You will believe again, says ‘Ola Bola’ — Lee Yew Meng

JANUARY 27 — The last time our local films caught my attention were the 1980 Adik Manja and the 1983 Mekanik box office hits, both directed by maestro Othman Hafsham. Although the two films were described as Malay movies, the mass appeal was because many viewed them as wholesomely Malaysian.

The RM3.5 million collection by Adik Manja was considered a smash hit 36 years ago.

Then The Journey came along and created havoc in the annals of Malaysian box office receipts.

First it broke the record for Chinese Malaysian movie takings and then, as of March 2014, it reached RM17.28 million becoming a new Malaysian record. It is 40 per cent higher than the previous record holder.

Now, Ola Bola looks set to break the record.

Nine days ago, I had a chat with this sensational film director 43-year-old Chiu Keng Guan. He was accompanied by one of the lead actors, Mohd Luqman Hafidz, 25, and Astro assistant vice-president, communications, Daphne Chea.

His journey

I asked if he had trouble getting investors for Ola Bola and what I got was an ambivalent response until Daphne chipped in. Chiu was only having difficulty in giving me a straight answer because he didn’t want to appear showy (this is a trait prevalent among the Chinese educated). Actually funding was a complete non-issue. Here’s why.

In 2010, Chiu’s first full feature, Woohoo, netted RM4.2 million, setting a new record for Chinese Malaysian films, which historically have low takings of a mere few hundred thousand ringgit per film.

Woohoo told of age-old family values, focussing on cultural norms, showcasing some easily recognisable silly antics, and extolling how adversities are overcome (without being over bearing).
 

He followed up with Great Day in 2011, which had similar theme lines. The takings rose to RM6.5 million.

The third movie, The Journey was another simple story told about cross-cultural marriage and acceptance by a conservative rural based Chinese Malaysian father. It didn’t help that the father couldn’t speak English. The budget was RM3 million.

This comedy drama was scripted and told in such a fashion that if we had changed the language or the actors, it could easily be Malay or even a Tamil movie. It had traction with all Malaysians.

The super smash hit really took everyone by surprise, although there was little doubt of its eventual success.

Then he moved on to his next project.

The Ola Bola Malaysian football team. Chiu is in red cap and Luqman is kneeling second from right.
The Ola Bola Malaysian football team. Chiu is in red cap and Luqman is kneeling second from right.

Chiu describes himself as quite a football fanatic and had envisioned making a picture about football. With three hugely marketable films under his belt, his time for some indulgence had arrived.

He based the premise on the Malaysian team’s most laudable achievement – qualifying for the 1980 Moscow Olympics. So, he assembled his crew to do research, script-writing, location scouting, casting, acting lessons, and more, which took up one full year.

Another three months was taken for shooting and set preparations, wardrobe fittings, and football training, especially the tactical moves. Two months for the actual filming and six months more for post production. That totaled 23 months.

He sought talent who could play football over that of professional actors. His reason – it will take less time to train all the required acting over the skills demanded of realistic footballing. The five main leads had only one professional actor in Bront Palarae. JC Chee is a model turned actor, Sarankumar, a 21-year-old student, Marianne Tan had only acted in short films, and Luqman is a quantity surveyor with no acting experience.

The football scenes were shot at Victoria Institution and Merdeka Stadium.

Ola Bola will be opened for public screenings Jan 28. It’s undoubtedly a designed date as in Cantonese two eight is pronounced as yeefatt, literally meaning “easy to prosper.”
The budget of RM5 million makes it an expensive film.

Made me more Malaysian

As Chiu and his team plotted and revised the script, they kept being swamped with nationalistic emotions. As a consequence it wasn’t just a “football” movie anymore.

I believe his successes were because his movies managed to capture Malaysian situations all too well; our joys, agonies, eccentricities, hopes, silliness, pantangs, exasperations and what not. He made it ok for us to laugh at each other and ourselves. The crisp editing, no over acting and with just the right dose of comic relief, made it all the more palatable.

The really wonderful thing is that he didn’t set out to do a “propaganda” film to extol the virtues of unity. They were just Malaysian situations common to all of us, and with a little tweaking could very well be a Kadazan or Dayak movie. I think Chiu has stumbled upon our “unity in diversity” most fortuitously. We may have our various ways of preparing our meals, celebrating new years, choice of dressing, in language usage,with prayer offerings, and so on but we instantly identify that they are all Malaysian.

I asked Luqman how he felt after the filming? “Made me more Malaysian”, was the reply. He had also seen The Journey.

I asked Chiu about the movie’s tagline and he said it was originally meant to communicate that we can be a strong football nation again. Now he thinks it can reach out to mean much more. Giving me a meaningful look, Chiu stressed, “You will believe again.”

Postscript

The cameo by Datuk Rahim Razali, our sports commentator extraordinaire and Datuk Soh Chin Aun aka Tauke, long time captain of our superb national team was a masterstroke.

Chiu showcased what we could achieve being a united and strong Malaysia. There was a period where race and religious bigotry was non-existent.

We must thank Chiu Keng Guan for a brilliant Malaysian film.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.