Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa

The studio that gave you “Cicakman” presents a multi-million Ringgit fantasy blockbuster in the best traditions of Hollywood. But does it measure up?

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” will really get Hollywood blushing.

That is if the film ever manages to find an audience beyond these shores. For all its pretensions to being a film by, for and about Malaysians, it is very much geared towards a more “Western” sensibility. It even has a different title for the international market: “The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines”. The irony is that in trying to mimic the syles and mindsets of Western cinema, it has lost whatever unique sense of identity that might’ve made it appealing to the Mat Sallehs.

And this is the biggest problem with Malaysian cinema in general. The lack of a singular, original voice. Perhaps our nation’s pluralism has something to do with it. Perhaps that’s just an excuse. After all, a few local filmmakers like the late Yasmin Ahmad managed to turn our diversity into a selling point, allowing their films to resonate even with foreigners. Ahmad’s films, like “Sepet” and “Gubra” celebrated true Malaysiana, warts and all. In being single-minded about the differences that make us what we are, her films felt honest. And honesty is a universally appreciable trait.

Of course, an art-house drama is a very different exercise compared to a mainstream action-fantasy blockbuster. But at heart, the same values apply. “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” is a reasonably well-made film, filled with moments of genuine entertainment, but at heart, it lacks a feeling of honesty. Throughout the entire running time, there are very few moments that feel like it’s a story about a Malaysian legend that is being told by Malaysian filmmakers. From the anachronistic character attitudes that are cribbed straight out of the Disney heroine textbook, to the costume designs that are more appropriate for Hollywood’s Swords & Sandals epics, to ethnic characters who speak in perfect English when they have no rightful reason to do so, to the quasi-inspirational speechifying lifted from a thousand war flicks, you’d be hard-pressed to find something that feels like it belongs here.

A shame, since the legend of Merong Mahawangsa is rich and compelling enough without the need for surface embellishments. For those of you unfamiliar with this figure from Malaysian folklore, he was supposedly a descendent of Alexander The Great, a formidable warrior who was instrumental in the founding of Kedah (then known as the kingdom of Langkasuka). Interestingly enough, the Merong Mahawangsa of history was a devout Buddhist, so take the movie’s depiction of him as a bloodletting scoundrel with a pinch of salt. In fact, the filmmakers take a great number of liberties with history, in the name of entertainment. No big deal, since this isn’t meant to be a documentary or even a biography. Playing fast and loose with our historical figures can actually make them more vivid and immediate.

Which is precisely what scriptwriters Yusry Abdul Halim and Amir Hafizi have done. To their credit, they have revived a name that most Malaysians (myself included) were only aware of on the most rudimentary level. Which says a lot about how history is taught in our schools. But I digress. In this tale, they’ve made Merong an educated savage in the manner of Mel Gibson’s legendary Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace (“Braveheart”).

It works for the purposes of this story, since here he needs to be the rough & tumble sort, while eventually discovering his destiny as a king. The thing is, this isn’t his story alone. Probably out of some directive to invoke the Malaysian spirit of “muhibbah”, the scope becomes global. Apparently, the Roman Empire of the 2nd Century AD saw fit to grow ties with the Chinese Empire. To accomplish that, they arranged for their prince, Marcus Carprenius to wed a Chinese princess, Meng Lihua. By chance, Merong gets roped in to escort the prince to the Malay peninsula, where the contingent from China awaits. Naturally, things don’t go according to plan. A fearsome tribe of pirates with supernatural powers enters the fray, and shit hits the fan. So far so fictitious, but if it makes for a good yarn, I’m all for it.

The problem is the way the yarn unravels. I do realise the need to paint in relatively broad strokes when playing to a mainstream audience: heroes and villains are uncomplicated people, with motivations in black & white, while the plot follows a linear path. Unfortunately, everything is SO broad and obvious in this film, they verge on parody. It certainly doesn’t help that this film falls prey to another ugly trait of local cinema— acute melodrama. Lines are declared with full bombast where they should just be spoken. Character intentions are broadcasted, in your face, where simple hints would suffice.

