October 29, 2010 § 1 Comment
There were exactly two of us in the cinema during The Joshua Tapes. This says a lot about the acceptance of Malaysian films in English among the cinema-going Malaysian public. It says that we would rather watch the tripe that is Eat Pray Love instead of shelling out for a locally-produced movie that may or may not be good. Eat Pray Love may or may not be good, as well, but we go in expecting the Hollywoodised spectacle we’ve seen so often before. And let us not forget Julia Roberts’ face. A locally-produced indie offers no guarantee – it may not be bad, or worse still, it may actually be good and not trite, predictable, or safe. It’s hard these days to summon the energy needed to engage with art that percolates with anything more than the smug knowledge of its own profitability. The fabric of modern Malaysian society is a little thin, there are rips all over the place, and any art that is produced from within it is likely to jar one’s own Malaysian sensibility in ways that might be uncomfortable.
Or at least, this might be the reason.
The Joshua Tapes is directed by Arvind Abraham (his first film was S’kali; I’ve yet to watch it) and written by Lim Benji and Priya Kulasagaran. The central premise of The Joshua Tapes hinges upon a road trip among three old friends, all male, as they head from KL to the East Coast. One friend, the titular Joshua, is not with them. The viewer initially understands this to be because Joshua is abroad for his university studies, but by the end of the movie you’ll know the real reason. *pregnant pause* In terms of immediate initial impressions of The Joshua Tapes, what was very welcome and ultimately quite invigorating was the very effortless way the dialogue replicated the conversational style of most young urban Malaysians in Kuala Lumpur. The spoken English is both fluent and idiomatic, alternating between flawless sentences and Manglish slang. Something about hearing that kind of speech closely replicated on the big screen can still elicit a feeling of tremendous warmth and joyful recognition.
The story of The Joshua Tapes, however, goes deeper than a mere road trip, and to reveal more about it will be to ruin the delicate narrative framework that the writers have set up. Suffice it to say that a road trip is never really about going from one place to another – and in the case of these 3 friends, Reza, Ryan, and Ajeet, it’s a journey back in time to recover the selves that they used to be, especially in relation to one another. It’s a feeling that is instantly recognisable to people who battle both the extreme frustration and cleaving pain of trying to make old friendships – friendships so fundamental to the formation of who you are – fit into the new formations of who you have become when it can no longer comfortably do so.
On a superficial level, I felt a certain sense of triumph in watching these men relate to each other. If I had one ringgit for every time a Malaysian man has told me and/or proclaimed to the world variations on the “women are so difficult”, “women are drama queens”, and “men are so simple, women make things complicated” theme, I would be kicking Ananda Krishnan in the dust. Barring one Sam who is a romantic interest for both Joshua and Ryan and catalyst for the minor tension that spreads among this gang of four, we are entirely in He-Land. Within the economy of the human relations played out in The Joshua Tapes, Sam is the calmest and most rational person we encounter. Up to a point, that is, because her character is largely supplementary. The interactions between these male friends are as emotionally-charged as the supposed “dramatic” relations between women. There’s a lot of whining. There are sullen silences punctuated by side-eyed stares and much, much glaring. Guess what? Men, when they don’t want to be funny, can also be pretty emotional. Apparently, everything is not a laugh-a-minute! Men are also masters of the cold shoulder. They too have a strong urge to talk about their thoughts and feelings, even if they may not have the vocabulary for it as women have been taught to have. For all that we’re told that men are the funnier and funner sex, more willing to laugh at themselves and “let it go”, any woman knows that this is the falsest truism around – and this is! a Malaysian movie! that is willing to show that.
Granted, there are significant reasons underlying this entire road trip that contributes to the charged atmosphere between the three friends. Feelings have been hurt, toyed with, and crushed. People have been lost (and some regained). The exigencies of the real world prove too numbing to contemplate, affecting not only how one relates to oneself but to one’s closest friends. The men of The Joshua Tapes are not the men of Judd Apatow films. If we complain about how unfairly women are portrayed in commercial films coming out of Hollywood, we must also admit that the men are portrayed to be equally stupid, even while they’re screwing about, inventing things, fighting evil, saving the world, whatever. In The Joshua Tapes, when Joshua and Reza have a conversation about Reza’s very lame pick-up line directed towards his object of affection who is a “feminist”, Joshua tells Reza that what he said is a very stupid thing to say to a feminist. But then he waits a beat, and then continues on to say that it’s basically a very stupid thing to say to a woman, period.
The fact that a woman was a co-writer of the screenplay may have had something to do with this, but I’d like to be optimistic for once and consider this already a good sign – men and women co-writing a screenplay about a men-only friendship/bonding/road trip movie? GO MALAYSIA! Next up can only be the women-only friendship/bonding/road trip movie that is NOT lifted out of a commercial for tampons (women jumping around in white short shorts at the beach, doing cartwheels, smiling, laughing, smiling, smiling, maybe crying, then smiling).
