid leadership to take us out of this quagmire, we yearn to see fair and ethical applications of the law, we long for the racial unity of the old days, and we desperately wish for a light at the end of this very dark tunnel.

With all this in mind, it’s easy to see why Polis Evo is doing great business. It’s a story about powerful law enforcement overcoming the bad guys, bringing law and order back to society. And the cops do it with style. The idea of the tranquil and idyllic rural lifestyle of a conservative state like Terengganu being disrupted by criminally chaotic agency, and then that disruptive force being reined in by ethical authority (never mind that the authority itself is sometimes an equally chaotic force) must seem very attractive to an audience mired in times where integrity is very much missing from everything.

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While an idealistic fantasy of righteousness like Polis Evo provides the balm for our pains, Rembat seems to be a direct reaction to all that’s wrong with the country. It’s a film that achingly pines for better times, when people were more united and understanding of each other, when everyone had enough to eat and didn’t have to resort to desperate measures to make ends meet, when life was much simpler and we all felt more connected to each other. The movie is like a showcase of all our ills – unpaid PTPTN student loans, illegal gambling, kereta sapu, pandas (yes, a very funny and very subtle poke at the people who keep pandas), loan sharking. And it invites us to laugh at all these, because what else is there left to do but laugh?

Rembat may be a better film than Polis Evo, and Polis Evo the more successful of the two (so far), but it would seem both are perfect births of Malaysian cinema at a time when the climate calls for us to reflect on what we really need rather than what we deserve.

In all honesty, this is what local filmmakers should consider – not how to make a box-office hit, not how to market a film, not how to capitalise on the momentum of one big hit. It is about how to make films that speak to us as Malaysians. And both Polis Evo and Rembat do that very well.

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