This lack of subtlety is what generally separates Southeast Asian cinema from our more advanced cousins in the Asia-Pacific region. A friend of mine argued that the audience mindset here is different compared to say, Japan or Australia. And I agree. The reason it’s like this is because we’re in a self-perpetuating loop. Filmmakers here are convinced that audiences cannot accept anything more sophisticated, so they keep giving us stuff that feeds the existing mentality. And the cycle continues…

Then add to the equation the barefaced aping I raised earlier. Copying is no great crime if you do it well, and understand how it should be done so that the result is something you can call your own. Some of the best directors are notorious magpies: Quentin Tarantino regularly rips off little-known B-movies, and turns them into refreshingly hip, modern takes. James Cameron’s “Avatar” was basically “Dances With Wolves” meets “Ferngully”. But he added his geek-obsession with deep-sea marine life and his trademark techno-centricity to the mix and the film became something no one had ever seen before.

With “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” there is the distinct impression that you’ve seen it all before, and done much better elsewhere. Director Yusry Halim has an eye for what’s cool, but he lacks an understanding of context. Just because you can ape something, doesn’t mean you should. Case in point: the jittery, stop-motion style frame-rate for the climactic battle scenes. Treatments like these worked in films like Neil Burger’s “The Illusionist” because they aided the storytelling, and informed the audience of a character’s psychological state. Here, there’s no reason for it, other than saying “Hey, I think it looks kinda cool.” Even worse, these techniques just draw unnecessary attention to themselves, and get in the way of the action or the dialogue.

HMM still2

In spite of all these impediments, most of the cast acquit themselves fairly well. Stephen Rahman-Hughes has the heaviest burden to shoulder. He has the thankless task of being the hero in a film that seems determined to make its hero look and sound silly. For the confrontational scenes, he isn’t able to overcome the directorial misstep of being made to deliver his lines like he’s a used-car salesman. Being saddled with a cheesy screenplay only accentuates this. It is only during the film’s quieter moments that Rahman-Hughes’ natural screen presence comes through, unfettered from the directive to try so hard. Good actors should never be over-directed, or they’ll just end up giving you a performance on par with the worst actors. British import Gavin Stenhouse also makes the best of a limited role. He has an easygoing charm that makes his Prince Marcus a guy to root for.

The film’s best performance however, belongs to veteran actor Dato’ Rahim Razali. Although buried under comedy Gandalf wig and beard, he brings a strong, calm dignity to his role as Pak Kesum, the wise old sage who guides Merong on his path to becoming a leader of men. Razali’s presence lends the film a much-needed air of gravity and believability.

I have to say that it is extremely difficult to do a period-set action-fantasy epic that actually comes across as epic. While the production values of “Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa” aren’t quite up to Western standards, it is still a pretty commendable effort by any measure. KRU Studios have managed to give their film the veneer of a production far more lavish than the reported budget of RM8 million. That kind of money can barely even finance the average independent film in America.

Now all they need to do is avoid the “Rojak” (fruit salad) syndrome, by finding a voice that is all their own.

Storyteller by trade and dreamer by nature, Wai has been deeply nuts about the celluloid world since the first time he discovered he could watch a story instead of reading it. But he likes writing about it. Wai goes by a single name because he likes to avoid any “Imperial entanglements” (a.k.a. “conflict of interest with the powers that be” for those of you who don’t speak Star Wars) in his employment. Plus, cool people use one-word names. He has just set up a movie website, the first of its kind in Malaysia, in an effort to foster greater filmic knowledge for the rakyat. Check out Electroshadow.

Storyteller by trade and dreamer by nature, Wai has been deeply nuts about the celluloid world since the first time he discovered he could watch a story instead of reading it. But he likes writing about...

13 replies on “The LoyarBurok Movie Review: Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa”

  1. Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa or The Kedah Annals is an ancient Malay literature that chronicles the bloodline of Merong Mahawangsa and the foundation of the Kedah, a state in Malaysia. Though there are historical accuracies, there are many incredible assertions. The era covered by the text ranged from the opening of Kedah by Merong Mahawangsa, allegedly a descendant of Alexander the Great of Macedonia till the acceptance of Islam.

    Merong Mahawangsa was a hindu and there were nine hindu rulers before Phra Ong Mahawangsa converted to Islam in 1136 and took the name Sultan Mudzafar Shah. The annal also describes Chola's empire trades on Kedah.The tribute was send to the chola empire on every year by the kedah sultanate to the chola empire and after to the siam.we still can find the antique and god statue of chola dynasty in kedah.The descendants of Phra Ong Mahawangsa is still ruling Kedah able to trace their lineage from Merong Mahawangsa. He named Kedah at that time 'Langkasuka', for which 'Langka' meant 'the land of glory' in Sanskrit, while 'suka' was from the name of the great jainism[later convert to buddhism] emperor Asoka.

