The man who doesn’t save Malaysia: A review of “Lelaki Harapan Dunia”

by Melati Timur  [SPOILER ALERT] I went into the cinema wanting to like this film. Bearing in mind a more literal translation of “the men who are the hope of the world”, even its title, rather hubristically, begs you to pin hopes on the film. Or perhaps the director himself? Malay grammar allows you to also read it as “man”, singular. Am I to place my hopes in Liew Seng Tat, the man that comes to save us all? Sadly, despite my hopes, he does nothing of the kind. Let’s start with the good bits. The actors are superb and some of the cinematography breathtaking. As a friend pointed out, some sequences deserve to be played in a loop in an art gallery. They were so evocative. Some parts were also very funny. I was glad to see that it did not shy away from physical gags and the silliness characteristic of much of Asian cinema, including Malay films. I think too many “serious” directors shy away from these populist techniques as if humour is antithetical to profundity. However, there have been some less than flattering opinions hurled at the film. Some of the international criticism, as in a review in Variety, has come from a profound misunderstanding of both the film’s intentions and the situation on the ground in Malaysia. Sexist? Homophobic? Solomon’s silence and comments about his “wire brush hair” have been interpreted as racism on the part of the director, but I think this is off the mark. Malaysia has been downgraded to the lowest level in the US State Department’s 2014 human trafficking report. The public’s attitudes to migrant workers and those deemed as foreigners continue to be shameful. Some apartment buildings in Kuala Lumpur openly refuse to rent to African tenants, a move that has garnered general support, especially among residents. Against this backdrop, as well as within the context of the film itself where Solomon is a solitary man on the run, his reticence is to be expected. It is also a potent symbol of the silenced vulnerability of foreign migrants here in Malaysia. I don’t think Solomon was played for laughs. His gently comedic moments, such as his river scenes, were sweet and created affection for the character. This is a desperate, lost, voiceless man we are clearly supposed to sympathise with. Solomon’s scenes with the blind bilal evoke Frankenstein – the blind old man who befriends the monster because he cannot see what his friend looks like. Even the “wire brush” comment is affectionate, not condemning. It is followed by a show of elaborate hospitality. We are in an isolated village here, we can’t expect the language of the PC brigade from the lips of a small-time bilal. What matters is what the man does, even if it is under false pretences. However, unlike Frankenstein, the discovery of Solomon by those who are able to see does not result in his violent expulsion. Instead, the mob’s attention is diverted to chase after an altogether different black “monster”, in effect saving Solomon from the persecution he fears. The accusations of sexism are also misguided. This is a film about men’s communal and individual relationships with each other, and how those dynamics can shift on the flimsiest of excuses. The exclusion of women here does not make the film sexist. In fact, it attempts to shine a light on sexism with how the villagers themselves exclude women from their community, casting them as objects to be protected, only for the men to go missing when the women are actually attacked. Then there’s the supposed homophobia. Again, the criticism is unjust. These are Malaysian villagers. Some level of homophobia would not be unrealistic. No motivation, no resolution The film hints at making some interesting progress on this issue with the character development of troubled Wan (Soffi Jikan) for whom something begins to stir once he dons female attire. Yet, we never get to see how this works out for Wan, or anybody else for that matter. And here is the crux of the issue, the real reason why this film is so unsatisfying and ultimately problematic. Put simply, there is no Third Act. Liew decides to cut off his film before anything can reach a conclusion. He offers tantalising moments of character development, then refuses to actually resolve them in any way. Take the character of Pak Awang (wonderfully acted by Wan Hanafi Su). He is clearly the heart of the film, quite possibly because, as the Variety review states, he is the only character “given any kind of depth.” Yet “Liew fails to fully explore this frustrated man’s motivations”. Despite being the character that the director clearly intends the audience to be most drawn to, we never get to really know anything about Pak Awang. We get hints and clues. He is clearly uncomfortable discussing his daughter’s upcoming nuptials, refusing to give any details when asked about her and her beau. The best we get are cryptic remarks about city living not being good for his daughter, that she needs to move back to the village and that she loves her fiancée. Our attention is brought to how evasive his answers are immediately when his interlocutor responds with, “well of course one marries for love.” End scene. So red flags everywhere, something is up here. Something is not quite right here. Pak Awang’s rush to get the house moved and ready also seems suspicious, given how he never explains himself. He doesn’t give us an exact date to suggest a logistical urgency, nor does he give us any motives. It does not seem like such a long time has actually passed since the villagers stopped moving his house before he already throws tantrums, physically assaults village elders and later terrifies women and children. Why the anxious rush, Pak Awang? This is kampung living where presumably a leisurely pace and constant negotiations with neighbours to help each other is the norm. Why does Pak Awang seem to go a bit nuts? One gets the feeling it has something to do with whatever is not quite right with his daughter’s situation. What is happening to Wan? How will attitudes evolve around him? What happens to Solomon? But without a Third Act, we’ll never know. In fact, we’ll never know what any of his characters were really about. A sarcastic title for a film about horrible people?  