Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Movie Review: Gubra

(picture curtesy of

Truth be told, I first discovered “Sepet”, directed by Yasmin Ahmad, by word of mouth from fellow bloggers back in 2004. I can’t recall why but somehow I missed watching that movie in the cinema but manage to watch it on VCD instead and instantly fell in love with the story. It was a refreshing take on an old subject matter already seen in many local movie which in itself was a welcomed breeze in the increasingly stale local film production offerings. The success of “Sepet” at the time proved that local audiences were ready for a movie that doesn’t include idiotic pratfalls from any ex-Senario members or the less than subtle preaching dialogues delivered by singers who think they can act. “Sepet” was fearless in execution and delivery of controversial issues that we all knew but reluctant to speak out about. Because of this, it was embraced by many who found that it not only spoke clearly for once to them but also spoke out loudly on their behalf.

Thanks to “Sepet”, the little movie that could, Yasmin Ahmad herself became more famous (or infamous depending on who you talk to) with a cult following of her own. Her ease in her interaction with fans whose first impression of her came from watching “Sepet”, myself included, endears her quickly to others. It was from her blog that I first found out about “Gubra” and from that point onwards I knew that it was would be something to look forward for as far as the local films is concerned. When some fellow bloggers got the chance to see a rough cut of the film and wrote glowing reviews about it last year, I have to say that I felt a little envious not only because they got to see it before anyone else but also have the opportunity to give their responses to the directors and editors before they made the final cut of the film. Like everyone else, I had to wait until “Gubra” was released in the local cinema last April 6th before I got to make my own judgment on the finished product.

I came into my viewing of “Gubra” with a much higher expectations that I usually have for local film features. The film in of itself breaks the mold in terms of what a film is in Malaysia that it stands in a class of its own for the time being. To compare “Gubra” with the other local production currently showing in the cinema would do it disservice as “Gubra” is clearly miles away from that wreck. I still believe this now after watching “Gubra” but I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that my expectations of the film were not fully realized. While there were more than a few things that worked well in “Gubra”, others left me longing for the quiet beauty of “Sepet”. The comparison between “Gubra” and “Sepet” was unavoidable since “Gubra” does continue the story from the first movie and there wasn’t anything else produced locally to compare “Gubra” against.

“Gubra” is a much larger and more complex movie in scope than “Sepet”. Instead of the focus being on mainly Orked (Sharifah Amani) and her kooky clan, “Gubra” also tells the story of the less affluent muezzin Pak Bilal (Shahili Abdan aka Namron) and his wife Kak Mas (Noorkhiriah Ahmad Shafie) whose lives intersect with their prostitute neighbors Temah (Rozie Rashid) and Kiah (Juliana Ibrahim). Their stories run parallel to each other in their own little corner of Ipoh only to intersect thematically as everyone in this story experiences either instances of love, betrayal, acceptance and redemption but not all four in a single storyline. I must admit that I was expecting that “Gubra” would be following similar ensemble film conventions what with all these characters running around with stories to tell so I was quite surprised that this was not the case in the latest offering from Yasmin Ahmad.

Half of “Gubra” focuses on Orked, now married to Arif (Adlin Aman Ramlee) after her return from studying in England, rushing her father to the hospital after an early morning health scare. At the hospital, she encounters Alan (Alan Yun), Jason’s elder brother who was there visiting his father (Thor Kah Hoong) who warded there after being pushed down a flight of stairs by his mother (Mei Ling Tan). While looking for a bite to eat with Alan outside of the hospital, Orked discovers that her husband had earlier left the hospital to meet with another woman whom he was having an affair with. Faced with her husband’s betrayal, Orked forces Arif to own up to his misdeeds and break off the affair with the other woman. Arif does exactly what Orked asks to the extent of publicly humiliating his lover in front of her with the choice words that Arif had earlier told Orked about the other woman. In the end, Orked still feels that Arif had crossed a line that he promised never to do and decides to leave him still after what he had done for her. Orked leaves with Alan to visit his parent’s house where Jason’s letters that were addressed but never delivered to her tearfully reminds her of everything that she missed out with his death (yes, he died at the end of the last movie as far as I’m concerned).

Across town, “Gubra” traces the story of the young Bilal and his loving wife, Kak Mas, living out their lives as devoted Muslims. The pair live their lives simply in their neighborhood where they happen to live next to a pair of women (Temah & Kiah) working as prostitutes in a nearby house of ill-repute. While their paths cross every morning when he goes to his surau for the dawn call to prayer, the Bilal never judges the desperate women for what they had to do to survive but instead offer them kind words and support. When single parent Temah is diagnosed with HIV, she finds herself embraced selflessly by Kak Mas and her family willing to help her even with her current status. Their non-judgmental attitude and unwavering supports helps her to face the future with her son amidst the uncertainty of how long she would have to live. Kiah on the other had had to continue doing what she does just until she gets enough money to leave town and return to her kampong. Desperate to get the amount she needs, she was even willing to be with an abusive john just because he would pay her extra to let him rough her up. In the end, she finally has enough to leave everything behind but it was all for naught when everything she had sacrificed for was cruelly taken away from her at the very point of her redemption.

