Wednesday, October 21, 2009

[TIFF 2009 Review] Talentime


I actually had some notes down on how I would like to approach this, but everything got thrown out the window, especially since watching it for the first time on a big screen, and together with a sell out crowd in Tokyo who didn't shy away from letting their emotions show. I joined them too with teary eyes, and we rang out loud applause after the end credits had rolled off the screen.

To be frank I won't be writing a review per se. I had shared my previous reviews of Yasmin's films with the director herself, and after watching an advance closed door preview of the film just after it was completed, as usual she would ask what I (and the rest who attended) had thought about it. I told her honestly how I felt (I loved it in case you're wondering), and which scenes moved me, but I think it wasn't enough, as she texted me later that night to ask again what I thought about it. I felt she wanted to read what I had to say, and I told her I wanted to watch it on the big screen before I write something. Besides I wouldn't want to be the first one off the blocks, especially since it's still very much fresh from the oven. That was a decision I'm regretting, not about publishing something ahead, but rather not being able for her to read what I felt about Talentime.

I suppose the best way to begin this, would be an anecdote with regards to the film, about missed opportunity and family, themes that tie in with Talentime itself. Of course this is based on fond memories, so please allow me to indulge in some length though I strive to give as accurate an account as possible. After Muallaf, Yasmin was much involved with projects on both sides of the Causeway, being commissioned as we now know by the Singapore government's Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports to do a series of three commercials, two of which have been made and aired, and one which will probably not see the light of day since it's not made yet. My friend Shaiful had always wanted Yasmin to grace one of his theatre group's performances, and he got his wish. The stars aligned with the Madame being in town and available to watch one of his productions.

Yours truly became the escort-designate to ensure Yasmin would not get lost since the play's in a neighbourhood community club in the East, and for the first time, I stepped into Hotel 81 at Joo Chiat where she was staying at. In her Singapore forays, Yasmin had stayed in hotels like The Intercontinental and Fullerton, sponsored by various organizers, to places like Hotel 81 which she just adores, not so much because of what goes on behind closed doors, but for the character of the location, being near a coffeeshop just around the corner that served some food she enjoyed (I can't remember what it was unfortunately), and a mosque nearby as well. Not to mention the availability of free wi-fi too!

Anyway when we were at Shaiful's play, we were whispering back and forth who's who and who's a good looker, but there was this actor who caught her eye. He's not one of the leads, neither was he the best looking of the lot. But his performance captured her attention, and he has what Yasmin always had her radar on for – Charisma. You could see that she was onto something, and was kept mesmerized each time this boy came on stage. By the end of the performance, and frankly by the end of the night after supper with Shaiful's extended family and friends from around the neighbourhood (he's itu macham like the Godfather of the area you see), Yasmin's mind was set – she was going to incorporate a new character into her Talentime, and would like to cast this boy in that role. You could see how, like a child with a new toy, her mind's set alight with ideas and that eagerness to set things in motion.

The boy's name is Hafiz, whose diminutive size betrays his older age of not more than 18, and those who have watched Talentime, would know exactly which character this is. Naturally Shaiful and I were thrilled, because here we have a director whom we admire, crafting a role specifically for a friend, and to have him act in it as well. To think that there will not be an audition necessary, and a walk-in / specifically crafted role in a Yasmin Ahmad film! In Yasmin's next visit many weeks later, she already had the story down to a pat, and was sharing details of it with another group of friends just after a retrospect screening of her films.

Unfortunately, things did not work out as intended for Hafiz, suffice to say that there was possibly some advisors with the lack of foresight, and Singapore's focus on academics did play a part – it was A Levels year, and the prelims would be around the corner after the scheduled shoot in August, not to mention some time for prior rehearsals. But imagine as an actor the opportunity so missed, especially when you think about it now. Nonetheless like the adage, the show must go on, and so the role was probably tweaked a little, and recast with Mukhsin (Mohd Shafie Naswip) himself taking on the role of Hafiz, and the rest is history.

