TV SMITH's Dua Sen: Puteri Gunung Ledang
TV Smith's Dua Sen
TV Smith's Dua Sen. The politically incorrect irregular columnist combines his idiosyncratic observations and tangential commentary into a blog...


by TV Smith

"...beyond doubt, a movie which only a garden snail can appreciate fully"

With a number of friends and associates closely involved in the much-publicised Puteri Gunung Ledang movie, I was naturally excited about the finished product. Intrigued by the endless 'behind-the-scenes' gossip and bombarded by incessant hype, I tried to view the film with an open mind; without the usual cynical presumptions. I tried.

The film draws the inevitable comparison with previous local movies simply because of its outrageous 16 million-ringgit budget. I say outrageous because it somehow did not translate into the 'big film' look nor did it play out like one. Perhaps, a big part of the money went wisely into marketing and promotions, driving droves of curious Malaysians into cineplexes nationwide.

I approach every local Malay movie warily ever since watching Sarimah's frightful Dia Ibu Ku as a fragile youngster. The atrocious sound and dubbing scarred me for life. Fortunately, with PGL, the producers engaged the services of Addaudio. They (reportedly) did an excellent job with the location sound recording and complex audio post-production. Only about 20% of the dialogue required studio dubbing, I was told.

Unfortunately for me, that critical component was missing during last night's screening. Painstakingly created sound design, which can only be delivered through surround speakers, went mute. The cinema hall played with faulty Dolby Digital sound equipment. Due to poor handling, the print also had excessive scratches and was projected below full brightness (probably to extend the bulb's lifespan). On top of it, there was flicker plus hum from the badly maintained projector. Producers may spend huge sums of money; hire the best talent from around the world but all it takes is one sloppy projectionist to ruin the entire experience.

A fictional account of the fictional hero allows the makers to take greater creative liberties. The supernatural theme begets telepathic conversations, flying warriors, creepy creepers and a bizarre screenplay. The superfluous and confusing flashbacks must have driven the competent (editor) Kate James to the brink of stabbing herself with a keris. Hong Kong based DOP (director of photography), Jason Kwan, made good use of the wide screen 2.35:1 anamorphic format with some stylish camera movement and creative composition.

His calculated framing and frequent use of shallow depth-of-field techniques kept the disturbing backgrounds out of focus. During several vista shots, there were traces of oil palm trees and other hints of modern Malaysian landscape. Making a period movie is tough but it is even tougher for the audience to see neatly stacked red bricks in the abode of a 15th century Majapahit ruler. Almost all the props and sets were too pristine to look believable.

The most jarring and disconcerting element was the miscasting of M Nasir with Tiara Jacquelina in their lead roles as tormented lovers. There was as much chemistry between the two as a neutered Rottweiler and a spayed poodle. Nasir was so characteristically stoical except for that time he strained a smile upon seeing the Puteri's cleavage in an obligatory 'dip in the pond' scene. Alex Komang (as Gusti Adipati) and Rahim Razali (as the Bendahara) shined in their respective roles. Adlin Aman Ramlee who played a rapist and a stalker in two other recent roles, settled into his lustful Sultan Mahmud character with ease.

If you dig movies with liberal doses of pepatah melayu, this is THE showcase movie for Malay proverbs. There was one wise adage in every line spoken. However, there is one adage that apparently nobody quoted at the set: "Long running time does not make an epic". With the dialogue and scenes acted out in faux slow motion, the 'build-up' consumed 91.5 % of the movie. It took more than 2 hours to tell a tale that could have been told in half. It is beyond doubt, a movie which only a garden snail can appreciate fully.

Fortunately, there was some (unintended) comic relief. The parting scene between the Bendahara and Hang Tuah had the "Yo bro, give me a hug" metrosexual-bonding touch. Then there are those outlandish kung-fu movie inspired fight scenes where the principals hovered above some dead trees in Tasik Kenyir. And that was before they were teleported there from some weird place in Melaka with mini Stonehenge structures.

Fans of cinematic clichés will be thrilled; director Saw Teong Hin pulled out the big guns just for them. There's the horse-regiment-appearing-over-a-hill scene, the two-lone-trees-off-camera-center scene, the overhead-autumn-trees scene, clouds-over-mountain-time-lapse sequence and the gratuitous nice-waterfall-in-the-background scenes. I still can't forget that brief but dreadful chickens-caught-in-front-of-stampeding-horses scene. Did I mention dead trees earlier? The crew allegedly killed more trees than Hang Tuah killed palace intruders during their stay at misty Cameron Highlands.

Arguably, this is the first Malaysian film that is flawless in nearly every technical department. It is also somewhat refreshingly different from previous formulaic Malay movies with Erra, Awie and that inescapable Mustafa Maarof. Like its eponymous character, the film can be either good or bad, depending on where it holds court. Malaysians familiar with the language and legend will view it either contemptuously or appreciatively. This film should do well overseas where it is now fashionable to watch oriental movies with sulky babes, exotic settings and white English subtitles. Yes, even the subtitles were flawless.

© 2004 TV SMITH
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