Race and Place

One should applaud the release of another Malaysian independent feature on local screens – on that count, therefore, you can add the sound of my two hands, clapping.

In his debut feature film, Arivind Abraham’s S’kali (Malaysia, 2006; in English and Malay; Perantauan Pictures) explores the uneasy terrain inhabited by a group of young people facing impending adulthood, and the entailing possibility that the cosy security of this close circle of friends may ultimately come apart.

Ravin (Jayaram Nagaraj) is a young filmmaker who commences a relationship with Sze Huey (Davina Goh), an ambitious and determined writer working for an online publication. They meet up regularly at a mamak to catch up, reminisce and share their lives with a close group of friends. Tzao (Derek Ong) awaits news of a scholarship abroad. Young musician Bahir (Zimy Rosan) is trying to break into the local music scene, and finds himself emotionally entangled with Tehmina (Angeline Rose), a young woman who drowns the emotional pain of a crumbling family in a steady flow of alcohol. Together they attempt to maintain the ties that bind while each moving awkwardly on in different directions.

The premise for S’kali is simple, and such tales are not new to the cinema: its plot is, of course, a standard deviation of the coming-of-age story. But films like these are not overly common in Malaysia – odd, given that there are certain localised peculiarities inherent in adolescent to adult transitions here that should be further explored on­screen. Teck Tan’s road movie Spinning Gasing (2000) dealt with a similar premise; otherwise, the rich opportunities in looking at such transitions have remained largely untapped.

Crossing the Gap

S’kali anchors the possibility for just that kind of reflective analysis on growing up: it follows a group of middle-class Klang Valley residents dealing with the demands of their families, and the complexities of life in the cosmopolitan but contested space of contemporary Kuala Lumpur.

To his credit, Arivind Abraham has recognised such reflective possibilities. But recognising those possibilities and actually realising them are two very different things. There is a degree of earnestness in this film that I am sympathetic towards – but, ultimately, this reviewer feels the possibilities inherent in the film’s story are somewhat unfulfilled. Sad, as the 23-year-old writer-director does show great promise, considering the impact that his earlier short works have made.

Maybe what the film needed was a co-writer, an impartial eye – it is too up-close and personal. Debut features have a tendency to be autobiographical, and S’kali is no different: Arivind, a young filmmaker, has made a movie about Ravin, a young filmmaker who is making a movie about his circle of friends. It is consciously self-referential on a number of levels: it is set against the backdrop of the filmmaking and indie music milieu of KL; it deals with issues that are clearly close to the filmmaker’s heart.

There would have been, of course, no problem with this choice of subject matter – if only the urge for verbose introspection and overly theatrical rumination had been avoided. Films need to be driven by events, not the ruminations of events. The action in S’kali largely happens off-screen; we hear about it as our five young catalysts gather to ponder their fates in the safety of the mamak. The screenplay would work better as a stage play: it attempts to finely draw and shape the characters – but for a film medium it is far too wordy. There are scenes where the dialogue is so explanatory it either falls flat or sounds self-consciously contrived.

The exploration of family pressure on Ravin and Sze Huey’s inter-racial relationship is diffused: the couple find that their own internal conflicts are also largely driven by the banalities of ethnic stereotype. How strong was their love for each other? How shallow are the both of them, in reality? The dynamics of multi-ethnic boundaries, and of the relationships that transgress those boundaries, provide ample fodder for filmmakers exploring issues of conflict and division in a localised context – Arivind attempts this, but fails to resist wandering off. Both Ravin and Sze Huey come off as facile; in the end, do we really care about our protagonists’ fates – and, by extension, the issues they drive within the narrative?

Far more successfully handled in S’kali‘s 75 minutes is the conflict that arises over the inequities of the Malaysian education system. Tzao, while awaiting news of a scholarship to study abroad, convincingly brings his growing frustrations to the surface, and – in a difficult but well-constructed subtext that defines his sense of separation and isolation – commences to take his anger out on his friend Bahir.

A number of the conflicts that our young protagonists face arise from the pressures of family life. Tahmina’s descent into alcoholism, due to her inability to deal with the sad decline of her parent’s marriage, speaks of generational shifts and issues of class mobility – but these themes could have been explored further.

The manner in which the alcoholism is dealt with in this subplot seems timid to me; overall, however, the film attempts to address the issue with a degree of maturity. Alas, Tahmina’s fate is not fully pursued by the film’s end – a criticism that may be applied to the film’s resolution, in general.

Talent and Promise

Shot in High Definition, I am still a little surprised at how grainy S’kali‘s photography looks – this said, I have no aesthetic objections to such a look, and Kuala Lumpur, with her attractive young denizens, comes across quite nicely on-screen. The camera­work is professional, if perhaps a little cautious; and the sound is audible, if jarring, at times. The film’s soundtrack is excellent, and has been used to integrate, rather than separate, our journey through the narrative.

The mamak scenes in S’kali are particularly well-composed shots: they draw the ambience of these restaurants nicely. A minor irritation about the film is that many of the subtitles are not clearly readable. Hopefully, this will be addressed when the film makes it to VCD distribution – as I hope it does.

This review has been critical, only because I wish that the film had been better. Arivind’s work shows so much promise and reveals so many talents. I must praise the young and largely inexperienced cast: many of them have done quite well, shaping their characters in a disappointing screenplay, with the short amount of on-screen time at their disposal. Derek Ong, who plays angry scholarship boy Tzao, deserves special mention, as he keeps his performance tempered nicely and allows his character to build in a subtly paced realisation.

In a film that is set against the backdrop of the industry that made it, a couple of S’kali‘s cameos deserve special mention. Jason Lo adds a quirky, comic touch to the film, playing a music producer and entrepreneur who hopes to turn our young musician Bahir into the next Mawi – as if such a thing were indeed possible or desirable. And, to remind us that this film is a film about a film being made in Kuala Lumpur, director Yasmin Ahmad (whose own coming-of-age film and interracial love story Sepet achieved wide-spread notoriety and success) appears, playing herself.

With conviction, Yasmin, industry muse, implores the young filmmaker Ravin to put down his feelings, rather than his thoughts. Of course, this is advice well worth heeding – but perhaps not fully realised in this ambitious, earnest, yet ultimately flawed contribution to recent Malaysian indie cinema.

First Published: 03.10.2006 on Kakiseni

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