By Benjamin McKay
For a debut feature film, Mark Tan’s “Jarum Halus” proves to be both bold and audacious. With mainstream ambitions and craftily manipulated indie edginess, this present day Malaysian version of Shakespeare’s “Othello” is bound to have the pundits’ tongues wagging.
In so many ways, this film should not work but even with some obvious faults aside, this movie proved to be a deliciously guilty pleasure. At last, an over the top local movie done with some flair and intelligence! I will assume that Kakiseni readers now all know the plot premise of the original play so I will dispense here with a narrative summation.
Any debut feature whose director also acts as producer, editor, script writer and art director is bound to have some untidy flaws, and this film is no exception. There are a number of scenes that might have been better had they been more judiciously edited. That common local problem of unevenly pitched performances in ensemble work was, on occasion, jarring, as were some of the night time location scenes that were just a tad too dark for my aging tired eyes.
But praise for the over the top camp of it all – even the now ubiquitous KLCC establishing shots looked like they were laced with LSD. Credit here must go to the very fine work of cinematographer Aaron Chung who has clearly had fun with both the camera and the cast.
I can assure you that “restraint” is clearly not a term one would often apply to this film except where it concerns the possibilities for the racial and sexual frisson of the original play as translated to contemporary KL. Our Moor is now a Chinese Malaysian corporate yuppie, Daniel (Christien New), our Desdemona is now a Malay Mona (Juliana Ibrahim) and our villainous Iago has morphed into a campy sinister Iskandar (Razif Hashim).
I felt that the operatic potential for contemporary ethnic and sexual commentary could have been even more highly pitched than it was, given that racial and sexual politics in the local context have an ornate complexity that rather lends itself to a gaudy baroque aesthetic. But well done for having avoided the censor’s snip.
The cast looks ravishing and the film has a nicely sexy air about it. There were a number of scenes between Iskandar and Daniel where you could almost smell the perfumed testosterone. Luckily, this made up for some awkwardly impish moments between Daniel and Mona that stretched credibility on occasion and sometimes lacked spark. I particularly liked the work of Razif Hashim who was clearly enjoying himself especially in the more overtly operatic moments leading up to the film’s thunderous baritone-like climax where even the violence was designer label sexy.
The earnest tragedy of the original play would have created a slightly implausible contemporary tone in our so thoroughly jaded postmodern age and it is therefore a relief that the director has eschewed such textual loyalty in his translation. By embracing an MTV slick-edginess and taking us all way over the top, Mark has managed to deflect attention away from the flaws in his film – most noticeably his reluctance to tightly edit. And while it is not always polished, this often surprisingly pleasant gem gave me two hours and 15 minutes of guilty camp pleasure. I dare you to enjoy it!
First Published: 09.01.2008 on Kakiseni