The Joshua Tapes has its flaws, chiefly in terms of the occasional disconnect between the writing and the acting. Certain lines were genuinely hilarious. What would have improved the occasional overwrought tone of the movie would have been a few minutes of blessed unencumbered humour. But someone would say something funny, and someone else would react defensively or emotionally, and that thread of humour would drop. This seemed less due to the unstable relations between the men than it did to a screenplay that occasionally veered off into the humorous and then reminded itself to Be Serious. For this reason, even the actors seemed unsure at times if they were meant to allow their character a chance to laugh or to remain resolutely sombre.
Baki Zainal, who plays Reza, was the most disappointing in this respect. In one scene in a motel room where Reza confronts Ajeet about some troubling aspects of his past, Baki seemed unsure if he should play Reza as an obnoxious, cynical twat who wanted to offend his friend, or a concerned, emotionally-invested friend who did not. The result was that Reza came off as an obnoxious, cynical twat who wanted to offend his friend and yet was a concerned, emotionally-invested friend who did not. This makes Reza sound like an immensely complicated and intriguing character – in theory – but on screen, due to either the acting or the writing or a combination of both, it just came off bizarre. There are factors underlying this road trip that would make this emotional seesawing understandable, but it wasn’t carried through effectively by the occasional abrupt dialogue and overly self-conscious performances.
Despite that, the film does a fine job in subtly portraying how young Malaysians grapple with that big elephant uncouthly lumbering into our domestic and public lives… you know, that elephant called race. It’s not there, and yet it’s there, and the movie is quite delicate and brilliant in how it handles this. Random throwaway comments, such as Reza calling Ryan his “taiko” and telling Ajeet why “China men are better”, or Ryan calling Reza a “bloody Melayu” are all done in jest, yet reflect the way most young Malaysians try to make sense of race and absorb it into their lives without avoiding it altogether. These bad jokes about race, often weird and uncomfortable, is a kind of liminal discursive space created by the younger generation of Malaysians to acknowledge the race factor while trying to neutralise its meaning with jokes and teasing. You can hardly fill out a form in Malaysia without identifying oneself with a particular race or learning that your race isn’t included in a pre-formulated list and be forced to tick the box next to “lain-lain” (others). In an environment where you’re bombarded with racial discourse and yet expected to “look beyond it”, making jokes becomes a perhaps flawed but only readily-available coping method. When Reza throws a wrench in Ajeet’s plans to have a meal at a local restaurant serving good Chinese food by asking if it is a halal restaurant, Ajeet is able to show his irritation. But the boys swiftly and very flexibly alter their plans and decide to grab some roti kaya from the local sundry shop for lunch. This moment – comprised of equal parts minor frustration and willing compromise – was unexpectedly touching. The scene didn’t try to be either politically-correct or preachy, and the idea of difference and otherness in a friendship is presented as yet curved path to navigate, nothing more. No one had to get over it or come to terms with it. It just is.
Public spaces, more often than not, provided the backdrop for reconciliation – such as the mamak stall where the boys gather to eat and forgive after a major argument, or the phone booth from where Ajeet calls his father. Finally, there is the sea located in the “East coast” – where exactly it is we’re not told, but it provides the closure for the closing scene.
Of all the actors, Baki Zainal and Matthew Ho (Ajeet) had the tendency to over-do the emotional scenes and trivialise its poignancy with abrupt fits of melodrama. Phoon Chi Ho as Ryan is consistently adorable, and Alfred Loh pulls off his tiny yet significant role of Joshua with some class. Grace Ng as Sam seemed the most comfortable and natural – nothing about her performance was self-conscious, unlike the other male leads who occasionally seemed to be aware that they were, in fact, acting. This would have helped had the film’s makers decided to go all pomo on us and have the actors address the viewer directly, but otherwise the movie’s fleeting moments of amateurishness were all the more pronounced.
These quibbles, however, while minor, are essentially a part of the experience of watching this film, and these are certainly reasons not to watch the movie. On the contrary, it’s even more engaging as a sort of work-in-progress, like any nation’s society essentially is at any given time. Unfortunately I’ve dallied for quite some time with writing this review and the movie is no longer playing in local cinemas, but hopefully it’s available on DVD very, very soon.
*The posting of this review was precipitated by a sighting of Matthew Ho at The Gardens today. I NEVER see anyone famous, semi-famous, or even anyone who’s been on TV for 15 seconds. This was exciting. I was so excited I continued eating my sushi, smiling secretly to myself.