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Sunday, December 3, 2023

MALAM Review: Crime, Corruption & Power Struggles Become Cinematic Aesthetic

MALAM is a movie based in Singapore – shot there and in Malaysia, which promises intrigue and enigma. It is helmed by Leonard Yip, in his first feature film directorial – paying tribute to the ‘Noir’ genre.

Going by his notes, the movie seems to be a fusion of themes like identity, crime and superstition. He says: “In MALAM, I wanted to make a film that was both new and yet familiar.

A film that respected the form of the earlier film noir genre and yet set in a unique fabled Southeast Asian universe that embraces the contemporary and still steeped in superstition and a darker mystical realm.

I wanted to make a film that marries my culture and the genre, and MALAM is my attempt to create a dark sweltering fable of the immigrant experience.”

A gang of criminals operate out of an abandoned housing block in Singapore; the arrival of a newcomer leads to a long, hot night of betrayal, violence and seduction.

Jay (Vishnu Krishnan), a young man haunted by a murder committed back home in Malaysia, is sent to a housing block marked for demolition in Singapore.

There, in this uncanny and at times surreal setting, he meets elusive and resilient Hannah (Jean Goh), the only female member of a toxic ‘family’ of criminals.

Jay’s presence disrupts the fragile alliances between occultist boss Seow (Yap Say Ping), sociopathic thug Alan (Wu Luoyi) and disillusioned henchman Patrick (Sebastian Pio Pereira).

Jay and Hannah plan their escape with Seow’s money but find themselves caught in an endless night of seduction, deadly violence, and betrayal. But when the sun comes up, it won’t be over.

MALAM plunges into a humid, seething underworld of sexual jealousy, perverse power struggles and Southeast Asian folklore. It promises to be a contemporary and atmospheric thriller about the chance for hope in a deeply corrupted world.

The technical aspects are what is triumphant. Steady camera shots, amalgamated with crisp editing and subtle cinematography make MALAM a visually appealing watch. The gentle background score too uplifts the action which takes place within the film.

Furthermore, lighting and colour schemes play a major part in forming the murky canvas. The dark brown and neon purple light during the first half of the movie, where both protagonists are trying to fight a spiral of dangerous circumstances is sharp. 

In fact, the darkness of the brown is juxtaposed with the lightness of the purple highlights the conflict of both lead characters, how they wish to escape a life of misery and pursue a livelihood that is peaceful and pleasant. 

What is also impressive is the way geographical places are presented as instrumental characters. The tall desolate buildings in the city are juxtaposed with the open lakeside/forest in Malaysia. Ironically, the latter location is supposed to exude serenity and peace but is not quite that. 

The intensity is built, not presenting them with jarring music and garish dialogues, but the pauses and silence between two characters. It creates an unsettling and unpredictable vibe amongst the viewers. 

Enriching the ambiguity of the roles, actors Vishnu Krishnan and Jean Goh perform their parts in a raw and natural manner. With very minimal dialogue exchanges – it is their expressions and body language which do the talking. 

Vishnu, who makes his feature film debut with MALAM is promising. He fully moulds himself into playing an internally conflicted person. The swift change from softness to aggression is seamless and has a serene yet lethal presence. He is a talent to look out for. 

Jean comes across naturally as the femme fatale. Her expressions and body language do the talking. She is quite sensuous too! Other cast members also deliver their performances well. 

Generally, MALAM works well cinematically. However, for me, the major downside is the pace. The slow burning tempo could’ve been quicker and made for a thrilling experience. However, the gradual pace can be a test of one’s patience.

Having said that, MALAM deserves appreciation and a watch for such a sincere and fresh endeavour. 

⭐⭐⭐ (3/5 stars)

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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