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Gubra (Anxiety)

Posted by martinteller on September 6, 2014

One of my favorite discoveries last year was the film Sepet (a.k.a. Chinese Eye) by the tragically short-lived Malaysian writer/director Yasmin Ahmad.  Sepet was a delightful but bittersweet comedy about the romance of a young Malay girl named Orked (Sharifah Amani) and a young Chinese boy named Jason (Choo Seong Ng).  The film ended on an ambiguous note, leaving the future of Orked hanging in the balance.  This follow-up picks up the story seven years later, and appears to resolve the open ending of the previous film.  Orked is back, as is her charming family: father Atan (Harith Iskander Musa), mother Inom (Ida Nerina Hussein), maid/honorary auntie Yam (Adibah Noor) and adopted brother Anuar (Anuar Mohammad Zakri).  Orked is married to Arif (Adlin Aman Ramlee), and Jason appears to be out of the picture.  However, she runs into Jason’s brother Alan (Alan Yun) at the hospital after her father suffers a diabetic attack.  Alan is there visiting his own parents (Mei Ling Tan, Kar Hoong Thor… both also returning from the previous film) because his mother pushed his father down the stairs.

The film also follows an apparently unrelated thread.  Bilal Li (Nam Ron) is a kindly muezzin.  He lives with his wife Maz (Norkhiriah) and young son.  The couple also protectively looks after their neighbors, a pair of prostitutes.  Temah (Rozie Rashid) has her own son and is coping with an unnamed illness (the implication seems to be HIV), while Kiah (Juliana Ibrahim) is often severely beaten by one of her regulars.  Both are hounded by a desperate gambler named Ki (Khir Rahman), who steals to pay his loan sharks.  Temah turns to Maz for religious guidance.

Sorry for so much plot summary, but it’s a complicated story.  I also wanted to give the stellar cast their due, as the IMDb page does a rather poor job of identifying them.  It’s a terrific bunch of actors.  Most endearing are Orket and her family, again radiating warmth and providing the film with a lot of wonderful humor.  If I didn’t already have lovely parents, I wouldn’t mind being raised by Atan and Inom, who are simply adorable together.  Their relationship seems to be an ideal model of enduring love.  Likewise, Li and Maz have a beautiful marriage, and their tolerance and kindness shows the expanse of their love.

But the film provides many other perspectives on love.  Orket discovers Arif is having an affair, and struggles to find forgiveness in her heart.  Alan’s parents are constantly bickering.  Kiah’s john practices a twisted form of love.  Throughout the film, we see these contrasts.  It makes for a darker experience than its predecessor, though one still highlighted with warmth and comedy and compassionate human understanding.  It’s a rich and rewarding work that manages to juggle two completely disconnected (except in a beautifully executed montage of intimate moments) plot threads without disorienting the viewer.

Again, there is commentary on the complex cultural makeup of Malaysia.  It is not especially subtle commentary, but it is effective and progressive.  Ahmad got some heat for insulting Islam and corrupting Malay Muslim culture, but (as I understand it) only from very conservative factions.  Others appreciated a depiction of devout Muslims as tolerant and respectful figures in a broader community.  Ahmad seems to be calling out for a peaceful harmony among all the peoples of her country, and she does not present it as a fantastic ideal, but an attainable reality.  A reality that for some — perhaps most — is already occurring.  The disharmonies in this film are not cultural, but interpersonal.

If you see this movie — and I urge you to do so, though it isn’t easy to get a hold of, and be sure to see Sepet first — do yourself a favor and stick around after the end credits.  It’s another gorgeously ambiguous closer.  Really looking forward to checking out more of Ahmad’s (sadly, very short) filmography.  Rating: Very Good (87)


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