Yasmin Ahmad's Muallaf finally hits the screens, and it scores a number of firsts from her filmography thus far. For starters, it's a departure from the Orked storyline which the last three (or four if you count Rabun) had centered around, and quite amazingly, it's predominantly in the English language. Save for the return of Sharifah Amani in one of the lead roles, and supporting roles with Tan Mei Ling and even Ho Yuhang, we see new faces here, with leads Brian Yap and Sharifah Amani's real sister Sharifah Aleysha also in this film as her on screen one.
But first let's get the "controversies" out of the way. I guess by now the issue of Sharifah Amani's hair would have died down, and frankly this was generally lost in the audience here, except of course for its impact and relevance to the story. The other one would be its title which may allude to something about religious conversion, but the movie is about anything but that, even though some may find it near impossible not to dwell upon the issue of religion that were kept at arms length here, taking into account the title and connotations to its meaning.
As I gradually find richness in the Chinese language (I confess I disliked it as a subject in school) I thought the Chinese title of 《改心》, which literally translates to a "change of heart" was a more accurate depiction of what the story would be about. As with the themes of Yasmin's films, it's about the human condition and humanity, and the Family never being far behind. With Sepet, we had Orked's and Jason's family being in the thick of the action, and this continues into Gubra alongside the stories of the families in the muezzin's kampung. With Mukhsin, the neighbour's and the titular character's broken home got the spotlight, and a sneak preview of Talentime and synopsis of Wasurenagusa reaffirm that Family continues to play an important part in "a yasmin ahmad film".
In Muallaf, the sisters Rohani (Sharifah Amani) and Rohana (Sharifah Aleysha) epitomizes forgiveness and are a nuclear family of sorts. They're left to their own devices after escaping from their father (played by Dato' Razali Rahim) and their stepmother (singer Ning Baizurah with big hair), and live in a big haunted house by the grace of their deceased mother's friend. They meet Brian (Brian Yap) a schoolteacher who has his own traumatizing skeletons in his closet and what he perceives were mind games by his mom in Penang (played by Tan Mei Ling), and through his attraction to the peaceful loving ways of the sisters, form a friendship with them.
But of course there are moments which require some getting used to. The girls, in the director's own words, are weird, especially when Rohana begins to spout numbers and phrases, which to the character's own admission, she doesn't know what they actually mean and isn't aware that she gets on other people's nerves. So to some, the dialogue may be heavy or distant, unreal even, but it might just provide that spark of interest to go refer to some of the verses and quoted numbers, ranging from the Quran to the Bible and the Tao Te Ching, amongst others, to find out what they really mean, and in context whether they fit the scene.
Muallaf obviously centers on Brian, and Yasmin crafted quite a character here, with his stingy and calculative ways dictating how he leads life, and in summary the Chinese title more or less symbolizes the change that this person will undergo. Not religious of course (though some may disagree), but more significantly, changes to his attitude. Something which I believe most of us would have experienced from time to time, and even I am guilty of it, the treatment to our folks and the callousness in brushing them aside because we think they're naggy and getting in the way.
Unlike the films in the Orked Trilogy, I felt this one had a more uplifting finale full of hope. Those who have seen those films will likely understand what I mean. Instead of an ending that will move you to tears (at least I felt that way), like that in Sepet, Gubra (minus the end coda), and Mukhsin even, Muallaf concluded on a rather positive note that made me break out in a smile and cheer the protagonist on. Despite of course some scenes being a little choppy, and having things left open ended, and the sisters being devoid of screen time and stuck to quick resolutions instead.
It does seem like a serious film if not for Yasmin's signature sense of humour, and even then the laugh-out-loud moments got toned down a little in the limited moments where funny scenes do get injected. Look out too for Yeo Yann Yann as Cindy the bar girl, and Ho Yuhang as a private investigator continuing a dog joke, and in fact, I thought that Yuhang has some of the more colourful characters in Yasmin's film, from the neighbour in Rabun, to the repo- man in Mukhsin.
For those who have the preconceived notion that Yasmin's films only revolves around the Orked character, well this film has broken that mold, and looking at the lineup of her films including this one, they may be set in different countries, or may even feature some of her regular actors, but one thing's for sure - they come from the same storyteller's heart, with stories that capture the essence of human issues that you and I see, hear or probably experience personally from time to time, because that's this thing called life. Go watch Muallaf, need I say more?
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