SGIFF Review: Men Who Save The World by Liew Seng Tat

The traditional practice of literally moving a entire house, called Usung Rumah in Malaysia, on the shoulder of a group of men is the visual centrepiece in Malaysian Filmmaker Liew Seng Tat’s latest comedy ‘Men Who Save The World’ or ‘Lelaki Harapan Dunia’. The very act of men manually lifting and moving a house through jungle terrain in the film is rich in its connotations and suggestions. It establishes the community setting and ethos of the village in the way they ‘operate’. The clumsy manner in which the house is being moved is comical, espcially with the ‘Hoo-Hah’ chanting that helps to psyche the spirits of the men. Not forgetting it is the focal point of the story, in which the hosue which was supposed to be a wedding present for a daughter became source of spooky tales.

In a twist of events, a supposedly illegal dark-skinned immigrant from the Solomon Islands, jumps off a truck he probably latched himself on and found his way into the ‘house’ which was half-moved and sitting in the nest of the jungle. It was not before long that the villagers caught random glimpses of ‘activity’ in the house and raised a ghost-sighting alarm. By a sheer coincidence, other events begin to happen like the camel walking out of its pen and one of the village girls falling teriibly ill. This raises the alarm a notch higher and the villagers, portrayed in this film as gullible and conductive in their responses, impulsively string all the events together to support their conclusion that an ‘Orang Minyak’ (a monster known as the ‘Oily Man’ in Malay folklore) is in their midst.

While the film’s dialogue is in ‘fiercely spoken’ Bahasa Melayu with characters rattling on in machine-gun speed, very little of the humour and nuances is lost thanks to the highly accessible script which is situational comedy genius. Much of the humour in the film rests  on the ludicrousness of superstitious beliefs in the village, and one might draw a analogy to the recent Bomoh antics at KLIA of summoning the whereabouts of MH370.  The actors do often ham it up a little, raising the slapstick quotient, but they fit in snugly with the ongoings of the plot. Apparently, the film features several veteran actors in the Malaysian scene so their individual moments, out of context, are probably treats for their fans as well. Given the village premise of the film, some of the film's jokes rest on stereotypes and even homophobia with the mention of a 'homosexual Orang Minyak' being an obvious punchline in one of the scenes intended to tickle the audience, perhaps the home audience. Sometimes, we are not very clear if its the un-enlightened mind of the director milking humour out of social taboos and stereotypes, or the director taking a light-hearted look the foolish ways of village people, with a subtle extrapolative lesson for the rest of us urbanites as well. I would like to think the latter.

‘Men Who Save The World’ is really a surrendipitously all-inclusive film for so many viewers, surrendipitous because of how it manages to blend so much into such a focussed piece of work. It is in essence a highly accessible comedy whose humour transcends language and culture. Its village lingo speaks volumes to its local audience while it still manages to open up a cultural window to its foreign film festival audience. It is a visual feast that transports us into a real kampung and features an endearing camel as well! Not to forget mentioning the visual spectacle of a burning house amidst a sea of green reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky burning house in ‘The Mirror’. A seamless blend of arthouse and commercial cinema – not always a win-all combination for a filmmaker but something many arthouse filmmakers who aim to cross the arthouse-commercial valley would like to achieve.

Review by Jeremy Sing
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