Has James Lee sold out? Well known for being a regular with almost each of his feature films being programmed into respective editions of the Singapore International Film Festival, from what would be independent art house films in the formative years, this has given way to more commercialized fare in the horror genre, which is undoubtedly one of the most, if not the most lucrative genres in this region. But while his earlier big studio effort Histeria was a mixed bag of fun in my books, Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak, or Help My Girlfriend is a Vampire, is firmly plenty of fun and camp that is a throwback to the good old days of the 80s Hong Kong horror-comedy genre.
Which is to say that filmmakers don't make films like these any more from once upon a time, and they are sorely missed, enough for James Lee to script and direct this effort, retaining the essence and flavour of the genre, while working it into one of Malay culture's most popular ghoul which already has a number of cinematic incarnations, providing not one but three of them roaming the town this is set in, which explores familiar issues such as why ghouls and humans cannot co-exist together, and for obvious reasons, fall in love as well. Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak is a romantic package rolled into horror-comedy, and is more effective in its romance and comedy aspects, and pretty much less so in its horror since it's not set out to scare, but to make an audience laugh.
But that's not to say its horror treatment is shoddy. Far from it, going by the superb make up efforts to transform beautiful lasses into horrible looking vampires with disfigured look, huge mouths and even larger teeth decked out in flowing robes and frizzy hair, with powers of flight thanks to hardworking wire crews to make it rather seamless in take off, flight and landing. While the fight scenes are too over the top with obvious wire work on display, somehow they elicit more cheers and laughter rather than the groans of something executed without care, being a firm and deliberate flick with B-grade intentions.
Tolong! Awek Aku Pontianak somehow reminded me of the film Esprit D'Amour from the 80s, where the requisite dramatis personae for such genre films had the good natured and timid nerd, the beautiful ghost whom he falls in love with, well meaning friends who either support or discourage inhuman relationships, the "villains" out to destroy a beautiful relationship out of jealousy and fear, and the bumbling priest who lives to exorcise any spirits no matter which kampung or town they pop up in.
Here we have the nerdy protagonist Bob (Zahiril Adzim) who gets this recurring nightmare of proposing to his girlfriend who turns into a Pontianak, only for his girlfriend to dump him unceremoniously for a hunky brute. Together with his best friend Pian (Sufian Mohamed), they move into another part of town to start their lives anew, only to be conned into buying a haunted flat with foreign nationals (ok, this joke here will definitely ring a bell with Singaporeans) as neighbours, and just as they are about to call it quits at their new abode, they meet beautiful sisters Maya (Sazzy Falak) and Liyana (Liyana Jasmay) who change their minds about relocating to somewhere else. But little do they know the secret that their neighbours are actually vampires, of the nice kind that is, already living with some resistance to sink their teeth into any humans they meet.
Cue the romance between Bob and Maya, the former's lecherous boss and underling (played to perfection by Rashidi Ishak and Yus Waisar) who are all hot air and no substance in a creative ad agency, and with the bumbling bomoh Aaron Slam Bach (Harun Salim Bachik) coming into play, everything gets set up for fun and laughter that worked all round, without the feeling of being contrived - where the only contrived scenes involved the need to introduce some rockers and musicians into the narrative. When it's funny it gets really rip-roaring, with almost everyone save those playing the ghouls themselves all delivering punchlines with perfect timing - Datuk Jalaludin Hassan's bit role as the agency CEO just cracks me up. And in films like these that must give you reason to want to root for an impossible love match to stay together, therein comes the lessons learnt from ghoul to human in encouraging Bob to have courage and stand up for himself and his team of marginalized workers.
This film is not perfect especially with its rushed and rough ending involving battles between the forces of good and evil, and its convenient and expected crowd pleasing finale, but as a horror-comedy this one played to its strengths and brought back nice memories of the genre that once was, when growing up. Definitely recommended material.