'Men Who Save The World': Toronto Review
A rural village is thrown into disarray when a local home is rumored to be haunted in Liew Seng Tat’s misguided second feature
Malaysian writer-director Liew Seng Tat’s underplayed comedy about a group of villagers responding to rumors of a nearby house haunting, although lacking conventionally humorous situations, still holds the potential to generate regional appeal in theatrical release, although internationally further exposure may depend on the beneficence of the festival circuit.
Liew sets the action in a rural village somewhere on the isolated east coast of Malaysia, where retired professional singer Pak Awang (Wan Hanafi Su) is preparing to marry off his only daughter (although she’s never seen in the film). As a wedding gift, he plans to present her with a house built on stilts that he owns in the jungle surrounding the town. Recognizing that an educated city girl would never live out in the woods with her new husband, he entreats his fellow residents to join together in moving the structure off its supports and into the village. Consultations with a local builder and a respected religious leader (Jalil Hamid) ascertain that a couple of dozen men will be required to lift and carry the house closer to town and with the help of his good friend Megat (Harun Salim Bachik), Pak is able to round up the requisite volunteers.
As the house moving project begins, across the country in Kuala Lumpur, illegal African immigrant Solomon (Khalid Mboyelwa Hussein), a hardscrabble street vendor, runs afoul of the law and flees the city after a tense scuffle with the cops. Abandoning a cargo truck where he’s stowed away as it travels across the country, he slips through a police dragnet near the village and flees into the forest, coming across Pak’s isolated house and taking refuge in the dilapidated structure. Out wandering the woods at night smoking illicit substances, Wan (Soffi Jikan) spots Solomon lurking in the house and flees back to the village, convincing his neighbors that the home is haunted.
Work on the relocation grinds to a halt as community members attribute a series of other odd goings-on to the house haunting and consult a respected shaman, who identifies the figure spotted by Wan as an “oily man” demon, a type particularly known for raping virgins. Forming a posse of cross-dressing demon hunters to flush out the evil in their midst, the village men abandon Pak’s project to patrol the township boundaries, gradually closing in on Solomon’s forest hideout.
Liew, who saw some initial success at international festivals with his 2007 debut Flower in the Pocket, undercuts his own attempt at a lighthearted tone with heavy-handed humor, consistently demonstrating distracting cultural, racial and gender insensitivity. From ridiculing superstitious villagers to stereotyping Africans and completely sidelining women, Liew’s film barrels ahead with barely a clue. His puerile script leads the well-known Malaysian castmembers pointlessly astray and returns little on the clearly significant effort required to move the house and shoot extensive footage in the depths of the jungle. This notable investment of talent deserves better treatment than what Liew exhibits here, although hope remains for the development of more nuanced material if anything can be salvaged from the outcome of Men Who Save the World.
Production companies: Everything Films, Volya Films, Flying Moon Filmproduktion, Mandra Films
Cast: Wan Hanafi Su, Soffi Jikan, Harun Salim Bachik, Jalil Hamid, Azhan Rani, Azman Hassan, Roslan Salleh
Director-writer: Liew Seng Tat
Producer: Sharon Gan
Director of photography: Teoh Gay Hian
Production designer: Tunku Tommy Mansur
Editors: Patrick Minks, Liew Seng Tat
Music: Hilmar Luka Kuncevic
Sales: Everything Films
No rating, 93 minutes