An honest review of ‘Ola Bola’

JANUARY 30 — In film criticism and theory, there’s always been a sort of tug of war between what film critic, theorist and philosopher Andre Bazin called the Imagists and the Realists.

The Imagists are filmmakers who base their integrity on the image while the Realists are filmmakers who base their integrity on reality. The silent period, of course, saw the blossoming of the Imagists as without the aid of sound, there’s only so much realism one can put onscreen and with the advent of sound the Realists have of course gained more and more ground to practically become the only accepted mode of filmmaking nowadays.

Realism and logic has more or less become the standard that most people use to evaluate films, relegating poetic imagery, playful manipulation of time and space through montage to the realms of the avant garde and the arthouse.

With that in mind, too much reliance on realism can also be a film’s Achilles heel, especially if accepted standards of realistic storytelling and acting have not been sufficiently met.

After such a depressing 2015 for Malaysian cinema, we’re in pretty dire need of a shot in the arm to inject some excitement back into the local film scene. We did get a surprise shot early on in January 2016 as Mat Moto took even the filmmakers by surprise by scoring a reported RM4.5 million at the box office so far, and still counting.

Chiu Keng Guan (red hat) with the main actors of ‘Ola Bola’ during a pre-screening, Jan 8, 2015. — Picture by Choo Choy May
Chiu Keng Guan (red hat) with the main actors of ‘Ola Bola’ during a pre-screening, Jan 8, 2015. — Picture by Choo Choy May

Playing a bit like an idea for a short film stretched to feature length, it’s not exactly great cinema but also not a steaming pile of crap like most other mat motor or rempit movies either, so I guess Mat Moto is just proof that there really is a sizable local audience hungry for motorcycle movies out there.

The real shot in the arm that everyone’s expecting, however, is Ola Bola, the latest film by Chiu, who also did The JourneyGreat Day and Woohoo. Unlike his previous movies, which were clearly targeted at the Chinese New Year market, there’s a totally muhibbah and Malaysian feel to Ola Bola that makes it one of the most anticipated Malaysian movies in recent memory.

A fictional story (with fictional characters) based on true events, which is the adventure that the whole nation took when the Malaysian football team competed and qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, it is, in every aspect, the movie that the whole country’s been waiting for, especially when one considers the kind of turmoil that has plagued the country in the last few years.

In telling the story of a football team that’s truly multiracial, with a Chinese captain, an Indian goalkeeper, a Punjabi defender, a Sabahan striker and a new Malay star striker replacing a legend, Ola Bola is the embodiment of unity and national pride nicely wrapped up in a feel-good tear-jerker sports movie package that’s bound to be a huge crowd pleaser and bring in the big bucks.

I saw it during its first public showing on Wednesday night in a cinema near Kg. Baru, and even the audience I saw it with was a nice multiracial mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians, judging from the chatter I heard amongst them before the movie started.

In one way, the movie’s already a big success for managing to drum up that kind of anticipation and interest from almost everyone calling themselves Malaysian. Regardless of whether the movie will manage to overtake Polis Evo as Malaysia’s all-time box-office champ when it does end its run in Malaysian cinemas, it truly warms the heart to see Malaysians of all races and skin colour getting excited by a local film.

The real question remains though, is it any good as a film? Now this is where my rant about realism in the early paragraphs of this article comes into play. This being a movie that’s based on a true story, with beautifully detailed art direction, haircuts, wardrobe and props to truly replicate the era that it’s depicting, realism is undoubtedly what this film aspires to, despite a few touches of the Imagists sometimes being apparent in the way Chiu handles the transitions between the movie’s framing device (which is a conversation between a TV producer and a former football player about the national team’s adventures) and its intensive flashback structure.

And when it comes to realism, its total bedrock is and always has been a believable script and natural-sounding dialogue, executed and supported by believably naturalistic acting. Perhaps because the movie is anchored by so many fresh talents, there are way too many moments here where the acting simply does not do the movie justice at all.

The rousing speeches (especially during the half-time break or when the team or individuals are down and out) can sometimes veer towards too much corn, adding to more factors threatening to pull you out of what should’ve been a totally involving movie experience that might even get you a bit carried away with emotions.

Still, this is not, by any means, a bad movie. I just can’t honestly call it a consistently good movie, that’s all. Why? Because, for a movie with a tagline that says, “You will believe,” there are just way too many instances when I simply didn’t, even when I badly wanted to.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.