Written & Directed by U-Wei Haji Saari
Reviewed by AL IBRAHIM
In the first five minutes of Hanyut, we see a woman running after a boat, screaming – crying – because someone on the boat has her daughter. She jumps in the river and starts swimming towards the boat, but a smaller boat appears and intercepts her. A white man holds her against the boat, and tells her that her daughter is going to a better place. She’s going to go be with her own people.
We find out, not long afterwards, that the woman in the water is Mem (Sofia Jane), and the white man holding her is in fact her husband — her daughter’s father — Kasper Almayer (Peter O’Brien).
U-Wei Haji Saari’s Hanyut is a melodrama, set in Malaya in the 1800s. And when I say melodramatic, I mean that not as a pejorative, but as an adjective. Melodrama, as in the kind of film where a character just so happens to be standing outside the window while two other characters discuss something relevant to the plot. Melodrama, as in, five minutes later, another character walks into a room and overhears some other character talking to themselves; saying some very relevant things to the plot, obviously. Melodrama, as in, it’s the kind of film where someone throwing things around and setting them on fire counts as character development.
Hanyut, in the broadest sense, is about Almayer’s struggle to find a mythical gold mountain somewhere in the jungles of Malaya. It’s also about Almayer’s tumultuous relationship with his wife and his recently returned daughter, Nina (Diana Danielle). It’s about the Dutchman’s relationship with the Raja (El Manik), the people of the kampung, and the British colonialists. The film flirts with themes relating to identity, belonging, and the concept of home.
But the main plot — the backbone of the story, so to speak — is Nina’s romantic relationship with Dain Maroola (Adi Putra). Dain is a Malay prince who comes to the kampung looking for gun powder and ends up falling in love with the beautiful Nina.
The film is very well shot. The lighting is restrained, and the camerawork subtle; the actors were alive, and the greens of the jungle have never looked more beautiful. But more than just looking pretty, the cinematography (among other things) helped root the film in a time and a place. I’ve never been to Malaya in the 1800s, but watching the film, I bought into the idea that that is what it would look and feel like.
Unfortunately, while the cinematography helped root the film in a time, the editing seemed to have no regards for time.
There’s one scene in particular that comes to mind. It’s pretty early on in the film, not long after Nina comes back home. We hear one of the characters mention that Almayer’s business has started doing well since his daughter’s return. She’s his good luck charm.
Yet, it was not clear how long Nina had been back at this point. Had she really been back long enough to change her father’s luck in business? My feeling was that she’d only been back a day or two. Even now, I can’t tell you with any degree of certainty how much time passed from any one point in the film to another (except the one part where it explicitly told us it was “ten years later”).
Having said that, Hanyut does understand rhythm — which is a function of time. At least in some scenes.
A prime example is the scene we meet Dain Maroola for the first time. We see him in the Raja’s house, with his entourage, bearing gifts. He introduces himself as a prince, and then asks the Raja for guidance and gunpowder. The rhythm at play in that scene was pitch perfect. The choreography was masterful. Every joke landed with gymnastic precision.
Alas, the scene that follows couldn’t be more different. When Nina and Dain meet for the first time, the scene starts with Dain and Almayer talking. Then suddenly, Nina stumbles from behind a curtain. She looks at Dain, and Dain looks at her, and they hold each other’s gaze. It would be romantic if it wasn’t so clumsy.
Adi Putra, the actor who plays Dain Maroola, holds this film together. His Dain is handsome, elegant, and confident. A man who is charming, charismatic, and suave — and still somehow very much rooted in reality. Like the women in the film with lines of dialogue (all three of them), I too fell for him.
Other actors worth mentioning, although they all play minor roles, are: Chris Haywood, who plays Captain Ford, the man who takes Nina away in the opening; the late Khalid Salleh, who plays Orang Kaya Tinggi, the Raja’s right-hand man; and Alex Komang, who plays Abdullah, an Arab businessman with bigger aspirations.
I read somewhere once that a great film reveals itself in five minutes. Not just the first five minutes, but any five minutes. This is something I believe, because a film is like a person. You don’t experience people in their entirety, from birth to death. Instead, you drop somewhere in their timeline and know them in bits and pieces, and then you extrapolate the rest. It’s kind of the same for a film. You can drop in and out at random — watch any five minutes without context — and you’d be able to extrapolate, with a high degree of probability, the overall quality.
But watching Hanyut, the quality of the film varies so much from scene to scene that it would be hard to judge it based on five minutes. Let’s say you drop in on the previously mentioned scene with Dain, the Raja, and the Raja’s right hand man talking about gunpowder. This is a great scene, and it would seem to make for a great movie.
But there are other scenes which are downright embarrassing. For example, there’s a scene where Almayer has two British soldiers over for dinner, and everyone starts shouting at each other. Instead of leaving the impression of urgency or angst, it feels like the actors have simply reached the end of their emotional range.
Almayer, the protagonist of Hanyut, tries to do many things at once, balancing his relationships and his dreams on a tightrope that ultimately unravels, leaving him adrift – as the title portends. The film’s fate is to follow its hero down the same watery path.