With these two story plots anchoring the film, there are several other minor story plots involving the supporting characters that Yasmin masterfully weave in between them. While these minor story points do not add directly to the main stories, they do provide for more in either the emotional content or the comedic interludes that moves “Gubra” along it’s path. One of the minor story plot that I appreciate most was the resolution of the love-hate relationship between Alan/Jason’s Ma and Pa. Within the 120 minutes we get to see their relationship evolve through the threat of loss from one of antagonistic to one of acceptance of the other warts and all. I think that this particular storyline is one of the more personal to me from “Gubra” because it closely mirror what I’ve seen personally in life. One thing that I notice in “Gubra” is that these stories are our stories made real on the silver screen. Like in “Sepet”, Yasmin Ahmad once again has given us a voice by telling our stories when most of us are reluctant to do so.

One problem that I have with the interlacing storylines that are shown in “Gubra” happens whenever scenes of opposite on the emotional spectrums from the two storylines are juxtaposed with each other. On more than one occasion, the story forces the viewer to reconcile scenes of utter anguish from one storyline followed immediately by scenes played for comedic effect from the other. I was left to both logically figure out what message the two disparate scenes was suppose to convey as well as emotionally decide which emotion to carry forth from one scene to the next. The lack of consistent emotional build up and coherent structuring left me emotionally frustrated with a mild headache and with more questions than what I had in the beginning. These scenes are well crafted and enjoyable to watch on its own but the effect of the scene is lost when they were jumbled out in a sequence that is so beyond what an average viewer is expecting to see both thematically and emotionally. I would not go so far as to call the end result of this interweaving exercise a mess but it did detract from an enjoyable first sitting experience of the movie. It left me wishing that the film had not left me feeling that it had broken a contract between the viewer and the movie as we follow along the journey of these characters.

With the exception of a few, most of the major players gave their best performances for this production. Ida Nerina, Harith Iskandar and Adibah Noor continued to show the comic timing and dry wit that they carry off so effortlessly in this outing. I would however give special praise for Sharifah Amani for her stand-out portrayal of Orked who has to be the core that holds the movie together acting-wise. Her heart-wrenching reaction to Arif’s indiscretion and how she dealt with the aftermath was especially wondrous to watch from such a young actress. Unfortunately for me, the two main male leads in Orked’s storyline gave pale performances when stacked against Sharifah’s. Alan Yun’s delivery, in particular, left a lot to be desired and made me miss Choo Seong Ng’s portrayal of Jason from Sepet even more. No doubt that he has a nice looking upper torso that he does show off during the film but while it may be enough for me in some situations, I’m afraid to say that this is not one of them. Last but not least, I also believe that special mention should be given to Rozie Rashid whose portrayal of Temah was a an eye-opening study of quiet inner strength against overwhelming odds and oppressive environment.

Yasmin Ahmad continues to dazzle us with her style of directing with her signature scene composition techniques and camera angles. Her static camera direction allows audience to be part of the scene without giving us the feeling that we are intruding into the character’s life. Extended single takes of scenes allows the viewer to really absorb and appreciate what they are seeing on screen at that particular moment. More often than not, Yasmin employs an almost poetic sensibility in her constructions of scenes especially those that tell a lot with minimum use of dialogues. In a world of fast cuts and blipverts, her directing style stands out as a calming influence. While she did employ her signature off-screen conversation scene reminiscent of Jason’s walk of shame in “Sepet”, the one scene that really bugged me from that movie, it fortunately worked better in “Gubra” than it did in the predecessor. I think that this is partly because the viewers were meant to see the on-screen characters reacting to what was being said off-screen instead of being the one actually saying it as in “Sepet”.

Controversial images, sexual innuendo and dialogue lifted off a familiar Petronas TV ad aside, “Gubra” leaves the audience thinking about the movie long after the final credit roll. Speaking of the final credits, much have been made about the short scene that comes on after the last line of the credits at the end of the movie. Everyone I know who have seen the movie have told me to sit tight at the end of the movie and wait for the scene. To be blunt, my first reaction watching the scene was a big honking WTF (silently in my head although I nearly said it out loud when I first saw it). The whole scene begs the question who it was intended for since the implausibility of the scene happening within the confines of the story had already been made clear within the first half hour of the movie. Was this scene meant to balance out the dark ending that closes “Gubra” prior to the credits? Was this scene a romanticized ideal ending tacked on for those unwilling to let go of what Orked had before? I guess that it could have been worse. I should be thankful that the scene wasn’t Orked finding someone in the showers just to realize that everything that happened in the last 120 minutes were just a dream.

All in all, “Gubra” is still a thought provoking and emotional follow up to, in my humblest opinion a much superior, “Sepet”. While it can be logically taxing and bound to leave viewer with the emotional equivalent of blue balls at times, it is still way batter than the other local features released to date. The interweaving storylines were engaging as it stands and such should be seen as individual stories instead of a cohesive union telling the same story. The wonderful performance from most of the cast helped immensely to lift this production to benchmark levels for other local productions to follow. While I freely admit that not all my expectations for this follow up were fulfilled, I still enjoyed the experience as a whole and would easily recommend it to others who have not watched it.

I just wished that it didn’t make me feel that I miss watching “Sepet” that much more.


tellmewhyidontlikemondays said...

felt the same way too.

a special mention should also be given to Nor Khiriah.

Anonymous said...

my sentiments exactly. Btw, one of the best writeups of Gubra I've read. You have a talent my friend.