Liew is stubbornly silent. He refuses to allow his characters any relief, resolution or absolution. By refusing to face their real motivations or allow them to achieve some kind of conclusion to their conflicts, even if it should be tragic, he denies them their humanity and denies the audience any ability to sympathise with or understand their predicaments. So Liew refuses to let his characters be understood or explain themselves. They seem to only be there for the audience to criticise their irrational actions and stupidity. Perhaps the secret of the director’s intentions lie in that awkwardly worded piece of dialogue (in Malay, it sounds very strange, like someone translating): “the fine line between superstition and stupidity.” My dearest director, I understand that you may not want something mushy and “neat”. As an art house filmmaker, The Journey (Malaysia’s highest grossing film ever, released earlier this year) probably made you gag. But being allergic to narrative structure does not make you an auteur. Having a third act that at least attempts to resolve the many threads this film unravels does not make you a sell-out. By not having one, however, by refusing to answer, in any way at all, the many questions you brought up, the audience cannot trust the director’s intentions. This is why it has received the criticism it has, especially locally, of disrespecting Malays. It’s easy to see that the film is aiming for satire about how easily noble virtues like unity and community can be violently fractured by ignorance and mob mentality, ripping apart society’s fabric and leaving a home (perhaps emblematic of Malaysia herself) first abandoned, then burning to the ground. But the satire is completely undone by how mean-spirited the film is towards its characters. The director also wants to claim some kind of homage but that would require affection for your characters, not just the landscape. In the end, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is little hope for these people. The film’s title now seems sarcastic. Judging by where their story is cut off – a mob chasing after a blacked-up old man – these men will certainly struggle to save themselves, much less the world. Irresponsible representation Despite the light, comedic touch, no one is redeemed, no one is actually allowed to be a good guy or even a nuanced guy. No one is even allowed to explain themselves or resolve their differences. With the exception of Solomon, if you looked strictly at the plot, they are all horrible people. You have a leading man so impatient for people to do what he wants that he resorts to violence and harassment. You have a cross-dressing superstitious mob hunting an imaginary possibly homosexual monster and recklessly burning down a beautiful house out of their murderous fear. You also have financial mismanagement and corruption even among the villagers. You have a man semi-feigning terror willing to exchange the concern of his fellow villagers for a few measly ringgit. Then you have children throwing their “most hated” objects at an old man on the strength of demonic rumours, and you have adults wilfully ignoring children’s vocal grief at the slaughter of an animal. In fact, it is the slaughter scene that many have expressed concerns over, accusing it of disparaging Malays. This scene is played for laughs but it also features crying children, an animal in mortal distress and blood spray so powerful people use umbrellas to shield themselves from getting drenched. Again little attempt is made to explore this custom. There is a grandfather’s truncated telling of Abraham’s test, commanded to kill his son by God, but the child is silenced when the questions get troublesome. That’s it, no further attempt at development. I have no issue with problematising the ritual slaughter of Raya Haji. This custom needs to be discussed. However, it is irresponsible to essentially laugh at the custom while children cry, then do nothing to offer any understanding on what this custom means to the people who practise it. Heartless When I was around 6, I also went to my grandparent, in my case my grandmother, with the same concerns. I did not like viewing the slaughter – it made me sick to the stomach and reduced me to quiet sobs. My grandmother, a very religious woman the community often turned to for theological advice, sympathised completely with my feelings, and praised me for my compassion. She was also ambivalent about the need for crowds at the slaughter, which she herself never attended. But she explained to me that witnesses were needed to ensure that things were done lawfully and mercifully. She also stressed that the meat was only to be given to the poor, many of whom did not have the luxury of meat very often. So there was no religious advantage of my attending these events and, in fact, her take was that it was inappropriate for me to go if I had such a heavy heart because the meat would be in some ways bedgrudged to the poor. You may not accept such an explanation, but at least this allows for a humanistic take. And trust me, this was coming from a very orthodox religious leader, within a very orthodox small town setting not all that different from the village in Lelaki Harapan Dunia. Yet, nothing even as modest as this was offered by the film. Life is hard and comedic, corrupt and ignorant. Sympathies are difficult to come by, tempers and irrationality literally run amuck unchecked, and children cry unheeded. This was such a missed opportunity. Had the director brought even some rounded humane agency to his characters and allowed them to resolve or seriously reflect on their issues, his satire would not have been any less biting, and his film would have had heart. In such an alternate universe, the film would have had a great chance of becoming a hit and spreading the much needed criticism as well as faith in our ability to fix our nation. The film Malaysia needs?  Lelaki Harapan Dunia could have been a rallying cry. It could have brought Malaysians together to have a good hard look at ourselves, gird up our loins and shoulder our home to greener pastures but instead, it is snark, unrelenting, merciless jibes at poor kampung folk. It is to the credit of the actors that they bring humanity to this film. They may not have saved the world, but they really tried to rescue these characters from total condemnation.