Udine Report: KALA MALAM BULAN MENGAMBANG Review
So close. So very, very close. The latest film from Malaysia’s Mamat Khalid is a sort of spiritual cousin to Wisit Sasanatieng’s Tears of the Black Tiger, both of them loving returns to the cinematic roots of their respective countries. But while Sasanatieng went back to the Technicolor loopiness of the classic Thai westerns of the sixties Khalid goes back even farther, fusing hard boiled noir with elaborate musical numbers, slapstick comedy and a heavily Hammer and Universal influenced take on the typical Asian ghost story. The opening act of the picture is sheer genius, a glorious mash up of styles and influences loaded with sumptuous photography, clever writing, a creepy ghost, hysterically funny sight gags and a sense of play that never fails to engage and surprise. The second act, however, sags badly under the weight of far too many unnecessary sub plots before the film rounds back into form for a strong – albeit far more seriously toned – conclusion.
Saleh is a down on his luck newspaper reporter. Or, should I say, former reporter, having been fired from his job for turning in stories too sensational to be believed. Well, things are about to get even more sensational. When driving through a remote part of the country Saleh blows a tire, which is not so strange, but it goes not from wear or rough road but because he happened to drive over a dagger clutched in the hand of a skeleton embedded in the roadside. Sensing a story Saleh checks into the only hotel in the neighboring town – a hotel that doubles as a brothel – to investigate. What he finds is a town populated with diminutive gangsters, beautiful but dangerous cabaret singers, a mysterious spy and a general population that refuses to talk about a string of mysterious disappearances. All he can get are vague whispers about a local phantom preying on men, warnings to leave before it is too late and the amorous attentions of a trio of beautiful women.
That last bit is where the film begins to run into trouble, the first moment where you get the sense that Khalid may have tried to squeeze in just a little bit too much. One romantic interest would have been plenty, three is just too much and it leads the film down a road of confused connections and tenuous plot ties that leads to twist after twist being piled one on top of the other until we end up bizarrely in the underground hideout of a local would-be communist dictator done up to look like Hitler. It’s a great set and a sequence loaded with some fun sight gags but it’s got nothing whatsoever to do with the main body of the film, it eats a lot of time to get through, does nothing but confuse the main story and is promptly abandoned as soon as we get there which begs the question of why bother going there at all. The mid section of the film is a fairly tangled mess, a mess so gnarled that the director actually has to take a few minutes to spell out all the connections in a direct bit of dialog – i.e. so you work for him, and you wanted this, etc etc – before putting it to bed and moving on.
But once the film moves on and gets back to the point it sings once again. An ancient curse is about to be reborn, we meet a bizarre sort of were-tiger, the son of a slain medicine man arrives to try and stop the release of ancient evil, Saleh falls in love with the phantom he was searching for and it’s all done with an uncommon sort of style and elegance, proving that Khalid can do more than crack jokes with these old forms but has actually mastered them himself.
In the end Kala Malam Bulan Mengambang is a deeply flawed film but when it works – which is the bulk of the running time – it is an enormously entertaining and visually impressive bit of work. Khalid is clearly a director on the rise.