A review of ‘Tanda Putera’, a film that takes liberties with the truth

File photo of Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba with the poster of ‘Tanda Putera’ in the background. — Picture by Choo Choy May
File photo of Datin Paduka Shuhaimi Baba with the poster of ‘Tanda Putera’ in the background. — Picture by Choo Choy May

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KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 1 — For Merdeka, I watched Shuhaimi Baba’s docu-drama “Tanda Putera”. Fourteen other people were in the cinema at GSC Paradigm Mall in Petaling Jaya at 11.30am.

I am unsure if any of them enjoyed the film, though an elderly Chinese gentleman in the audience walked out halfway. My one regret is that I could not do the same. The heart of “Tanda Putera” is the friendship of the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, played by Rusdi Ramli and Zizan Nin respectively.

Sadly, neither of the actors was up to the mark, but more on that later.

To call this revisionist history would be too kind. “Tanda Putera” is a poorly written, abysmally researched train wreck that makes our local soap operas look like arthouse films.

What amazes me is that it cost RM5 million to make this schlock.

Let me first start with the writing. The dialogue is cringe worthy and I am unsure if it is properly representative of the times. At a critical juncture, an aide described civil unrest as a ‘tension’ situation. Oh my bahasa.

There is no proper use of narrative in the script. Flashbacks are dumped into the film willy-nilly (possibly to keep the audience from sleeping), nonsensical subplots and completely superfluous characters abound with the last half hour dedicated to the deterioration of Razak’s health.

What Shuhaimi attempts to do is paint her impressions of the era and for the first time in film, address Umno’s favourite bogeyman: May 1969.

The problem here is that “Tanda Putera” makes no attempt at nuance. There is no balance; it is a limited and unabashedly prejudiced view of history, painting Malays to be put-upon, virtuous and generous people who have to put up with the ungrateful Chinese so easily swayed by the evil Communists.

To top off a horrid script, we have an ensemble cast with the collective expressiveness of IKEA furniture. Rusdi Ramli’s attempt at ‘method’ acting consists of him speaking in an unconvincing ‘old-time’ accent where he pronounces ‘rahsia’ (secret) as ‘reh-sia’ and having just two expressions. Either he is smiling with teeth or looking constipated. Like Keanu Reeves, for Rusdi there is no in-between.

Zizan Nin as Ismail fares no better. His forced camaraderie with Rusdi comes across as a parody of bromance, with a total absence of chemistry. A third of the film is just long, awkward dialogues where both men conspire to keep their wives (and the whole nation) in the dark about their respective health conditions.

The biggest travesty about Shuhaimi’s script is that it paints two of our greatest statesmen as pompous idiots who do not trust their wives.

And the Chinese and the DAP are mostly painted as radical subversives out for Malay blood and total dominion of the country. The ‘communist leader’ is never even given a name, as obviously it is easier to have just one Chinese baddie represent them all.

What about the women in the film? Both Razak and Ismail’s wives are miscast. You have a casting problem when supposed middle-aged women look younger than their teenaged children.

It isn’t all horrible acting, though. Ida Nerina as the stenographer Jah manages to out-act the entire “Tanda Putera” cast in her one minute of screen time.

Also difficult to believe is that Shuhaimi is an experienced director when the overall production value of “Tanda Putera” is the level of a first-year film student. The video-editing is sloppy, old footage is dropped into the film without proper context and looks out of place and there are so many stereotypical devices to the point of unintentional comedy.

For instance, characters show they are dying by either coughing blood or being unable to balance a teacup and saucer. The death scenes are badly done to the point of parody, making you think the director or actors have never seen someone actually die.

All the assassinations of senior police officials seem to happen on the same street, in the same car. Makes you think they should have put up a sign saying, “Do not stop at this junction or a Chinese communist on a motorcycle will shoot you.”

This film makes no mention of the fact that the Malayan Communist party had Malays in their ranks as well, even in their senior leadership.

But apart from all the artistic and technical problems, my biggest gripe is that “Tanda Putera” is a government-funded piece of propaganda masquerading as an artistic work based on ‘history’.

Sure, films like “Braveheart” and “Black Hawk Down” put entertainment value over factual accuracy. But they are well-made films that are at least worth the price of admission. “Tanda Putera” has no redeeming value whatsoever. It does not entertain, neither does it enlighten.

Instead, the film is a sad reminder that there are few cinematic works about our nation’s history. It should not be banned but screened as a challenge to anyone who thinks they can do a better job, because someone needs to offer an answer to this slapdash insult to all the people who lived and died for our country — including the non-Malays and yes, the Communists.

Watch “Tanda Putera” if you must, but I fear that if you’re not Malay, all this movie will leave you with is either anger or sadness that some would consider this film truthful in any way.

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