It's one thing for woman to be sold into prostitution, but it's another thing when before that happens they were found pregnant, and their babies sold to others without them having any say. That definitely sounds evil, but consider this scene of dialogue, when baby seller Am (Shaheizy Sam) painfully exclaims to runaway new mother Hawa (Sara Ali) when she insists to keep her child: Is she going to raise child to be like them, the poor people? How is she able to afford proper medical care? If the child cries, what is she going to do?" Throw him to the wall?!" Am shouts, fury in his eyes. It becomes clear that Am been through it before, and is adamant that the child deserves better.
This is one of many heart-wrenching scenes from "Songlap", a Malaysian movie jewel which blindsided me amidst many crap that came out this year. This no-holds- barred gritty crime drama/thriller with a raw edge is backed by interesting characters. There are no heroes or villains, there is only evil and its survivors. This evil however is a close-to-home kind of evil. Am and his younger brother Ad (Mohd Syafie Naswip) survive on the streets working for a baby-selling organization while the mothers are sold into prostitution. While both are kicked around profusely, Am can only stand strong and do nothing about it - he's a survivor, though The younger Ad is naive; having just lost his best friend Razak to drug addiction, he wants out no matter what.
"Songlap" is directed by Effendie Mazlan and Farina Azlina Isahak with commendable confidence and ambition. All of the scenes are gripping to watch, and the story doesn't loses its focus on the two brothers. Shaheizy and Syafie are very effective in their performances, including Syafie in effectively gripping scenes involving a subplot with a prostitute with a secret whom Ad can initially find solace in. Sara acts well, too, in a role where silence solemnly speaks louder than words. The actors playing the antagonists are cruel and vicious, and near two- dimensional, but this film is about the brothers' story, not them. The story is engaging but the realistic screenplay really brings the movie to new heights in Malaysian cinema. I also especially like how the filmmakers bravely show the dark and dirty side of the Malaysian people despite the racial differences, showing that cruelty and desperation knows no (racial) barriers. Scenes involving prostitution, and babies being sold to their new parents are equally as harrowing to watch.
Where the film succeeds brilliantly is in its atmosphere, production design and cinematography. Effendie and Farina crafts the film in such a gritty and effectively bleak atmosphere that one may want to watch a cartoon soon after to wash this bleak taste down. The suspense doesn't come until the final act of the film where Ad, Am and Hawa are being chased down by both Mama's thugs and Hawa's abusive father.
Accompanying this is the cinematography with moody colors and lighting throughout, and an essentially messy and dirty production design. The only technical flaw was the music score, it's good but somewhat repetitive and it reminds you of Gustavo Santaolalla's scores from his work on Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu's films. The overall effects are similar to those of an art-house/indie thriller, and are just about as effective as they can be. Which is a lot.
Notice that the film, though funded by mainstream Malaysian studios, is everything but in it, even finding time to add hidden social commentary. Take for example, in the most unlikely of scenes, Ad's initial obsession with break dancing. Ad here represents the Malaysian who borrows the American break-dancing culture and tries to make it their own but fails, and he who forgot his own cultural identity becomes dazed and confused at his loss. It could also be interpreted alternately as slacking Malaysian youths who have nothing better to do. The judge asks him, "Are you a student?"; he replies no. The judge then asks "Are you working?" "Yes." "As what?" He doesn't answer, gazing off into embarrassment, confusion and failure. Brilliant.
"Songlap" is a movie I have waited for a long time to come out of Malaysia. It is bold, grim, well-acted and well-directed. The gloomy and grim atmosphere from start to finish may be too much for some of the mainstream people, but I think this film has a lot going for it, enough even to be watched and appreciated by international audiences. Not since Yasmin Ahmad's "Sepet" has there been a Malaysian film ever deserving of that statement. I dare say that this film has Oscar potential for Best Foreign Film, and that's saying something. Bravo to the directors/writers, actors and production crew for making a great and well-crafted film, not just a jewel of Malaysian cinema.
People need to look past the racial prejudice and appreciate the film for what it is, and also the bravery it took for the filmmakers to get this gritty film made in a conservative Muslim country. See it if you can.
Solid proof that Malaysia can indeed come out with a great movie on its own merit, this is one of the year's best films. There is hope in the industry after all.
Overall rating: 83/100
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