Mat Kilau : Kebangkitan Pahlawan / 2022
Director : Syamsul Yusof
Language : Malay
Genre : Action/Drama
Written by : Eswandy
The film was loosely inspired by the real historical figure, a Pahang-born Malay warrior named Mat Kilau who fought against British colonialists in the late 19th century. Directed by the successful young local director Syamsul Yusof, whose previous films KL Gangster and Munafik film franchise enjoyed extensive popularity and likings amongst audiences. These films of Syamsul had broken numerous local box office records and won him many prestigious awards in the local and international arena. For the record, before the release of Mat Kilau, Munafik 2 (2018) was the highest grossing local film with RM 48 million ticket collection leaving Hantu Kak Limah in second place. Today, five years after Munafik 2’s release, once again Syamsul has taken the Malaysian film industry by storm with his latest film Mat Kilau where by the time I’m writing this article, Mat Kilau has collected a staggering amount of RM 96 million from ticket selling and still going strong in Malaysia cinema. An unexpected achievement beyond the director’s imagination gave not just a lifeline and hope to our local film industries which suffered over the last two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic caused movement control orders (MCO), but most importantly, someone had might have found a perfect formula to draw greater number of audiences who before this have only been attracted towards films mainly from Hollywood such as those from Marvels, Fast and Furious creating a belief that Malay film is inferior and can not compete against other films. And as it happened, whether you like it or not, that guy that managed to put a stop to that myth was Syamsul Yusof. Although he always knew how to sell his films, his filmmaking technique had always been heavily criticised by professional film critics and normal audiences alike. So, with RM 96 million in collection, does it mean Mat Kilau is a ‘good movie’, an Oscar-worthy film to represent Malaysia in the academy awards next year?
Aside from a “Malay” centric space where the characters of Mat Kilau lived in this film (which I kind of appreciate because it has been a long time since local films had this kind of national hero and propaganda sentiment where it has been pretty common in countries such as USA and China) along with the non-stop action sequences (which I believe to be the crowd-puller), Mat Kilau from my eyes is a film that the director somehow forgot to put a full stop. It feels rushed without a proper build-up in the storyline (like other Syamsul Yusof’s films; KL Gangster, Munafik). Sometimes as an audience I felt like I was watching the Malaysian investigative so-called reality television series, 999 on TV3, with the overly shaky camera approach, the overuse of music and the fast-cut editing. It has also reminded me of Gerak Khas, the longest running local TV series produced by Skop Production which is also owned by the Syamsul Yusof family. Coincidence? Maybe yes.
The constant use of tight shots shrinks the world and space of Mat Kilau to look narrow. I believe that this is a wasted opportunity as the director failed to create and capture the landscape of Pahang, in particular Pulau Tawar, where Mat Kilau grew up and then fought bravely against the colonial rule to defend his land with blood, sweat, and tears alongside his friends. As a result, I refused to admit that this is a period film. In period films, scenery, landscape and setting besides costume are very important to signify the time of events that happens in the film which Mat Kilau failed to present. On top of that, I felt annoyed with how the actors communicated their dialogues, 80% of them are shouting. From another perspective, this might be Syamsul’s directorial trademark as what you can see from his other films, his characters are prone to shouting despite being sad or happy, let alone angry. He will definitely pump up the volume to even higher to maximise the impact. To add to the injury, the background music/soundtrack/sound effects that play constantly from the beginning to the end are not to my liking (I remember the horror movie Jwanita that also manages to annoy me with the ridiculous amount of background music that sometimes does not add to the atmosphere). Music should be placed at the right moment, according to the scene, emotion, and situation. These three elements, the shot, the style of dialogue, and also the music causes the world of Mat Kilau to become narrow and crowded, busy and messy. The world that Syamsul created is rather small and limited. Not to mention the editing, which does not represent the ‘Malay’ characteristics and architecture where this is supposed to be the main thing as this film is gratifying towards Malay culture. Of course, the content is indeed Malay but deep down the outer layer, the skin is still Hollywood. This also applies to the visual graphics of the opening and closing montage of Mat Kilau which I think does not suitable for the historical film and instead feels more like a fantasy film such as Harry Potter or Lord of The Rings, and from the local context, Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. In terms of creative storytelling, there are things that I don’t like, especially in the 2nd act of the story where the main character Mat Kilau, who is played by Dato’ Adi Putra, in my opinion, has not been given the same challenge and treatment as to Wahid who played by Beto Khusyairi whose only the supporting character in the movie. Wahid in the story has to go through a lot of obstacles and challenges that made him the better character in Mat Kilau. Unfortunately, the character development of the main character Mat Kilau is absent. Other than his strength, Mat Kilau does not shine above Wahid. And that for me is the biggest weakness in Mat Kilau. In the film, the main character should be the main attraction, not the other way around.
However, I admit that Syamsul Yusof is very good at manipulating shock value in his films. He used that to trigger the local audience’s emotions which he has done in all of his films to date. Mat Kilau for example, the film begins with the scenes of British soldiers brutally executing a bunch of children to shock the audience right from the start. Similar techniques have been used by the director in his film KL Gangster, where a group of thugs are shown destroying a police car, an unlikely depiction in local films. In Munafik, Syamsul was critical of those abusing religion for personal benefits. A rape scene in Munafik by a character named Abuja depicts a fake religious leader who is a devil in disguise using religion for his exploits. Syamsul has however managed to include these sorts of scenes in his films. Syamsul is also good at using issues or appeals that are popular with the local Malay community. For example illegal street motor race (rempit), gangsterism, superstitions, and most recently in Mat Kilau, the ‘Malay’ persona, and because of this, many of his films are able to sell beyond millions of ringgit, following his father’s footsteps, the popular actor and director Dato’ Yusof Haslam who also dominated the local cinema in the ’90s.
Overall, I do agree that the existence of this Mat Kilau film in our local film industry is important since we have been devoid of a historical film for a long time even though this film has many flaws and is argued for its historical inaccuracies. The latest was Hanyut which was released in 2014 and was a commercial flop. Although I see this movie as more of an action film rather than a period film, where I put Mat Kilau under the same category as other movies, the popular example would be IP Man from Hong Kong and the latest phenomenon in India, RRR which leans more towards fiction. The multitude of people that celebrate Mat Kilau in the cinema comes from different age groups, backgrounds, and social economy has become proof that the Malay community still loves our local films. They are just waiting for the right film that is able to draw them to the cinema. Amid political struggle where race has always been a trump card for all parties, Syamsul is brave enough to carry the dream of the new production studio, Studio Kembara to give the Malay community the hero that they always wanted, Mat Kilau. Mat Kilau is what Rambo was meant for Hollywood, Yip Man for Chinese, Asoka for Indian and many others. To be honest, I feel grateful that I am alive to see the phenomenon where our local film runs amok in our cinemas where before this has always been dominated by Hollywood movies. Congratulations to the Mat Kilau team for a good marketing strategy. I finally see a shining light on the commercial value of Malay films to compete with foreign films. I also hope that this would become a starting point for better and good quality movies in the future. But then again, as we go back to the most important question, do I think that Mat Kilau is good enough to represent Malaysia in the Oscars like how Roh (year), and Prebet Sapu (year) have represented us recently? I failed to see any logic in that idea. Besides the box office success, Mat Kilau is just an ordinary action movie that does not add anything new to the genre.
*This article is written based on the reflection of the writer’s own personal view and expression towards the subject matter.