I had a hunch that I would like Talentime more than her previous films - on the surface, it seems like a commercial film, or at least, it'll be the most commercial film she's done to date. Having seen it, well, it's not quite - it still feels very strongly like a Yasmin Ahmad film, with the drawn-out way the scenes play out, several of the scenes seemingly bearing no relation to the rest of the story, purposefully anti-stereotypical characters (as in, their backgrounds don't match what we expect of them) as well as unconventional families, one or two surreal scenes that make us go 'huh?', sparse cinematography, and such subtly hidden themes that I don't know what the movie's about. (I can picture Pn Yasmin saying, "It means what you want it to mean lah." Or something similar.) In short, no, it's not that commercial - fear not, it's not as terrible as our independent films!
This being so, I'm surprised that I saw this film at the THX screen at GSC 1 Utama - i.e. the largest possible screen they have. Did the distributors really think the film will do that well? There's probably a reason behind the scenes which I don't know about. Anyway, there were just 4 of us in the cinema at the time; granted, it was Friday morning.
Now to the film. The best thing the film had going for it are the songs, many of them composed by Pete Teo. Now, to set expectations. While the movie is called Talentime, it's not about the talent competition at all, so there are barely any scenes depicting the competition. Most of it is focused on the everyday lives of the students taking part in it and their families, with the talent competition oddly having little significance to what goes on in their lives. As such, most of the songs heard in the film is explicit - as in, played over scenes rather than part of the talentime. Anyway, those songs are nice. They should be selling a soundtrack CD, if they haven't done so already.
To the acting. No one stands out in particular, but overall the acting ranges from adequate to not bad at all. (I just can't stand the pauses the actors like to leave in between their lines. I don't see what the pauses add to the beats. Perhaps 5% of screen time could be saved if the actors didn't leave such pauses between lines. This goes for other Malaysian films as well.)
One of the selling points of the film (Yasmin Ahmad isn't exactly a household name, though she's steadily making her way there) is Jaclyn Victor's debut, even though she plays a secondary character. Well, like most other characters in the film, she didn't have to do much, but she definitely shows potential in acting. It was quite a while in before I realised which character she was playing, and she remains grounded in the role so that I see the character rather than the actor.
The guys. Mixed results - I saw a still of Hon Kahoe in one of the newspaper promos and thought he had a certain charisma, just looking at the face. He's the weakest of the bunch though - he plays angry in the film but it felt false ... like he's emoting anger. Maybe next time. Mohd Syafie Naswip, who popularly played Mukhsin two Yasmin films ago, did okay - he was a little bit wooden when not singing but audiences will swoon anyway. (Yasmin was right though, very good job on lip synching.) He also has an emotional scene which is as well handled as anything we're likely to see from Malaysian films at this point - thankfully underplayed. The third boy, who's deaf and dumb, is played by Mahesh Jugal Kishor and I thought his performance was the best - aided by the fact that he didn't speak at all (oft-quoted but rarely applied screenwriting tip: LESS DIALOGUE MAKES BETTER MOVIES) but managed to convey the simple sincerity of the character with his face.
Adibah Noor is perfectly casted as the headmistress - mildly steely, her reactions mirror perfectly what we the audience think about the talentime performances. This is a very different role from the other ones she did in Sepet and Gubra. And Azean Irdawaty simply sucks sympathy out from the audience, almost effortlessly, considering she's just lying on the hospital bed.
Now on to the story. Stories, rather - there isn't just one. And they're all interconnected, though not contrived. Some fared better than others. The romance between Mahesh and Melur is perhaps the best one: the chemistry is there, and it is quite a charming budding romance, and the obstacles weren't contrived. Unlike that movie about dancing. The story of Mahesh's family and the hidden contradictions they eventually have to deal with is also pretty strong, in the sense that the drama is genuine. The weird man on the wheelchair with the sick mother is my least favourite - I wish that was left out of the film, just seemed pointless and abstract. Melur's family is just odd, and at any case there isn't much of a story there (that I could see anyway).
