Friday, May 30, 2008

"Mukhsin" in New York. The third review.

"Nina Simone's music has brought out the best in filmmakers as diverse as Emanuele Crialese and David R. Ellis.

To their fold we can now add Yasmin Ahmad, who makes canny use of Simone's "Ne Me Quitte Pas" in her Berlin prizewinner Mukhsin, a bittersweet and feisty Malaysia-set love story between a young boy and girl.

After her grandmother amusingly instructs her grandfather on how to pronounce Simone and Nat King Cole's names, Orked (Sharifah Aryana Syed Zainal Rashid) joins her parents in a dance to the Simone classic.

Yasmin connects the heritage of the tune (a song by Jacques Brel that was covered in its original French by an African-American multi-genre chanteuse) to the customs of Orked's progressive family, then deepens that connection by cutting to a shot of Mukhsin (Muhammad Syafie bin Naswip) staring at Orked from outside—longing soulfully tied to cross-cultural ecstasy.

Throughout the film, Orked is seen as something of a mini woman warrior, trying to cross boundaries by proving that she is good enough to stand on the same patch of playground with boys her age. She is clearly cut from the same mold as her mother, who pretends to whip the girl while the family of the boy whose schoolbag Orked casually flung out a bus window listens from the adjoining room. In this standout scene, Ahmad calls subtle attention to irony of the town's women gossiping about Orked's mother's ability to speak English, presuming that it means she's shunning her Javanese heritage, while one woman expresses shock over a no doubt common ritual of child discipline.

The film is spiked with similar such episodes of cultural surveillance and reverence, with Ahmad peering the mischievousness of youth throughout with a mixture of lovingness and randiness that brings to mind Ozu's 'Good Morning'. The difference is that her style is snappier, very much synched to the way lives cross, gazes are exchanged and love is neglected.

The story is quaint but its heart is sweet and mellow, just like Simone would have liked it."

- Ed Gonzalez