The serious tone of the Muslim stories reaching Singapore screens is what inspired film-maker M. Raihan Halim to make a picture that was the opposite in mood.
"The Muslim stories we get are so heavy," he says. The ones people will remember are The Kite Runner (2007), an American drama production about Afghan children caught in a war, and A Separation (2011), the Academy Award-winning Iranian film about the dissolution of a marriage.
"None of them are light-hearted, so I thought, 'Why not tell a funny story about the life of Malay-Muslims in Singapore?'" he says.
The result is the feel-good comedy-drama Banting, which is Malay for slam - the move used by the tudung-wearing young woman at the centre of the story.
Raihan's debut feature tells the story of Yasmin, who defies her mother and the expectations of her friends when she joins an all-female professional wrestling troupe.
The project brings together influences from his favourite films, including the emotions in the 2002 sports underdog story Bend It Like Beckham and the cartoon-like comedy style of Hong Kong director Stephen Chow. Raihan's own boyhood love of professional wrestling also figures in the film.
"A lot of Malay boys love football, but I couldn't stand it," says the 32-year-old, who is the eldest of three children, with a laugh. He found wrestling to be an exciting mix of storytelling, celebrity glamour and great stunts.
All these elements come together in a movie with an uplifting message, that one should not let cultural stereotyping define one's limits.
He says: "I have a lot of friends who wear the tudung and many people believe it's a sign of oppression. My friends who wear it do what they love - they dirt-bike, they skydive.
It doesn't stop them. That was something I wanted to explore."
The graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's film and media studies school brought in actors he knew from producing shows for MediaCorp's Suria and Channel 5.
The actors include Izyan Mellyna Ishak as the aspiring wrestler, Yasmin; Mastura Ahmad as her conservative mother, Halimah; Fauzie Laily as Zaidy Salihin, her best friend; and Jimmy Taenaka as Harry, the gruff trainer.
The film opens on Friday on one screen, at a Cathay cineplex. This might be a small opening, but the movie is the first local Malay-language film since the 1970s to get a commercial release here.
In a typical year, there are more films in Korean, Japanese and Thai finding cinema screens here than in Malay. Raihan, who is married with no kids, acknowledges that lack of distribution here for Malay films comes from lack of audience demand.
"We don't have a real Malay film industry here, compared with Malaysia," he says.
The Malay-language television scene is by far a safer bet financially than feature films. Raihan's script was among eight films that won $250,000 in funding from the New Talent Feature Grant in 2012, a pool that helps new film-makers.
The rest of the film's $700,000 budget comes from his production company, Papahan Films.
He understands the risk, and knows that it will take a lot of marketing on television, newspapers and social media to bring in an audience.
"There is a reason to make Malay films. It's not about representing the Malay community, it's that there are Malay stories to be told.
One of the reasons we made Banting was to show that it could be done."
110 minutes / Opens on Friday
Rating Stars: 3 out of 5
The story: Yasmin (Izyan Mellyna Ishak) is a teen who generally abides by the conservative code set by her mother Halimah (Mastura Ahmad), a religious teacher.
But when the tudung-wearing young woman discovers an all-girl professional wrestling school, coached by a drunk has-been, Harry Kosugi (Jimmy Taenaka), she yearns to belong and to win.
This work is the first Singapore-made Malay- language feature to be released in a commercial cinema since the 1970s.
"Commercial" is the key word here. This is a heartfelt, broad-appeal work with above-average production values in which the characters happen not to speak English.
To be sure, it is rooted in the specifics of Singapore's Malay-Muslim community but, psychologically, the characters conform to specific film and television archetypes - stern parent, rebellious teen, helpful sidekick.
The touches of Singapore realism are welcome. Younger characters often lapse into a Malay slang, infused with English.
And in a theme this work has in common with independent Malay-Muslim cinema, Yasmin (Izyan) and her best friend Zaidy (Fauzie Laily) are split into two selves - one that exists in the traditional world of their parents and the home, and a freer one that exists when they are with friends, on the streets.
Yasmin and Zaidy slip in and out of their two skins with ease.
More importantly, this picture does an admirable job of avoiding that Suria/Vasantham habit of populating the world with people of only that channel's target race.
One day, there will be a commercial Chinese- language Singapore film that will be as brave, and not use Malay or Indian characters only as walk-ons.
Writer-director M. Raihan Halim fills up the time with situations and characters from a variety of well-known sources. Here is the Hollywood sports underdog story and there are the weirdo wrestlers that recall the weirdo martial artists of Hong Kong's Kung Fu Hustle (2004).
None of the pieces quite fit, however, and the result feels like a jumble. When the story moves into Yasmin's home, the light-heartedness vanishes; only for the humour to be turned up to full zaniness back in the women's locker room.
This is a frequent problem in local films - scenes with parents and older people feel one-dimensional and are played only for conflict or pity, lacking the nuance and sophistication of scenes with only younger people present.
The mechanics of winning and losing in pro wrestling is also never quite defined.
The story hints that bouts are more like popularity contests than actual tests of martial arts skill, yet the stakes seem to be real during matches, undermining the power of Yasmin's desires.
Despite the structural weaknesses, the main cast, comprising mainly of Suria veterans, deliver fine performances; there is not a weak link to be found.
The ringside audience, made up of older men, are a different matter.
They are there to leer at the sexy pugilists, but what most of them achieve instead is robotic arm-waving
This article was first published on October 29, 2014.
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