I mean, with an RM18 million budget, one of the most renowned directors Malaysia has ever seen at the helm, plus one of the best Malaysian actresses to have ever graced the silver screen, what could go wrong?
The answer, seems to be everything.
First, there are vicious behind-the-scenes stories that are even more swashbuckling than the tale and the characters in the movie. The fact that it premiered in Indonesia first despite being made in part with Malaysian taxpayer dollars has always been puzzling to me.
The movie was reportedly:
produced using the accumulation of a RM10 million loan from Bank Simpanan Nasional (BSN), a RM6 million grant from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, and a RM2 million investment from FINAS.- Source
That's enough money to make 36 bad Malaysian movies or three mediocre ones.
The buzz around the film festivals where it was shown was not that encouraging, and it even had two Facebook pages promoting it. One in English that stopped being active in 2013 or so and another that started right after that. Wonder what's the story behind that.
Anyway, after getting rid of a dreadful early poster and shelving all the backstage shenanigans, the film was finally going to open in Malaysia... to lacklustre fanfare.
Promotions for movies such as The Journey, Polis Evo and Ola Bola were so potent that you couldn't help but notice them. Granted, this cost millions of dollars but for a movie that cost RM18 million, Hanyut didn't even have a premiere or gala night, did they? This is something even small movies like Pecah had.
Anyway, though the tale of the making of Hanyut will entertain and confound humanity for decades on end, let's look at the film itself.
Hanyut is based on Joseph Conrad's Almayer's Folly. An early novel about a Dutch man in a Borneo jungle, looking for gold.
The movie starts quite promisingly, with a scene of Mem (Datin Sofia Jane) having her daughter Nina forcibly separated from her by her husband Kaspar Almayer (Peter O'Brien).
It seems, however, that the character Mem was broken from this point on to become a cackling, mentally-disturbed woman. And that's all she is. A bitter, spiteful hag who doesn't look like a hag because Sofia is a stunning woman.
Her talents are wasted as she gives a performance perhaps more suitable for a stage play rather than a movie. The emphasized words and manner of speaking feels so put on. The fact that she looks to be almost bursting out in tears in most scenes is quite disappointing, having known the actress' capabilities on screen and on stage with earlier roles.
Almayer's quests are trying to find the mountain of gold Mem's father had told him about AND finding a place for himself. Almayer's very obvious longing for home is shown with his constant talk of moving back to the Netherlands even though he has never been there, having been born in Singapore.
This was also represented as the unfinished construction of a grand house he wishes to live in. The house is called Almayer's Folly by some white people - as in it is a folly to try and build something like that in a Borneo jungle. However, this point, that is the title of the book it was based on, is hardly explored further than one or two throwaway lines.
Key to Almayer's plot to find the gold is his dealings with a Malay prince - Dain Something-Something (Adiputra). Now Dain (or Daeng? Ahaaaaa) is also seen as a pirate to some. Almayer needs Dain to go on an expedition to find the mountain of gold
There are other players in the fray - Raja Ibrahim (El Manik) and his deputy Orang Kaya Tinggi (Khalid Salleh), Abdullah (Alex Komang) and nephew Sayed Rashid (Bront Palarae) some white guys (the British) and oddly-enough, a scorned kuih-seller.
When an older Nina (Diana Danielle) arrives from Singapore, things get more complicated as Dain takes a liking to her and arranges to take her away with support from Mem, behind Almayer's back.
Sayed Rashid tried to marry Nina early on but was refused by Almayer. This plot point lead to absolutely nothing and Sayed and uncle Abdullah remains in the story as the designated assholes for the rest of the movie.
Nina is a character shown to have inherited her parents' longing for a home, like her father, albeit for a family with no more fighting as well as a sense of having been betrayed, like her mother.
Diana did a decent job, but there's nothing here to shout about. Dain's character seems intriguing in the beginning but in the end turned out to just be that. He is a schemer shifting between Raja Ibrahim and Almayer and that is good, for a while. His dialogue with OKT and Raja Ibrahim are some of the best in the movie, especially with the use of indirect language.
However, pity Adiputra as the movie deemed it necessary to subtitle his speech in English but not sub any of the white people. His accent is not atrocious or hardly noticeable at all, or the Singaporean education system has failed as much as the Malaysian one. For a movie that shows how Malays dealt with the colonialists in the past, it seems to also demonstrate how we deal with them today.
Back to the story. Throw in a murder, gunpowder, treason and plot, and you have the ingredients for a very good Hallmark movie.
Unfortunately, the movie never managed to harness all these things or even go firmly in any direction for the characters or the story. Almayer's revelations about his motivations are patchy at best, and shifts between going back to the Netherlands and finishing his goddamned house. Decide, man! Or shift and make the shift noticeable. Or show you pivot between the two as a man on the brink of shattering his dreams and losing all hope.
Things are hinted at and not force-fed to the audience, sure, but it is like a run on sentence with no punctuation. Just like most of this review.
It was like the whole project was a nasi lemak with chicken chop wrapped together in banana leaf way too small to contain it. You end up with quite a mess.