What's so special about Brunei films?

movie & TV December 20, 2013 00:00

By Wise Kwai

9,314 Viewed

There's a Thai behind the sultanate's first feature in 45 years

BRUNEI, AN oil-rich Muslim-majority sultanate on the island of Borneo, is little known to folks in the film circle because very few films have been made there.

“What’s So Special About Rina?” (“Ada Apa Dengan Rina”) should change that. Directed by Harlif Haji Mohamad and Farid Azlan Ghani, “What’s So Special About Rina?” firmly puts Brunei on the filmmaking map.

And behind it all is a Thai woman, Nurain Abdullah, who originally hails from Khon Kaen. After graduating from Chulalongkorn University’s Communications Arts Faculty, she took part in an Asean exchange programme in Kuala Lumpur. And that’s where she met Brunei native Harlif. They got married and together they have been running Regal Blue Production for the past 10 years, doing mainly TV shows.

“We are Asean,” they said together at the recent Luang Prabang Film Festival, where they and their film were a highlight of the five-day event. It was a historic first for the four-year-old festival, to have entries from all 10 Asean countries.

Aside from being the first feature film from Brunei since 1968, it’s also the first strictly commercial effort and the very first in the native Brunei Malay dialect. It also features all-Bruneian cast and crew.

And another thing the film shows is that Bruneians can be funny. “What’s So Special About Rina?” is flat-out hilarious.

The stylish romance comedy centres on a sad-sack advertising man named Hakim (Syukri Mahari) and his ladies-man roommate Faisal (an irrepressible Tauffek Ilyas). Hitting 30, the pressure is on Hakim to finally get married. Man-on-the-street interviews (okay, there are nice Muslim ladies as well) affirm what everyone in Brunei society thinks. “Oh, you’re 30? When are you going to get a nice girl and settle down”, etc, etc.

Shaven-headed smoothie Faisal, ever the player, somehow convinces Hakim that he is destined to marry a woman named Rina. And wouldn’t you know it, the next day, a new marketing manager joins the firm. Her name? It’s Rina (Dayangku Moniri Pengiran Mohiddin) of course. The pair end up working closely together, and it seems Hakim’s destiny will come true.

Meanwhile, Faisal falls for a pretty waitress named Trini but must compete for her affections with a rotund Elvis impersonator. This leads to the two men competing on a TV talent show that’s a showcase for Faisal’s talent as a singer of dangdut. That’s the popular Indian-flavored Indonesian music genre that has toes tapping even in Brunei.

Reflective moments lead to many fantasy asides, and at times it’s hard to tell fantasy from reality. There are also animated flourishes, such as Rina blowing cartoon flowers like bubbles. Another scene has a guy’s eyes popping out of a pair of binoculars, Tex Avery style.

Harlif cites a seemingly unlikely source as his biggest influence, the Farrelly brothers’ gross-out comedy “There’s Something About Mary”. And the riotous humour is much the same, though without the sexual references and hair gel – they keep it clean.

Having tackled their first feature film and made fans with their crowd-pleasing comedy, Harlif and Nurain next plan to do drama. And they say other filmmakers in Brunei have been encouraged by the success of “Rina”, which had sell-out runs in local cinemas and won an award at an Asean film fest earlier this year.

Clouds over Rotterdam

Having been supported by the festival’s Hubert Bals Fund, it’s no surprise that Lee Chatametikool’s debut feature “Concrete Clouds” is among the “early Tigers” selected for competition in next month’s International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The festival’s programmers describe it:

“Father jumps off the roof. The economy caves in. The childhood sweetheart remains out of reach. The nice girl next-door slides into prostitution. The elder brother knows better. The younger brother has no idea. Only a very special filmmaker could turn that into something light-footed and moving.”

“Concrete Clouds” makes its European premiere in Rotterdam, following its world premiere in Busan.

A Thai release is being eyed for sometime early next year.

It’s the debut feature by Lee, who has been working for more than a decade as a film editor, and is best known for his work with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong.

They are among his producers on “Concrete Clouds”, and with that film complete, Apichatpong and Anocha are both keen to get back to directing their own movies, and both were helped out in their efforts by the Rotterdam fest’s Hubert Bals Fund, which recently released its autumn round of awards.

Apichatpong’s working on “Cemetery of Kings”, his first feature since 2010’s Palme d’Or winner “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”. “Cemetery of Kings” is about soldiers coming down with “sleeping sickness” in a Mekong River town. It was previously pitched at last January’s Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum.

Meanwhile, Anocha is seeking to move ahead with her sophomore directorial feature, “By the Time It Gets Dark”, which was supported by the Prince Claus Fund of CineMart in Rotterdam. It will be her followup to 2009’s “Mundane History” (“Jao Nok Krajok”). “By the Time It Gets Dark” deals with a young factory worker who embarks on a quest to find her freedom.