With the exception of Rabun and perhaps Gubra as well, all of Yasmin Ahmad's film has featured children and teenagers in leads, besides the never ending focus on family. Her stories always try to champion a harmonious multi-racial, multi-cultural society, that there will always be differences, but there should be nothing from stopping everyone from living together with tolerance and genuine love. It is also as if hope for tolerance and change lie in the future generations, and that we should always learn from children, such as Tan Hong Ming and Umi Qazrina, as seen in her now famous commercial Tan Hong Ming in Love.

Talentime is no exception to that setting, and personally, I feel it's her most powerful film amongst the lot, squarely aiming at the jaw of the issues of intolerance and unjustifiable hate and jealousy at hand, so much so that she shared when she had screened the film to some officials in Malaysia, there was a near plea to have the film released almost immediately, citing that it was something that everyone needed to see without hesitation. Which of course came as a surprise since her earlier works had always been met with fierce and unsound criticisms from within, though embraced everywhere else.

I'm sure a Talentime contest is something that folks from my generation would have grown up with in school, and of course the more commercial version of the same would be akin to those television idol series with plenty of pomp which send cash registers ringing. There isn't an outright winner here though, since it's a performance by individuals carefully selected and rehearsed for the big day, and drawing from a multi-racial, multi-talented pool of students, it goes to show how when everyone is in concert together and contributing to their strengths, there's going to be some fireworks on display with a force to be reckoned with. The performances here, from Melur's (Pamela Chong) piano piece ballad, to Hafiz's original guitar compositions, to an Indian dancer performing to O Re Piya, to Kahoe's (Howard Hon Kahoe) mastery of the Chinese erhu, again plays to Yasmin's beliefs of strength in diversity, not adversary. I can't find another person not moved in the final performance piece with an amalgamation of instruments that led to something really beautiful.

Fans will likely see many familiar faces in Talentime, with the return of actors such as Harith Iskandar, Tan Mei Ling, Adibah Noor, and Encik Anuar as well in a role that's purely for comedic purposes, one who farts audibly when nervous. Unseen too is Shariah Amani who now goes behind the camera as 3rd assistant director. While the familiars anchor the film and lent it some weight, it's the fresh faced newcomers who stepped up and delivered, such as Pamela Chong, and especially the duo of Mahesh Jugal Kishor and Jaclyn Victor who play the Indian brother and sister Mahesh and Bhavani respectively. Mahesh was chosen amongst a number of hopefuls to play the boy who fell in love with the mixed-lineage Melur, and it's not hard to see why, because of those soulful eyes that he possesses, and the gentleness he brings to the role, though cheeky at times.

And romantic love always has its role in the director's story, and we're reminded to always follow what our heart tells us, and not what society expects of us through the imposition of unjustifiable norms based on prejudice and hearsay. The other staple of course, as a Muslim, she never misses the opportunity to clear up misconceptions about the religion, and straightens out the differences between religion, custom and tradition, which is extremely easy to get mixed up with, and to allow misinformation to flow. They may come as fleeting moments in scenes, but they undoubtedly will just grab your attention, like a piece of enlightenment whizzing you by that you pick up, and remember.

Yasmin also tackles the role of family like an old hand, expanding her repertoire to include no less than 3 families, each with its distinctness and unique story angle to bring to the film, and it's no wonder that Talentime is the longest in runtime amongst all her films. Heartstrings get tugged at, when we journey with Hafiz and his bedridden, sick mom whom he visits everyday in the hospital, while juggling schoolwork, jealous reactions from peers, and a talent contest. With Kahoe, there's a brief exploration into what has made him so competitive, and Mahesh's family in which transforms itself from close-knit to near disintegration when tragedy struck.

Talentime is all these, and a lot more. I'm sure you would find an angle that you'd connect with, and feel for it genuinely.

The final shots of Talentime are, when I see it now with tears, like the end of the road, with lights being switched off from the stage and classrooms, the end of a journey as it is. Thank you dearest Kak Min for the movies you have made, the tragic comedy that is life that you have so wonderfully captured and shared through your films. You will always be sorely missed by your fans, and film fans both present and in the future when they become fans after watching your films. I'm pretty sure of that.

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