Produced by Grand Brilliance & Lightbulb Pictures
Written & Directed by Mohd Khairul Azri Mohd Noor
Reviewed by NINE
The first I heard of Pekak was on social media, where it was receiving high praise from young Malay friends and acquaintances. They found it a much-needed, refreshing change from the usual romances – this film’s characters were people they could identify with. So I went to the cinema expecting great things, but left with mixed feelings.
Written and directed by Mohd Khairul Azri Mohd Noor, the premise of Pekak is captivating, and the cinematography gorgeous. Uda (Zahiril Adzim) is hearing-impaired, lives in cramped quarters and deals drugs to get by. He keeps to himself, taking small pleasures: listening repeatedly to an old Malay record at full volume; standing by the tracks and closing his eyes as a train hurtles past in close proximity. As he develops a friendship with schoolgirl Dara (played by a fairly convincing 30-year-old Sharifah Amani), we see that he is loyal, gentle, and very likeable; their tentative steps towards romance are utterly endearing.
Dara lives with her strict father, a police officer (played by Zaidi Omar), who reacts violently when he catches her outside without her tudung. He’s reassured when her friend Melur (Shafinah Sakinah) is with her, seeing her as a good influence, but in reality Melur is more daring than Dara, already having sex with her boyfriend and taking recreational drugs. The two sneak out to parties together, but Dara never feels comfortable at them.
The Melur and Dara pairing is a friendship I feel like I’ve seen many times already: a ‘good girl’ protagonist tentatively breaking the rules, chaperoned by a more worldly friend. It made me wonder about Melur’s backstory – how long she’s known Dara, whether they were once equally reserved, and what changed for her. In any case, Melur’s carefree attitude eventually turns out to be far from benign, when she conspires in the rape of her best friend. Dara’s boyfriend Kamil (Iedil Putra) has grown impatient with their chaste relationship and it seems that Melur merely accepts that he is entitled to get what he wants, no matter whether Dara is conscious or not. It’s jarring when we realise that Melur is aware of and actively involved in his plan, but we never learn how she justifies it to herself.
And yet, while questions like these remain unanswered, a downside to Pekak is its overreliance on exposition, which can become needlessly repetitive. This is most pronounced whenever we encounter Picasso (Amerul Affendi), Melur’s deadbeat boyfriend. He’s a drug-fucked mess hopped up on his own delusions of grandeur, and it’s painful to see how he takes advantage of Uda. However, too much screen time is devoted to Picasso’s tantrums, and his ranting becomes tiresome – we get it, but we still don’t know how he became the person he is, or why he cares about no one.
While the dialogue sometimes clumsily hammers home the characters’ motivations, the film is strongest in the fleeting moments that tell us a lot through brief comments or wordless glances. Perhaps Uda benefits most from this, given that he barely speaks at all: more creative ways of conveying his story are therefore essential, and have been done well, but this approach should translate to the rest of the cast too.
When the film takes its darker turn in the second half, it lacks the depth to sufficiently handle the subject matter. Instead, melodrama takes priority, which threatened to stop me from caring about these characters I had loved so much earlier on. Seeing where things were headed, I wondered whether an intervention would change their course, but as they lumbered on, I wound up just wanting it to be over.
And so, what resonates about the story is that, despite its dark themes, its young characters – from teenage rebels to a young man with limited employment options – are trying to live on their own terms in a society that constrains them. Nobody is forced to marry their rapist in this film; at least there’s that.
What I liked the most about Pekak was its sympathetic portrayal of a drug dealer – in this respect, I’d say it’s pretty groundbreaking. People like Uda, in both fiction and reality, are often written off as some lazy approximation of ‘evil’, and we’re currently seeing this dehumanisation playing out on a horrific scale in Duterte’s Philippines, with perhaps a majority of the population shrugging their shoulders. But Pekak lets us care about Uda, and it doesn’t preach about how he makes a living; it shows rather than tells, and is all the stronger for it. If this strategy were applied across the rest of the film, we’d have a winner.