Sunday, August 17, 2008
Bulan Mengambang Lagi
By S.B. TOH
Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang
Starring: Rosyam Nor, Umie Aida, David Teo, Farid Kamil, Avaa Vanja,
What is nostalgia but events and things made sentimental and sweet by
the passing of the years?
Time ferments and makes precious the past in the barrels of the mind,
but there in the mind it must stay if it is to stay sweet, for
nostalgia is the remembrance of something rather than the thing in itself.
It is an illusion and an indulgence.
Having no vitality, it does not stand up well to the harsh light of
the present day and should never be the basis of a project — as
appears to be the case with Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang.
This movie, shot in black and white, follows the exploits of a lone
male investigator, who must negotiate mysterious events, tough guys,
femmes fatales, and ever-present danger to get at the truth. His inner
thoughts, as he tries to unravel the mystery, drive the narrative in
the form of the voiceover.
How strange. How quaint. How noir-ish.
Written and directed by Mamat Khalid, Kala Malam looks like a
long-forgotten movie rediscovered by happy chance after several
decades gathering dust in some movie mogul's vault. It is as if the
director has stumbled upon a 1950s movie and decided to restore it in
all its monochromatic glory for the new millennium.
Lovingly detailed, driven by an infectious soundtrack, and artily shot
for the most part, Kala Malam is obviously a labour of love, and one
that director Mamat puts together with his tongue firmly in cheek — at
least in the first two acts.
The movie certainly has its moments. Take, for instance, the scene
where our hero Saleh (Rosyam Nor) asks for directions and is told to
look for the yellow house at the end of the road. Yellow house? Saleh
prays that the yellow house at the end of the road is the only one
standing there, for in this black-and-white era, how is one to
Then there is Saleh's run-in with a tubby masseuse.
There he is on the bed, hand over his mouth, recoiling in horror at
the prospect of being ravished; and there she is, massive and
unstoppable, looming over his hapless, whimpering figure.
It's hilarious, especially given the movie's noir convention.
Actress Avaa Vanja, as a nightclub singer and one of Saleh's romantic
interests, delivers a memorable cabaret number in sensual, flamboyant
style. Corrinne Adrienne is a lot of fun as the sassy nightclub owner
Saleh keeps running into — her blasé expression and mannered irruption
of Mandarin is a delight to behold.
But the story is overlong, and muddled into the bargain.
After a while, the plot meanders, the movie plods, and slowly but
surely the novelty wears off, especially in the third act, when satire
abruptly gives way to heavy melodrama.
Part of the problem with Kala Malam is the fact that story is a mess
of randomly tossed ingredients. Besides the usual suspects from the
noir realm, Mamat has thrown in communists who speak German and behave
like Nazis, British agents, dwarves, ancient curses, female phantoms,
and were-tigers too.
I think it's clear from watching his movie that Mamat had his heart
set on making a noir film; what is not clear is if he had a story to
Film noir is merely a storytelling convention, a convention
characterised by visual darkness (not necessarily in black and white)
as well as darkness in the narrative, with themes that revolve around
solitude, claustrophobia and brutality.
The thing is, convention in itself does not make a movie.
It is just a template for telling a story. The question is: What are
you going to do with this template? What is your story? How do you
make the noir template serve the story?
Kala Malam, it would seem, is a movie in the noir style in search of a
story. Director Mamat Khalid has put the cart before the horse, as it
were. He has come up with a story to fit the style, rather than the
other way around.
While Kala Malam is indeed, as the director says, a tribute to 1950s
moviemaking, it is not "neo noir", as he would have it. To say a movie
is neo noir is to imply that the noir style is being rejuvenated, made
vital and relevant again.
This is far from being the case.
Kala Malam clumsily grafts supernatural elements into its story; that
is all that is new about it, if new you must call it. To all intents
and purposes, it is just a throwback, a curiosity, a whimsical
exercise in nostalgia.
The movie is more "noir-stalgia" than neo noir.
If you want to watch a proper neo noir movie, then get yourself a DVD
copy of Johnny To's The Longest Nite. There is nothing quaint about
it, unlike this movie.