With an immense budget of RM6 million, Kabir Bhatia’s Pulang is Primeworks Studios’ biggest production yet. But does all its hype and production value show in its performance as a film? We take a closer look.
Dato’ Jalaluddin Hassan
Dato’ Rahim Razali
Che Puan Juliana Evans
Sherry Al Jeffry
It’s rare for a film, slapped on with the ‘based on actual events” stamp, to retain the spirit and depth of the historical roots it tugs on to so tightly. While the concept of Pulang guarantees ticket sales and eager bums on cinema seats, it falls victim to the stereotype of turning a complex and intriguing plot into one of overused formulas and predictable storylines.
Pulang is a tale spanning across three generations, all knitted together by the woes of estranged lovers Othman (Remy Ishak) and Thom (Puteri Aishah). It begins in 1940s Malaya, where Othman is a young and ambitious sailor, willing to sail foreign seas in hopes of returning with the promise of a prosperous and more fulfilling future for his wife, Thom, who waits for him fervently every time he leaves.
When he is one day recruited as a sailor on a British cargo ship, he leaves Thom alone with their son, Omar (Azrel Ismail), for the final time; never to be seen again for 61 years.
As the film shifts back to the present day, we see Thom’s grandson, Ahmad (Erwin Dawson), doing everything he can to fulfill his feeble grandmother’s dying wish; to unearth the remains of her old companion.
The film opens gracefully, with elegant cinematography, illustrating the golden sands and gem-blue waters of Serkam. Pulang’s aesthetic is initially one that beckons you. With its pulsing waters and cascading waves, it pulls you into the tempestuous yet charming era of the 1940s.
But as the film progresses, it begs us to question whether the same level of artistic output was upheld for every scene. Pulang’s worst scenes are a disappointing contrast to its best. The clunky use of CGI, while occasionally commendable, is often jarring and dramatically reduces the quality of moments it impedes upon. It is almost as if the production’s big budget was not distributed evenly across all scenes. If the rest of the film had retained the meticulous pristine quality of its first fifteen minutes, perhaps then would Bhatia’s ambitious art direction and large production value seem to be justified.
However, despite the occasional eyesore, Pulang could arguably be considered a cinematic step forward in that it removes the notion of the realm of digitalization being reserved for the genres of sci-fi and action.
But while Pulang manages to redeem itself visually, its lack of effort in creating depth in both its plot and characters propagates a one-dimensional narrative many will find a struggle to connect with.
Othman’s prime motivations for leaving lack further exploration beyond the ‘providing husband’ stereotype. Are we the audience not given any more insight to Othman’s eagerness to leave besides the point of reference that he is a hegemonic male who’s sole goal is to provide for his family? Do we not get a peek into his life before Thom? Or a deeper understanding of his strives as a sailor?
Just as enigmatic is the relationship that eventually develops between Othman and his son. Once Omar has matured into a young adult and makes the decision to continue his mother’s search, the drive he exhibits on his quest is almost unfathomable when considering he has no real connection with the man he is so desperate to find. While the drive of a boy in search of his father is understandable and somewhat relatable, the film places emphasis on a strong father-son bond we are never invited to explore. It’s as if the film expects us to assume a relationship exists when it shows us no proof of one.
But perhaps the most ambiguous writing is in the character of Alia (Che Puan Juliana Evans), who appears abruptly at the heart of the film’s climax and is suddenly the drive of its resolution. Juliana Evans portrays Alia as a kooky divine intervention who appears donning an outlandish and out-of-place English accent. Her character seems forced and often quite redundant. For what seems to only be for the sake of convenience, she also eventually becomes the subject of Ahmad’s infatuation. Her appearance is an incredibly lazy deus ex machina, that probably functions only as much as it were true that she existed in the true story.
However, not all of the acting in Pulang is bad. Remy Ishak appears steadily in every scene he is in. We see the grimness of the sea in his eyes and the manifestation of Othman’s inner conflicts in his demeanor. Puteri Aishah’s film debut as Thom likewise deserves some acclaim for the emotional severity embedded in her longing for her husband.
Dato’ Jalaluddin Hasan as an older Omar is one of those subtle points in acting prowess that definitely grants Dato’ the highlight he deserves – never losing his sheen as a veteran actor. But a weak script often also results in weak characters. When it comes to Thom, for instance, we never see a side of Thom that goes beyond the longing of her estranged husband which is slightly one-dimensional when it is not endearing or pitiable.
The tale of Pulang is one that audiences will walk out of wanting more; when they should have already gotten it. The writing showcases a fear of delving deep. So instead, it hopes to distract us from its shortcomings by giving us a myriad of eye candy and rough CGI.
Pulang is also the mark of award-winning composer, Aubrey Suwito’s debut in film scoring. While the scoring itself remains a series of commendable pieces, its use in the film is often overwhelming enough for us to crave silence.
The film is as afraid of silence as it is of depth. Whenever we diverge into a somewhat more melancholic tone, the scoring is there to remind us that we are indeed witnessing a scene we are meant to shed tears to as if the already powerful talents of Remy Ishak and Puteri Aishah are not enough. Overuse of Suwito’s scoring hindered what could have been raw emotion in many scenes and denied it the power it would have had when used sparingly.
Also composed by Suwito is the film’s main theme, Layarlah Kembali, which was performed by Dayang Nurfaizah. Though the song itself is not necessarily of poor taste, the use of a contemporary Malay pop song in a pre-independence war-stricken setting comes off a little odd. The modern theme would have been more fitting if it were reserved for the credits.
In hindsight, Pulang presents itself as a showcase of several good elements (the actors, artistic direction and score) tossed together with weak execution (the script), as though being based on a true story dismisses the need for quality writing.
While using the ‘based on actual events’ tag conveys that the film is not all fantasy and is brimming with various underlying contexts, it was never meant to function as a free pass for writers. Based on a true story or not, quality writing in films will always be a necessity not even ‘true story’ stamps can excuse. Pulang would have impacted audiences far more if its script were as compelling as its special effects. May be the argument could have been that too much character development or evolution is either disingenuous or would lead to too long a script – but that doesn’t explain away how jarring some of the clunks are in the writing.
Audiences walking into Pulang expecting a melodramatic tear-inducing Kabir Bhatia film will get the theatrical romance they covet. Those who hoped for a somber conflicting tale of Malay sailors may be disappointed. Perhaps Pulang will remain a point of reference for other writers eager to create the narrative Malaysia’s heroic sailors deserve. Perhaps then will audiences receive the tragic seafaring epic they have so long craved.
Pulang will be out in cinemas on the 26th of July 2018.
Featured Image Source: Primework Studios
This review is also co-written by Managing Editor, Zim Ahmadi