    KRU Studios has completed the production of its feature film entitled "Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa", which is also internationally retitled as "The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines" even though the history states that Merong Mahawangsa is of Indian lineage. This epic action adventure, directed by Yusry A. Halim, is loosely based on the myth of its namesake.

    KD Mahawangsa is a Royal Malaysian Navy vessel named in the ancient monarch's honor

  2. In the Sangam literature that depicts the Chola Dynasty of Southern India, there's a great detail about Langkasuka and Kadaram(which later turned to be Kedah). I dont believe most people here dare to read the real origins of the Malay kings. Alexander the great…….dream on guys. Repeating a lie, even a million times, doesnt make it the truth!

  3. Wai,

    Please don't insult "truly learned scholars" by calling me one.

    I almost fell off my chair when I read from your reply that Merong Mahawangsa was actually taught in school history lessons. Good God! Err… what about Puteri Gunung Ledang, Badang and Raja Bersiong?

    Fahri – you have set out the exact reasons why I don't watch Malay dramas/movies at all (except for some stolen views of Fasha Sanda in tight jeans sometimes). LOL!!

  4. The 'cultural shallowness' depicted by many Malay films and TV shows in recent history could be a factor for local film-makers to "gear toward western sensitivities" when they think of a film for the international market. Unlike other Asian films which do not sell out their cultural identity to sell well across borders, ambitious Malaysian film-makers don't have that great sense of pride toward Malaysian culture. There's Yasmin Ahmad but her films are kinda "arthouse-ish" to the mainstream audience because of the slow pacing.

    But then again, what about Upin & Ipin? A Malaysian animated product that has secured a considerable following outside its Nusantara stronghold (i.e. Malaysia and Indonesia) despite its kampung setting; thanks to Disney Channel, people in the Philippines, Vietnam and Singapore now know who these bald twins are very well. But because of its kampung setting, Upin & Ipin may not greatly appeal beyond Southeast Asia but it remains truly Malaysian, largely unpeppered with storytelling elements that appear too Western.

    Oh yeah, don't forget: at times I felt that making a local film in English for the international market is pointless because some non-English countries choose to dub (rather than subtitle) the film into their native language, such as France, Germany, Italy, Russia, India, Thailand, Latin America etc. Should HMM be exported to these countries, our heroes would be "speaking" French, German, Hindi etc. among themselves.

  5. anak_perelih: Yes, absolutely. Why not? It's alright to have the characters converse in a common cinematic lingua franca for certain scenes—English, for example. This is just one of those filmic shortcuts. But in scenes where characters are conversing amongst their own people, yes, they should certainly be speaking in their respective native tongues. I had the same problem with films like "Forbidden KIngdom" (Jackie Chan and Jet Li) where natives of China suddenly developed the ability to speak in perfect English, when speaking to a fellow Chinese even though there wasn't a single Gwailo around. It's just patronising and might I say, kinda annoying… Thanks for writing!

  6. Hi everyone, thanks for the feedback!

    LN: I know EXACTLY what you mean by your parallel to advertising. Heh. Yeah, it's kinda frustrating.

    Art Harun: Thanks for the history lesson. But to address your points… Firstly: I distinctly remember learning of Merong Mahawangsa in school, via my history teacher, no less. So if you have an issue with this, please take it up with the Kementrian Pendidikan Malaysia. Looks like I'm just a product of that flawed system. Secondly: perhaps you missed the sarcasm in my statement about the spirit of muhibbah? I didn't mean it literally. Do note that at the end of the paragraph you quoted (the portion you somehow omitted), I said "So far so fictitious". In fact this line also serves as a summation of my understanding that MM wasn't exactly a wholly "real" historical figure, but someone like Robin Hood, who was part fact, part fiction according to many historians. In any case, it's great to have truly learned scholars such as yourself to set the record straight.

    Fahri: Hahaha! Good example with the RTM dramas. I used to watch that stuff back in the day, and it had a certain kind of bizarre appeal. LOL at the "orange juice" scenes!

    Rasydan: Actually, I AM giving the filmmakers a break. To be very honest, this is considered a pretty restrained critique from me. The audience I watched it with were visibly fidgety in some of the film's more draggy moments, and the makcik a couple of seats away fell asleep halfway. Everyone's a critic nowadays. And you're right about the film being intended for the overseas market. But if we Malaysians can take subtitles, why can't the Mat Sallehs? They can (and should) be reading English subtitles while the dialogue is delivered in our respective native tongues. By pandering to an international audience with English-speaking characters who shouldn't be speaking in English at all, it betrays the faithfulness to the period and the race.

