At the time of writing, Syamsul Yusof’s highly-anticipated Mat Kilau – Kebangkitan Pahlawan a.k.a. Mat Kilau has already made RM7 million in just three days since its Thursday opening on June 23. Having finally managed to watch the movie in the cinema over the weekend (it was almost full house even for the morning showtime), I was curious to see Syamsul Yusof’s first stint directing a historical genre loosely based on the eponymous Malay warrior who famously fought against the British colonists in Pahang during the late 19th century.
In this dramatic re-telling credited to co-writers Shahruddin Dali and Syamsul Yusof, the story is pretty much straightforward. To sum it up, it’s all about Mat Kilau (Dato’ Adi Putra) and his fellow warriors (Beto Kusyairy’s Wahid, Fattah Amin’s Awang and Johan As’ari’s Yassin) uniting to fight against the British army led by the ruthless Captain Syers (Geoff Andre Feyaerts), who has exploited the locals in their Pahang homeland long enough. There are conflicts involved, mainly between Mat Kilau and Awang, who don’t see eye to eye on how things are done.
Syamsul Yusof isn’t interested to delve deep into Mat Kilau’s life story, where he eschews the biopic details in favour of focusing solely on the titular warrior’s battle against the British army. In other words, it’s more of a fast-paced action-packed drama from start to finish. With lots of killing, violence, explosion and of course, pencak silat sequences.
The latter sees Syamsul continues to embrace fast shutter speeds with herky-jerky camera work and frantic editing similar to the ones seen in his first two KL Gangster. Such a visual approach is meant to evoke a heightened sense of chaotic and dramatic effects. The fights are both brutal and visceral and some of the elaborate martial arts choreography is worth mentioning here, notably the climactic duel between Mat Kilau and Wahid against the hired British assassin, Toga (Yahya Ruhian). But I kind of wish that Syamsul would pull back his camera more often to allow us to appreciate the beauty of the choreography. Other times, the dizzying camera work makes it hard to decipher what’s going on during the fight, particularly during the nighttime scene.
Back to the story, the movie is unabashedly operatic that (most) characters tend to shout their lines. Lots of battle cries and recurring dialogues involved how Malays are being constantly oppressed and looked down upon and they have to stand up to fight against the British. I get that the movie is trying to deliver a clear-cut message about patriotism and defending honour. But is it really that necessary to keep repeating such dialogues again and again throughout the movie?
The acting, in the meantime, is a mixed bag. Dato’ Adi Putra’s no-nonsense portrayal in his lead role as Mat Kilau does have his moments. But it’s kind of odd that his co-star, Beto Kusyairy steals most of the show with his engaging performance as Wahid. And the thing is, Wahid turns out to be a fictional character created specifically for the movie. Here, Wahid’s character arc is surprisingly given a significant emotional stake that I care more about him than Mat Kilau, who is supposed to be the main focus in the movie.
As for the rest, Fattah Amin and Johan As’ari deliver respectively solid supporting turns as Awang and Yassin. Geoff Andre Feyaerts’s scenery-chewing antagonist role as Captain Syers is rather a letdown and so does his unconvincing British accent. By comparison, Yahya Ruhian’s Toga fares better in his role as a vicious assassin.
Over the course of the movie’s nearly two-hour length, I can’t help but notice the sound effects are cranked up way too high and some of the costume designs, notably Captain Syers’ red army uniform look too distracting.
Interestingly enough, the filmmaking journey of Mat Kilau isn’t smooth sailing, to begin with. It was first announced in 2007 but the shooting only commenced in 2014 when it hits a snag with the studio (Studio Kembara) replacing its original director with Syamsul Yusof. But instead of picking up where the production has left off, Syamsul decided to start anew and reshoot the movie in 2017.
Despite some of its shortcomings, Mat Kilau remains an entertaining historical drama with enough action to keep you occupied throughout the movie.