Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
TIFF ’14: Men Who Save the World
Awang’s Malaysian dream is a lot like the American dream. He wants a better
life for his daughter. He hopes to realize his ambitions with the “American House,”
so-called because it was originally painted white (White House, get it?).
Unfortunately, superstition will thwart him at every turn in Liew Seng Tat’s Men Who Save the World (trailer here), which screens
during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.
Awang’s daughter is moving back from the big city to get married and settle
down in his provincial village. She will need a house, but he just happens to
own a spare. The problem is the American House is buried deep in the jungle and
has fallen into a state of disrepair. It also happens to have a reputation for
being haunted. Pak Awang needs the help of his fellow villagers to carry off
its foundations and into town. Even given their work-resistant nature, forty or
so the men ought to be able to handle the job. Oddly though, as soon as they
start the arduous task strange things start occurring, playing into the
villagers’ supernatural fears.
course, nothing uncanny is really afoot. Most of the unexplained phenomena are
actually attributable to Solomon, an undocumented African worker, hiding out in
the formerly white house. There are plenty of other subplots to further complicate
matters, including the town’s Tom and Huck, who are determined to free the
camel designated for the annual sacrifice. Soon the American House is stranded
midway, while the men don drag to hunt down the “Oily Man” demon, as per the dubious
counsel of a local shaman-confidence artist.
MWSTW starts out like the sort of low-key
slice of life village comedy that used to be the bread-and-butter of indie film
distribution. However, it takes a surprisingly dark turn, skewering the
superstitious balderdash of the town’s Muezzin and the regional political boss.
Islamic faith does not exactly move mountains in Liew’s film and it certainly
doesn’t move Pak Awang’s house. Perhaps that is why reviews coming out of
Locarno were bizarrely dismissive, roundly criticizing Liew for not
politicizing Solomon’s plight as a migrant worker.
Liew delves into the dynamic of the not so tight little village, focusing on
Pak Awang’s mounting frustrations. Wan Hanafi Su is absolutely terrific as the
maybe too-gruff-for-his-own-good father. He brings real dignity to the film
that convincingly evolves into visceral anger and bitterness. Frankly, the
supporting cast looks a bit shticky in comparison, except the wide-eyed camel-rescuing
youngsters, whose energy and innocence represent substantial contributions.
is a bit uneven, but its humor is organically derived from the specific
realities of this Malay community. It is true the film is Y chromosome affair,
but it is set smack dab in the Southeast Asian Muslim world after all. Such
complaints lose sight of the film’s satiric bite, vivid sense of place, and
several cleverly staged scenes that neatly play games with viewers’
perspective. Indeed, it is quite a distinctive package thanks to Teoh Gay Hian’s
richly evocative cinematography and Luka Kuncevic’s rhythmic, genre-defying
score. Recommended for the somewhat but not overly adventurous, Men Who Save the World screens again
this Thursday (9/11), and Saturday (9/13) as part of this year’s TIFF.
Labels: Malaysian cinema, TIFF '14