    Badeklangbuana: I agree that this film is indeed a step up in quality from the kind of filmmaking we've always been stuck in. Kudos to KRU Studios for that. The thing is, they sorely need better scripts for starters. It's a universal fundamental in order for any film to be good, regardless of the state of the industry.

  7. Try to look at this movie as "the next level" where Malaysian film should go! Otherwise we'll be stuck with that Razak Mohidin's "masterpieces" or should i put it, masterpisses?

  8. I haven't watch the movie but i definitely intend to watch it soon. Yusry may not be the best director in Malaysia but heyy..give them a break..they're trying to make some kind of epic movie…the first in Malaysia. That's a thumb up for me.

    If I'm not mistaken, the movie was intended to be sold for oversea market as well. Maybe that's why Merong speak good english. Otherwise, it'll be like australian speaking their accent to malaysians..and that won't be a selling point of a movie.

    Maybe KRU should employ Kabir Bakhtiar to direct their next epic movie.

  9. Hi Wai,

    The movie sounds like a just about most TV1/TV2 dramas I've seen except with a bigger budget.

    "Unfortunately, everything is SO broad and obvious in this film, they verge on parody. It certainly doesn’t help that this film falls prey to another ugly trait of local cinema— acute melodrama. Lines are declared with full bombast where they should just be spoken. Character intentions are broadcasted, in your face, where simple hints would suffice."

    I just don't know why our fellas keep doing these things! I just laughed at the last line because that's precisely what they do. Bulging eyes to demonstrate disbelief or anger. The 'Bitch' will always smile. Some unnecessary long drawn out crying scene chucked in. If HMM were set in modern times, there'll sure will be one Orange Juice scene between the 'Bitch' and the 'Good Innocent Girl'.

    Don't these people that make these movies/dramas know any better, I wonder sometimes.

  10. Sorry, I have some comments to make.


    Quote:"In fact, the filmmakers take a great number of liberties with history, in the name of entertainment."End quote.

    As far as I know, Merong Mahawangsa was never ever a historical character. It is a penglipur-lara (folklore) character from the Malay folklore titled Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. Like Sejarah Melayu (The Malay Annals), where Tun Sri Lanang tried to lend credence to the Melaka Sultanate and its greatness, HMM is an attempt to glorify the Kedah Sultanate.

    The process of glorification of the Sultanate, in various Malay folklore, often takes the form of identifying the Sultan of the state (which was being glorified)with well known historical character. Sejarah Melayu identifies the Melaka Sultanate with Iskandar Dzulkarnain. HMM on the other hand identifies the Kedah Sultanate with a Roman prince who was to marry a princess from China (a combination of Rome and China).

    Merong Mahawangsa was the admiral of the Roman fleet who was to deliver the Roman Prince to the Chinese Princess.


    Quote: "It works for the purposes of this story, since here he needs to be the rough & tumble sort, while eventually discovering his destiny as a king. The thing is, this isn’t his story alone. Probably out of some directive to invoke the Malaysian spirit of "muhibbah", the scope becomes global. Apparently, the Roman Empire of the 2nd Century AD saw fit to grow ties with the Chinese Empire." End quote.

    I have not watched the movie and so I am in the dark as to how it depicts the folklore that is HMM. But I am sure that the director or writers were not "invoking" the Muhibbah spirit or trying to globalise the storyline by making reference to the Roman-China ties.

    I say that because that was how the story began in HMM. Well, almost began, I mean.

    In HMM, the Roman prince was to marry the China Princess. A fleet was dispatched headed by Merong Mahawangsa. On the way however, it was attacked – not by a bunch of pirates with supernatural powers – but by a fearsome bird – the "Garuda" – which was so big and could spit fire like a dragon. The Garuda was bent on making sure that the Roman Prince and the China Princess do not meat each other. Why motivated the Garuda? Oh well, that was the Garuda's bet with Solomon!

    So, by depicting the Rome-China story, the writers were just telling HMM as it is (although they might have substituted the pirates for the Garuda).

    As you could probably see, I am a HMM nut. I just love the story when I was in lower secondary. Heck, I still love it now. :)

  11. I must catch it. But I can already imagine what you said about "being too obvious". It's a bit like advertising isn't it? "They won't get it…please write something simpler…" or "Oh Malaysians won't understand the word 'savour'". I think people who have a bit of taste and boat loads of cash shouldn't direct unless they understand how people converse and behave in real life (whatever the period, wherever the locale) and they have ideas. A film isn't just about using whatever technique, plot and tricks you like or have seen and throwing them all into a script.

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