This is a movie review of ‘Pendatang’, a recently released Malaysian film produced by Kuman Pictures. This review reflects our personal perspective on the film. We highly recommend watching the movie to form your own opinion.
When Jagat was released to critical acclaim in Malaysia and abroad in 2015, the cost to produce the film – RM300,000 – became a benchmark of the kind of films local filmmakers can create with that sort of budget.
So, it was wonderful to see many Malaysians, getting together to crowdfund Pendatang. The film, produced by Kuman Pictures and directed by Ng Ken Kin, garnered over 100,000 views within 17 hours when it was exclusively released on YouTube. All of these were possible through the RM400,000 raised.
The film’s title, which means ‘immigrant or outsider’, is a racially and politically charged term often directed at non-Malays in Malaysia. The story of the film is set in an alternate dystopian Malaysia, where people are segregated based on their race.
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The viewership figures are certainly a testament to the marketing and publicity prowess of the film. It was released online to avoid Malaysian censors which would have unnecessarily reduced the film’s runtime of 1 hour and 38 minutes greatly.
The film’s release is also a tight slap on the faces of Malaysian censors because it’s an ingenious way for local filmmakers to circumvent the country’s tough censorship laws.
Though not profiting much, the filmmakers most likely didn’t lose their money either since much of the cost was already borne by supporters from the start.
Due to this, Pendatang will serve as a case study for savvy filmmakers and content creators looking to create their art without breaking the bank.
The film was released to mixed reviews with many considering it a decent effort.
While many lauded it for circumventing censorship and for its timely premise, there were equal amounts of critics too.
For instance, it was intriguing that even before audiences “met” the Indian characters in the film, some in the comments had already expected this as an eventual addition.
As it happened, two Tamil characters were later featured fishing in a river, and exchanging dialogue that expresses a sentiment that is commonly heard in Malaysia; racially motivated administrative decisions that trickle down as inequalities.
Although it’s important to have a representation of the different ethnic groups in Malaysia and highlight their various perspectives, there is danger in slipping in characters for the sake of it. The framing of issues could lack weight and come off as trivial.
Unfortunately, Pendatang appears to have fallen into this trap.
Racial segregation as a premise of the film was certainly intriguing, however, the movie did not provide sufficient context for it to have gravitas.
We had plenty of questions about the events that triggered a Chinese family to take over a Malay kampung home, that appeared to be in the middle of nowhere.
What happened to the Malay family? How come there were no other neighbours nearby?
References to “a small accident” and “Incident 927” in the dialogues, were vague pointers that weakly informed viewers about the supposed tragedy that kickstarted the movie’s chain of events.
It might have even contributed to more confusion than clarity. We found ourselves not as invested in the characters as we could have been.
Pendatang could have benefited from more layers of storytelling that extended beyond the movie’s script. This may have helped to enhance the flow of the narrative and create a sense of immersion for the viewers.
In the wake of world politics that spotlights issues of genocide and apartheid, the initial scenes in Pendatang where a Chinese family “takes over” a Malay family’s house, evoke terror and fear.
But this fear and terror appear to be hardly shared by the characters in the movie.
The movie’s aggression and violence came across as obvious performances, and therefore, inconsequential.
Viewers are left wondering if the casual way the father speaks ill of “other races” and his comical hostility towards a 9-year-old Malay girl, could be centred in realism.
It feels like it could be real in a social media setting but not so much face-to-face.
Whether this type of satire was the intention of the film’s creators is not quite apparent. And while this may have lent some credence to the film’s dystopian premise, the ambiguity was too disconcerting for us.
Is it a tragedy or a comedy? Upon some research, we learned that Pendatang was primarily made to entertain and spark discussions about Malaysia’s direction as a society and nation.
In this regard, we feel viewers who watch the film without the lens of satire may dismiss it as a campy take on a serious subject.
Nicholas Liew Davis shone when he played the film’s primary antagonist, the ruthless and at times reckless, Ho.
We also found ourselves rooting for the young Qaidah Marha who played Panda, the lost Malay girl. Kyzer Tou, in his role as Bobby, also delivered a remarkably convincing performance during a scene where he cried.
The extremely talented Mayjune Tan and Fredy Chan also delivered good performances as the mother (Shan) and father (Wong). Had the director fleshed out the motivation of both characters a lot more, we could have seen them delivering their best performances.
Pendatang also starred Kent Tan, Grace Ng, Julie Chew, Dave Tan, and Azman Hassan, all of whom are talented Malaysian actors who unfortunately struggled to give their best due to the script which we couldn’t help but feel was a rushed job.
That said, scriptwriter Lim Boon Siang should continue building on the Pendatang world either through a Netflix series or a series of books because there’s plenty more, we would love to know about that world.
Special mention also goes to Teck Zee Tan, the cinematographer, and Chloe Yap Mun Ee, the editor, who worked closely with Art Director Shazwan Khairuddin, to bring the world of Pendatang to life.
Hey, it’s Kyra and Sukhbir, the editors of Eksentrika here. Since 2016, we’ve been highlighting Malaysian and Asian arts and culture for you. We’re passionate about the arts and believe in the power of creative expression to remind us all about our shared humanity and connection to each other. Thank you for reading Eksentrika and as a gesture of appreciation, please consider supporting us with a donation of any amount. Your goodwill will go towards sustaining Eksentrika as a free-to-read platform. Apart from monetary support, we would appreciate you sharing our articles for greater awareness on Asian arts & culture. Thank you for taking the time to read this message.
Cover image sourced from PendatangMovie / Facebook.