Thursday, July 05, 2012

NYAFF ’12: Nasi Lemak 2.0

Every country has its native rice dish.  In Malaysian, it is nasi lemak.  They also have their local political rabble-rousing rapper, known by his handle Namewee.  The Malaysian government was not thrilled at the prospects of the latter extolling the virtues of the former, which is why they were less than supportive of his foodie movie.  It was a hit nonetheless.  Prepare yourself for generous helpings of multi-ethnic humor (that you might not fully get) when Namewee’s Nasi Lemak 2.0 (trailer here) screens at the 2012 New York Asian Film Festival.

Having studied abroad with a master, Hero Huang is an uncompromising specialist in Chinese cuisine.  He is beloved in the neighborhood because he stands up to all the punks, but everyone prefers the street vendors’ Malaysian food.  However, Xiao K. has need of a skilled Chinese chef.  Control of her family’s upscale restaurant depends on a Chinese cooking competition instigated by her greedy aunt, who hopes to turn the establishment over to her lover, Lan Qiao. 

Xiao K. and her father need a champion like Huang, but he has never beaten his old class rival Lan before.  After enduring a few beatings and some official harassment at the behest of Xiao K’s aunt, Huang gets with the program and sets off on a roadtrip with her to discover the mystical secrets of Malaysian cuisine in all its ethnic varieties.

Supposedly, there are a lot of jokes in Lemak that only Malaysians will understand, but the silly slapstickiness of it all is hard to miss.  Reportedly, a few local professionally-offended Muslims were upset with the film, but it is hard to understand why, unless you happen to be barking mad.  The film could also have more cameos than Around the World in Eighty Days, but many of them will be lost on Western audiences.  For instance, former Miss Malaysia Nadine Ann Thomas appears as Curry Daughter, whom Huang and Xiao constantly press to enter the Miss Malaysia contest while they stay with her curry-master father.

Namewee might have his Public Enemy moments in Malaysia, but Lemak is all rather gentle and well intentioned stuff.  Essentially, it extols unity and tolerance through Don Rickles and Jerry Lewis style humor.  Most of the musical numbers are comedic novelty numbers, such as the Bollywood parody, but the closing hip hop version of the Malay folk song “Rasa Sayang” is pretty cool.

Given his comfort with physical comedy and his big lummoxey screen presence, Namewee acquits himself just fine as Huang.  Malaysian pop idol Karen Kong is also quite a good sport, buried under prosthetic Dukakis eye-brows, Pippi Longstocking pigtails, and Clark Kent glasses, but still projecting a vivacious earnestness. 

Innocently goofy, Nasi Lemak 2.0 is ultimately more interesting to international audiences for what it represents for Malaysia than the on-screen humor.  It is not the only film at this year’s NYAFF to mix music with beatdowns.  Grandmaster Y.K. Kim & Park Woo-song’s The Miami Connection (video here) also screens at the festival, ahead of its in-your-face re-release later this year, courtesy of Drafthouse Films.  The Miami Ninjas pick a fight with the wrong band when they try to roust Dragon Sound from their new gig at “Central Florida’s hottest new night club.”  The ninjas and drug dealers might have formed an alliance, but they are no match for the one-two punch of Tae Kwon Do and cheesy 80’s synthesizer rock. 

The plot is maybe a touch hackneyed (you know when a Dragon Sound member puts on a fancy new suit for a special occasion, he is in for a world of hurt) and the dialogue is what it is, but the fighting is pretty awesome—and since co-director and motivational speaker Grandmaster Kim will be attending the screening (demonstrating the power of Tae Kwon Do and motivating your lazy butt), you had better agree, if you know what’s good for you.

This is why we love NYAFF.  You don’t see films like this at most other snobby festivals.  So take note, Miami Connection screens this Saturday (7/7) and Nasi Lemak 2.0 screens this coming Monday (7/9) and Thursday (7/12) as the New York Asian Film Festival continues at the Walter Reade Theater.