Crouching Warrior, Hidden Princess

After months of hype and anticipation that reached the levels of a Paris Hilton video, I am finally going to watch Puteri Gunung Ledang! As an independent filmmaker, I had been enveloped with some sense of pride after hearing it had been selected to screen at the Venice International film festival, one of the oldest and most prestigious festivals in the world. In my warped mind, I felt I had a hand in making this movie, even though I had absolutely nothing to do with it.

This is what I feel after the two and the half hour movie: I don’t know if Puteri Gunung Ledang is the best Malaysian film ever made, but it’s definitely one of the best local films I’ve seen. It is clearly better than the garbage of Makar, which looks like a student film, and Pontianak Harum Sundal Malam, which is also like a student film but with a higher budget. I don’t really recall the other films, which is a good thing, believe me.

But what is wrong with PGL? Why don’t I feel a sense of… completeness? Why do I find myself looking at my watch halfway through it, and why do I keep asking myself questions that I suppose I would not have asked have I been engulfed by the film’s power? The thing is, PGL, directed by commercial and music video director Saw Teong Hin, is no fast paced thriller. This movie would’ve rocked at a 100 minutes, instead of 146 minutes. I’m pretty sure of it. Well, maybe not.

The story of PGL is a simple one (script by Mamat Khalid). Woman and Man fall deeply in love. Brother of woman wants to marry her off to the Sultan, to save his own country. Man, who works for the Sultan, feels torn between love and duty, as does Woman. Man and Woman must decide what to do, and face the consequences of their decisions.

The first 20 minutes or so play out pretty well; we are kept in a state of mild intrigue as we find out why the princess has decided to “escape” into the wilderness of Gunung Ledang. The tone of the movie reminds me of how I felt when I saw the first Lord of the Rings film – the way it starts out right in the thick of things, and just kept going from there. The initial fight sequence which introduces Hang Tuah, the hero, is pretty cool. So is the dance scene when they first meet.

But then slowly the movie goes into “auto” mode, as we meander through scene after scene of exposition that rarely touch any sense of dramatic tension. Suddenly I feel the movie is gliding on its emotional surface, its ripple of substance slowly dissipating. There are too many “here-let-me-show-you-my-culture” shots, too much time spent on people bowing and fanning and royal processions that slow the movie down and add little to the story.

The courtship between the Princess (Tiara Jacquelina) and Hang Tuah (M. Nasir) lacked a sense of sensuality that was seen in movies like The English Patient and Jude (movies also about sacrifices of love). Sure it would’ve been nice to have seen a kiss, but forget kiss, what about just any form of physical contact? A silhouetted scene of the princess’ body, perhaps, being caressed by the dashing Hang Tuah? Midway through the film, there’s a scene where the princess is bathing in the river, and the prince stands over her by the bank. They talk in intimate terms, but physically, they seem miles apart. Had the leads exuded a strong invisible chemistry between them, this would not have been a problem. But they do not. Their love, alas, does not seem legendary.

It isn’t so much that the censorship ‘guidelines’ did it to them. I feel that the filmmakers simply respected the character of the princess too much – they did not want to ‘taint’ her saintly image by depicting her in any risque scenes (a passionate romp by the riverside, for instance). She almost always appears in control, rational, even in the face of immense pressure. I don’t know if I agree with this, though I recognise this as an artistic choice.

Other small things bothered me. For instance, I could not feel the desire of the Sultan (Adlin Aman Ramlie) for the princess. He saw her dance, and I suppose this was enough for him to want her in a bad way. But all the time I wondered, well, does he really want her (like the way Joaquin Phoenix’s character lusted over his sister in Gladiator – something we actually saw in his eyes)? Or is this just another opportunity to take a second wife? I couldn’t tell, and that bothered me.

The princess herself appeared ambivalent about what she wanted. One minute she says she’s marrying the Prince of Demak. The next minute she wants to live alone in the hill. The cruel irony of PGL is the title character is the least well developed one of all the leads.

Taking two legends and combining them is a smart idea. Hang Tuah meets the Princess of Mount Ledang. Snappy. Actually I’m one who doesn’t care much for literary accuracy unless it’s based on fact. This story is based on legend. There are probably several versions to the PGL story. So maybe there’ll be a few people who’ll bitch that they made up a lot of the stuff and the timeline was all jumbled up, but hey, tell me an interesting story, and you can put Cinderella in there for all I care.

The performances generally were above par. Production design (Haznizar binti Ithnin) was good, as was the photography (Jason Kwan). All in all, I could see where the money went. There’s a lot of talk about how much the film cost, and how much was spent promoting it, but in the end, US$5 million bucks isn’t that much for a grand epic film (I do not know how much this film actually cost, as budgets are often inflated). In America, for that amount of money, you get an independent drama with a couple of fading A-list stars. But the cost of a film is unimportant. The content is more important.

Saying all this, the movie did make me feel that the local film scene has taken a step out of the depths it has stayed so firmly in for so long. The filmmakers obviously put in a lot of effort to ensure that their vision came across. I’ve heard money was spent for digital shots that eventually were not used, and the director treated each frame with detailed care. This is how a movie should be made, and this is how they did it.

Despite the flaws I saw that prevented the film from being hailed as a “masterpiece”, I felt there was some hope left in our industry.

Ah, the beauty of hope.

First Published: 14.09.2004 on Kakiseni

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