Film Review: Daulat (2020)

Since the historical election of March 2018, the Malaysian film scene has made numerous attempts at casting it into cinematic stone. With results ranging from exploitative to revisionist, it seems that Malaysians are presented with another difficult code to crack on how to memorialise a political pivot. Daulat seems to be the next attempt borne from these new (and strange) times, claiming the title as Malaysia's first ham-fisted political thriller.

Daulat isn't here to reenact events. It opens with clear disclaimers that it is not in any way alluding to any politicians and any recent Malaysian political events. Hassan is a dethroned Malay prime minister whose racial party has ruled for the last 30 years. His throne has been taken by older politician, Malik, who colluded with a urban-slanted party with promises to hand the seat of power in the future to its party leaders. Fearing political retaliation, Hassan, turns to his first female party deputy president, Suri, to devise a strategy to win the next general election.

For all its intricacies, Daulat's filmmaking is blunt, but debut feature director Imran Sheik prefers to call it unconventional rather than cliched. He substitutes finesse with on-the-nose lines, and loudly calls to attention where subtlety would have been more effective. It can be a jarring experience that brings out unfavorable comparisons with horrible Malaysian soap drama tropes and cliches, but Imran has stated that the film was made this way to maximise mass appeal after test screenings (without calling the audiences dumb for failing to put together the pieces).

That isn't to say that Daulat has a terrible plot, even if it relies on plot contrivances to move along. Despite taking liberties with reality and somewhat over-simplifying the political machine, Daulat actually has a well-considered story that isn't matched by its storytelling. Structurally, it runs on narrative threads that are seen and unseen, despite leading audiences to believe that there is only the former. Amidst the storm of scandals, backdoor deals, and blackmail, a seasoned Machiavellian may come out unimpressed by the power moves being made, but Daulat ends on the note of being an uncomfortable and revelatory introduction to someone who hasn't heard of The Prince. Daulat works for keeping its scale small, even if it suggests a grander scheme afoot.

If there was one prevailing strength in its execution, it would be its cast. While familiar names like Tony Eusoff, Jasmine Suraya, Christina Suzanne, Rashidi Ishak, and Sangeeta Krishnasamy are given the short-end of the developed character stick, it is all in service to one character in particular. Vanidah Imran's Suri checkmates her performance, as a mistress of manipulation and rousing orator. She asserts her dominance in one moment, whether it's meeting a blackmailer or her husband's mistress, while shifting into a compromising diplomat when making alliances and herding sexists and racists to be on the same page. Suri is to be one the more recent exemplars of Malaysian (female) characters to study and imitate by smart screenwriters and projecting performers.

But what has Daulat contributed to Malaysia's cinematic politics? Imran is quite explicit of being a businessman first before a filmmaker. In his mind, a quick, low-budget, and flawed piece that is seen and talked about by a mass market is better than an indulgent, high art, masterpiece, understood by only a few. Daulat is an indisputable trailblazer, both for Imran's future plans for sequels as well as for political films in Malaysia. It may not have attained its ambitions on its first run, but it has opened the doors for more honest, brutal depictions of Malaysian politics and politicians while giving the finger to Malaysian censorship.

Daulat is available exclusively on Iflix for viewing free of charge and uncensored. Unfortunately, the film is only available to certain territories.

Review by KC Lee

KC Lee is a Malaysian on a journey through film's past, present, and future, local and abroad. He writes down some of it along the way, hoping someone would read them.
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