Wednesday, September 10, 2014

TIFF ’14: Men Who Save the World

Pak Awang’s Malaysian dream is a lot like the American dream. He wants a better life for his daughter. He hopes to realize his ambitions with the “American House,” so-called because it was originally painted white (White House, get it?). Unfortunately, superstition will thwart him at every turn in Liew Seng Tat’s Men Who Save the World (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.

Pak Awang’s daughter is moving back from the big city to get married and settle down in his provincial village. She will need a house, but he just happens to own a spare. The problem is the American House is buried deep in the jungle and has fallen into a state of disrepair. It also happens to have a reputation for being haunted. Pak Awang needs the help of his fellow villagers to carry off its foundations and into town. Even given their work-resistant nature, forty or so the men ought to be able to handle the job. Oddly though, as soon as they start the arduous task strange things start occurring, playing into the villagers’ supernatural fears.

Of course, nothing uncanny is really afoot. Most of the unexplained phenomena are actually attributable to Solomon, an undocumented African worker, hiding out in the formerly white house. There are plenty of other subplots to further complicate matters, including the town’s Tom and Huck, who are determined to free the camel designated for the annual sacrifice. Soon the American House is stranded midway, while the men don drag to hunt down the “Oily Man” demon, as per the dubious counsel of a local shaman-confidence artist.

Initially, MWSTW starts out like the sort of low-key slice of life village comedy that used to be the bread-and-butter of indie film distribution. However, it takes a surprisingly dark turn, skewering the superstitious balderdash of the town’s Muezzin and the regional political boss. Islamic faith does not exactly move mountains in Liew’s film and it certainly doesn’t move Pak Awang’s house. Perhaps that is why reviews coming out of Locarno were bizarrely dismissive, roundly criticizing Liew for not politicizing Solomon’s plight as a migrant worker.

Instead, Liew delves into the dynamic of the not so tight little village, focusing on Pak Awang’s mounting frustrations. Wan Hanafi Su is absolutely terrific as the maybe too-gruff-for-his-own-good father. He brings real dignity to the film that convincingly evolves into visceral anger and bitterness. Frankly, the supporting cast looks a bit shticky in comparison, except the wide-eyed camel-rescuing youngsters, whose energy and innocence represent substantial contributions.

Granted, MWSTW is a bit uneven, but its humor is organically derived from the specific realities of this Malay community. It is true the film is Y chromosome affair, but it is set smack dab in the Southeast Asian Muslim world after all. Such complaints lose sight of the film’s satiric bite, vivid sense of place, and several cleverly staged scenes that neatly play games with viewers’ perspective. Indeed, it is quite a distinctive package thanks to Teoh Gay Hian’s richly evocative cinematography and Luka Kuncevic’s rhythmic, genre-defying score. Recommended for the somewhat but not overly adventurous, Men Who Save the World screens again this Thursday (9/11), and Saturday (9/13) as part of this year’s TIFF.