The editing was perplexing - there were occasions where we jump out of a scene into another seemingly unrelated scene, then jumped back to continue the first one. This happens a lot in the first half of the film, and the problem with this is that for the first half of the film we don't know what is the purpose of any of the individual scenes, or many of them anyway. You see, in this first half, Pn Yasmin chose to show us new characters without explaining their relationship with one or other of the characters, and it was hard to care about them coz we don't know who they are, and the scenes themselves don't offer much that is interesting (often just people talking about something, then other people talking about something else). Their significance emerges later in the second half; I remembered that there were a number of times that I felt, "oh, right, this is why we saw that scene earlier", but it seems like pointless labour because I don't see how it adds anything to the experience of watching the film other than 'making the audience think a little'.
When I say the film doesn't focus on the talentime itself - other than the fact that in Melur's subplot a lot of what happens is motivated by the rehearsals she does - I mean that, you get to the talentime itself and it's the last ten minutes of the film. While I get that the talentime isn't the point (and that was made perfectly clear, btw, I wasn't caring about who wins), I would expect the characters' story to resolve itself properly ... but I suppose I tend to forget that that doesn't happen a lot in Pn Yasmin's movies. We see characters moving towards a resolution ... and we end. It's not enough, because it is ambivalently unsatisfying.
Yasmin also mentioned that the idea behind Talentime: That as humans, we have to go through a lot of pain and some measure of suffering before we can reach greater heights.
Well, now that she mentions it, I can see it there ... barely. But if it wasn't mentioned, I can't see it. Perhaps some people would say to that (perhaps Pn Yasmin herself), why is it so necessary to understand the 'meaning' in the film? Because the story by itself didn't engage me. (It's just me. There will be lots of audience members, certainly her fans, who sees things that I don't see. Although there are moments where I recognise that, "yowza, here's where people are supposed to cry", and I look around to see whether anyone is, gleefully. Sorry, just can't help it.) If not meaning, then give me spectacle. I need at least one of those two things in a film I watch; emotional involvement depends on having at least one of them.
Another thing that bothered me a little were the contrivances - the most obvious being the unnecessary contrivance (though oddly the teachers thought it naturally necessary) to have students who own motorbikes fetch (or in proper English, 'to pick up') the talentime finalists from their homes for the rehearsals. This, of course, functions to allow one subplot to happen - and by the way, we never see any other talentime finalist perusing this motorbike service. And the hall rehearsals - it didn't seem to serve a purpose for the finalists (shouldn't they be doing it at home?), though again it serves the plot. Some people will say it doesn't matter - suspension of disbelief, never hear before ah? - but, well, it took me out of the film. (Didn't help that the movie was slow enough that my head was analysing this and that.)
So, to my point that our films need to start moving faster. Okay, I know it's a very Malaysian (and strictly Malaysian) reaction to immediately go to the other extreme in retort, saying, "what, you want us to do like Hollywood movies like Transformers with MTV style editing ah?" No, because often those movies move too fast. Especially Hollywood animation films. The key is to understand the speed at which the audience picks up stimuli (exposition, spectacle, emotion) from any given scene, process it and relate to what has come before - and, of course, it is different for different audiences and different from one minute of the film to the next. I don't mean it's something scientific you need to calculate, I just mean the director and editor needed to have a feel for this kind of thing as it relates to the audience. (Arthouse films are another matter.)
The most glaring problem I see in most Malaysian films is this inability to gauge when an audience knows or feels something. (Have no fear, it's not like Hollywood gets it perfect either. But then, they're also not wrong in 100% of their movies ... which is the case with Malaysia.) I'll take a very obvious example: in Kinta, we see a dramatic fight scene, which wasn't interesting to begin with, play out again later IN ITS ENTIRETY, and then AGAIN in an abbreviated form. It doesn't take some film critic to see that that is stupid - your average Malaysian audience member, who never studied a day of filmmaking, knew that that's just wrong! In short, watch out for redundancies, and also for moments where you leave the audience hanging because there ain't enough information (this one isn't bad, until you botch it up by not resolving it later, or resolving it unsatisfyingly so the audience felt like the momentary confusion wasn't worth it).
How Good I Think The Film Is: 7/10
How Much I Liked The Film: 6.5/10
PS - Browsing through other Malaysians' blog comments on the film, clearly I'm out of touch with the masses. So there.