Saturday, March 10, 2007

Movie Review: Mukhsin

In Yasmin Ahmad’s latest film offering, “Mukhsin”, she gives her fans a poignant love letter in the form of a beautiful examination of the story of first love and lost. It is a story that would surely resonate across everyone who goes to see it regardless of age. Looking at the crowd in the cinema when I watched it, I’m fairly certain that the message that “Mukhsin” was trying to convey had touched many and will touch more as word of mouth about how good this movie is starts to spread.

Billed as a prequel to her earlier breakthrough film, “Sepet”, this latest masterpiece tells the story of a 10 year Orked (Sharifah Aryana) and her first encounter with love. Living in a village in Selangor, the tomboyish Orked feels ill at ease among girls her age and much prefer playing with the boys. When the village newcomer, 12 year old Mukhsin (Mohd Shafie Naswip), finally relents to include her into the boys games, the seeds of a close bond began to germinate between the two of them. As the school holiday progressed, their friendship deepen into pangs of first love that both had no idea how to react to. Confused and bewildered, a slight misunderstanding caused Orked to stop talking to Mukhsin until the very last day when he had to return back to his father’s house at the end of the school holidays. In the end, Orked was left with the memory of her first love that she had to learn to let go so she could move on with her life.

Compared to her previous film, “Gubra”, audiences would find “Mukhsin” much easier to follow as the main characters of the movie remained the focus of the movie for most of the time. Forays into the story subplots involving the supporting cast, while does help to enrich the story, at times felt a little too disruptive to the pacing of the story for me. There were times in the movie that I felt a bit restless and wanting them to get back to the story of Orked and Mukhsin. It was not that the actors did not give good performances in the subplot scenes but I felt myself more invested in the main story rather than the subplots. The subplots involving Orked’s bad mouth neighbor and Mukhsin’s brother were the weaker two that slowed the pacing of the move for me. While I can seen the need of the first as a counterpoint to Orked’s own kooky clan and the second giving the backstory to Mukhsin’s family life, I wished that both could have been tighter in scope and more in sync with the flow of the movie.

As for the main meat of the story, “Mukhsin” doesn’t really seem that much innovative on the surface compared to similar Western movies. However when viewed through the lens of local Malaysia productions, one need to acknowledge that “Mukhsin”, like all Yasmin’s offerings that came before it, continues to present audiences with an idealized vision of the Malaysia that could be if we wanted to. Having the main character be a Malay girl living in a kampong, studying in a Chinese language school and speaks fluent British English no less spoke volumes of Yasmin’s continued drive to break down stereotypes of what being Malay meant. Looking at the other local offerings of the recent past, this break from stereotype was nothing less than a breath of fresh air for me.

It was fairly comforting to note that Yasmin’s signature off-screen conversation scenes were firmly included in “Mukhsin”. After getting used to this particular cinematic quirk of hers, I found myself looking forward for them and particularly in “Mukhsin”, these scenes were wonderful to watch. It this outing, this particular style benefited more from the outstanding performances of Sharifah Aryana and Mohd Shafie Naswip who both gave their all when the static camera stayed on their faces during these off-screen conversations. The tighter shots into their faces helped made these signature scenes more memorable compare to the long shots that was used in the previous films.

One would sorely be remiss not to make a note of the outstanding performance given by the two main leads. It was nothing short of spectacular seeing the chemistry between such young actors. Coming for equally famous siblings, Sharifah Aryana was a joy to watch especially when she managed to capture the mannerisms that her sister used when acting as the older version of her Orked character. It was easy to believe that this young girl would later grow up to be the teen that we saw in “Sepet” and the woman we saw in “Gubra”. However, I personally feel that the best performances in “Mukhsin” belonged to Mohd Shafie Naswip. With equal measure of quiet shyness and eye pleasing looks, this newly discovered gem shouldered the weight of the movie in his performance and delivered it in spades. His scene where he said his goodbyes to Orked before he left the village was nothing short of a tour de force from this young actor. His heartwrenching and earnest delivery of the lines still haunted me long after I’ve seen it. This young actor is definitely one to look out for as he matures into his craft.

“Mukhsin” was not without it’s share of slight disappointments for me. One that I have already mentioned earlier was the disruption of film pacing when the main story veered into some of the subplots. The other one that I had an issue with was the inclusion of the older Orked and Jason from “Sepet” in a scene with the younger Orked and Mukhsin. While clearly meant to be taken as an unofficial “dream sequence”, this particular scene played more for those who wanted Jason to be alive at the end of “Sepet”. For those of us, if there are more people than just only me, who accepted Jason’s death that the end of “Sepet” the scene felt a bit extraneous and confusing. The murmurs of confusion from the audience that I was with watching that scene told me that I was not the only one feeling so.

I have to be honest and confess that I was expecting “Mukhsin” to be a rite of passage story. Watching the movie, I realized that it was not exactly what I expected. While the film does deal with Orked’s first love, we don’t really see how much Orked was changed by it in this movie. We don’t see how Mukhsin was changed by the experience as well since we don’t really see him at the end of the movie as the taxi he was in drove off from Orked’s sights. I would have liked to have a stronger emotional dénouement at the end of the story especially having invested so much of my emotions into their relationship. The emotional buildup was already there for the taking but it felt as if the momentum faltered towards the end when audiences were expecting a release of their pent up emotions. Like “Gubra” that came before it, “Mukhsin” left me with the emotional equivalent of blue balls.

I don’t really know why but I have a nagging feeling that there are missing scenes from the final cut of this film that was shown in cinema. There were more than a few consecutive scenes that seem to demand that the audience make a calculated leap of faith to follow the action as it unfolds in the movie. In particular, the progression of Mukhsin’s realization that he might be falling in love with his best friend seemed a little emotionally sparse in content. I think I distinctly remembered a scene that was discussed on Yasmin’s blog site of a conversation that Mukhsin had with his aunt about the nature of love. I was looking forward for that scene and was surprised that it was not in the final cut. I now wonder if I had just imagined it all.

A lot of actors from the previous 3 Yasmin Ahmad’s films made cameo appearances in “Mukhsin”. Add to that the pre credit scene involving Yasmin’s real life parents and the film crew singing “Hujan” from the movie’s soundtrack, there seemed to me a sense of finality that this is the last film of the series involving this set of characters and their lives. If this is so, one could not ask for a better curtain call than “Mukhsin”. The simple but memorable story acted out by nothing less than the best young actors to be discovered in recent years was simply a joy to watch. This heartwarming tale is definitely one of the must see local productions of the year.

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