Sunday, January 13, 2008

Moonlight Sonata

A funny thing happened on the way to watching Mamat Khalid's Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang. I saw it back-to-back with Joko Anwar's Kala. The guy at the ticketing counter was completely confused by the titles. And not only do both films have the word "kala" in their titles and use noir conventions, both also feature a reporter who's recently out of a job and supernatural elements.

I thoroughly enjoyed Zombi Kg Pisang, and it looks like Mamat has a good feel for comedy. Zombi spoofed old B-grade horror films, while taking the time to make some pointed observations about our society. Although it tends to drag at times, it's still a pretty good comedy, and Mamat must be credited for being bold enough to tackle something quite untried in these parts as a zombie film.

Now he's gone and done another ambitious movie, this time shot in black-and-white. Kala Malam takes a page from the old Malay movies of the 50s, the golden era of Malay cinema, when films were still largely made on soundstages and in Singapore. It's where you have stagey set-ups, melodramatic acting and sets that look like sets. But that's the charm and beauty of that era.

Then Mamat adds a touch of noir to the proceedings, with Rosyam Nor (who does a great job here) as Salleh, the quintessential hard-boiled reporter-cum-detective, and a couple of femme fatales. Salleh ends up in a strange village where people behave strangely and it seems a demon has been hunting men on every full-moon night. Everything seems to be connected to Salleh's discovery of a strange skeleton holding a keris.

The first-half of the film is wildly entertaining, as the offbeat characters are introduced (David Teo's "Mau masas ka?" motel-owner act is surely going to go down in history as one of the most memorable comedy moments!) and the mystery is setup.

But there's never a real mystery as the use of old cinema conventions is already a roadmap for the story. No, the real draw here is seeing how everything is spoofed, and it sure is a lot of fun. Just when you think it can't get any sillier, in comes a group of quirky communists with a "master of disguises aka shape-shifter" in tow. And their method of hypnotising and brainwashing people got the loudest laughs in the cinema.

Despite some underlit and grainy scenes, and a couple of goofs, such as the presence of modern road tiles at Jongkidin's workshop, overall Mamat manages to capture the feel and atmosphere of the cinema of yore. The black-and-white photography is gorgeous in most parts, and the props and backdrop are "authentically 50s," as are the musical numbers. It must have taken quite a lot of work for the art department to recreate the nostalgic look of this film.

Unfortunately, the novelty kind of wears off midway through, although the comedy still comes in spurts of inspiration. The fun disappears when the film suddenly turns all serious, veering off into pure drama and melancholy. A friend who's a film academician argued with me this is a two-act comprising comedy and tragedy. But I would argue that the transition from spoofing a style to adopting it wholesale are two different matters that do not gel effectively.

The first half plays with old conventions to mine what comedic possibilities there are, which often entails altering the nature or intended effect of those conventions. The second half uses these conventions to merely recreate. This was also the major problem I had with Thailand's Tears Of The Black Tiger, which is merely an homage to old cinema but fails to say anything substantial about it.

Still, Kala Malam is a very daring effort that is a nice direction for Malaysian mainstream cinema, which seems to be heading for more variety than the usual mundane, formulaic stuff. Mamat Khalid is definitely far more inventive and forward-looking than most local directors - who else would dare make a black-and-white film here?

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