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For the second consecutive year, Singapore was represented on the Oscars’ best foreign-language film longlist by a feature revolving around the struggle of a foreign domestic helper in accommodating the demands of her taxing employer. But that’s where the similarities end: While Anthony Chen‘s 2012 Cannes prize-winner Ilo Ilo was a realist drama tackling the Southeast Asian city-state’s economic meltdown in the late 1990s, Sanif Olek‘s Sayang Disayang — which, like Chen’s film, failed to eventually make the Academy’s shortlist — is a dreamy, sensual and feel-good romance drama nearly devoid of social commentary but gushing with beautiful sights and sounds.
Having traveled around the festival circuit since making its bow in late 2013 — a journey including stops around Southeast Asia, Hawaii and even Mexico — Sayang Disayang draws heavily on Singapore’s historical and cultural legacy as part of the Malay archipelago. Featuring many renditions of classic ballads from decades past, the film takes its title from a legendary Malay-language ballad penned by Zubir Said for Rachun Dunia, a 1950 Singaporean film about a traditional family torn apart by modern vices. Olek’s top-billing here is Rahim Razali, a veteran Malaysian actor-director-sports commentator, and there are close-ups aplenty of meticulous preparations of Malay food, specifically the delicacy of sambal goreng. With the film being a celebration of a part of Singapore’s self-proclaimed multi-ethnic social fabric, it’s hardly a surprise that Singapore Airlines has chosen to pick it up as part of its in-flight program.
To Olek’s credit, Sayang Disayang — a lovelorn refrain that could be roughly translated as “Dear, oh dear” — appears much more lavish than its modest, partly crowdfunded budget would suggest, thanks to the first-time feature-filmmaker’s eye for the poetic visual and his cinematographers M Senthilnathan and Vincent Wong. Their lighting and lensing brings out the melancholy in the Khaiz Noor and Jerry Tan-designed house in which most of the film is set. In effect, this is a story about two souls confined indoors: Razali’s wheelchair-bound Harun is deprived of the public standing he once had as a neighborhood elder, while Indonesian caretaker Murni (Singaporean thespian-teacher Aidli Mosbit) remains attached to her roots in Aceh and is dismayed about not being able to bear witness to the changes in her village, which was stricken by the deadly tsunami in December 2004.
Murni’s gentle culinary caressing of spring onions and spices, however, reveals another level of yearning at play. Somehow she has fallen for Harun, despite his demeaning remarks about her rural background and an all-around crabbiness brought about in part by his son’s decision to relocate to Australia. What follows is a slow and gentle chronicle of the pair’s evolving bond, with Harun’s conversion stemming from his recollection (for the viewer’s benefit, mostly) of the tragedy that left him widowed, and the reconciliation with what he has in his possession now.
With Razali and Mosbit delivering carefully calibrated performances, Olek could have easily allowed sensibility and sensuality to run amok. And the film is indeed at its most mesmerizing during its dialogue-free, narrative-defying sequences; the elaboration of the story through flashbacks actually undermines the magic of it all, the expositions carrying a slight whiff of soapy schmaltz. That’s a minor quibble, perhaps, in an impressive debut from a filmmaker sensitive to his own culture and to the possibilities of rendering cinematic the traditions he holds dear.
Production company: Reeljuice
Cast: Rahim Razali, Aidli Mosbit, Asnida Daud
Director: Sanif Olek
Screenwriters: Gene Sha Rudyn, Sanif Olek
Producer: Sanif Olek
Directors of photography: M Senthilnathan, Vincent Wong
Interior designers: Khaiz Noor, Jerry Tan
Costume designer: Norehan Fong-Harun
Editor: Sanif Olek
International Sales: Reeljuice
In Malay and Indonesian
No rating; 70 minutes
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