Friday, June 19, 2009

NYAFF ’09: When the Full Moon Rises

Which are more dangerous, supernatural phantoms or Communist guerillas? Both stalk the jungles of a provincial Malaysian village in Mamat Khalid’s When the Full Moon Rises (trailer here), a wildly comedic homage to Malaysian B-movies that screens during the New York Asian Film Festival.

Saleh is the Malaysian Carl Kolchak. Recently fired by his newspaper for his sensationalistic stories, Saleh finds himself stranded in a secluded village following a truly freak accident. Forced to swerve off the road, his tire is punctured by an ancient dagger clasped in the hands of a skeletal body—mysterious circumstances guaranteed to arose the suspicions of an intrepid newsman such as he.

Fortunately for Saleh, he quickly encounters a helpful mechanic, who as an added bonus has his beautiful sister Cik Putih along for company. Of course, Saleh quickly falls head-over-heels for the mysterious beauty. Stuck in town, Saleh starts investigating the unexplained disappearances that have plagued the outlying area. He also attracts the attentions of Miss Rohayah, a sultry but scrupulously proper night club singer. Others are determined to see him leave, which they make clear even to him through their repeated beatings.

Moon might be a specific tribute to the lost Malaysian cinema of the 1950’s, but viewers only familiar with American low-budget genre pictures will still get all the jokes. It is a great looking film, shot in gorgeous black-and-white. It hits all the film noir notes, like the lamenting flashback framing device, with the right degree of irony.

At times, the actual plot is nearly incomprehensible, but arguably that too is in keeping with the genre, and the likable Rosyam Nor holds it all together nicely as the befuddled Saleh. Umie Aida, Avaa Vanya, and Corinne Adri also add plenty of appeal as the femme fatales vying for the innocent reporter.

At times, Moon brings to mind the best aspects of Roger Corman’s early films, including the totally cool retro graphics of the opening title sequence. It also features a swinging jazz-flavored soundtrack by Ahmad Kamal Baharudin, featuring a groovy combo credited as “The Pallbearers.” Frankly, Vanja’s songs as Miss Royayah are also far better than one might expect.

Clearly, Khalid has a genuine affection for the noir thrillers and horror films which inspired Moon. He keeps the lunar madness moving at good pace, spinning a whirlwind of oddball characters and things that go bump in the night. His humor runs the gamut from clever verbal asides to broad physical comedy (sometimes involving poor Saleh’s hernia). It is a fun little movie with a fantastic look and sound. It screens at the IFC Film Center during this year’s NYAFF June 20th and July 1st.