Darkness, like an off-white canvas to a painter, is the ideal starting point for an image-maker. In complete darkness, the smallest of lights gleam and mean something, which is why night time, like the canvas, holds the promise of unlimited possibilities.
When Rahul, the Indian immigrant from the first segment of Kolumpo, looks out the window in awe on his ride from the airport to the city, I saw these possibilities reflected in his eyes. It’s the same thing I see when I look at KL; the same thing I felt when I walked into the cinema: like anything could happen.
A friend of mine described Kolumpo as an anthology consisting of three short films that attempt to look at KL through three different lenses. It’s less Paris Je T’aime and more Kieslowski’s Three Colours. I like that description, and I like the title too. “Kolumpo”: it’s very audacious; hard not to admire such ambition.
In the first segment (directed by Bront Palarae), we meet Rahul (Azad Jazmin), a character with a more positive outlook on life than almost anyone I know. Bad things happen to him repeatedly — over and over — but every time, he somehow finds it in himself to persevere, still maintaining that same positive outlook. In a way, he reminded me of Poppy, Sally Hawkins’ character from Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky: cheerful and full of energy. But as the film progressed, I found Rahul having less and less in common with her, if only because I can’t imagine Poppy ever being so naive.
Oscar Wilde famously wrote, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.” I believe that Palarae’s aspiration to treat serious topics like immigration and domestic slavery with humour is quite noble, but while his segment had a lot of style (gorgeous cinematography and incredible out-of-left-field dance sequences), the broad humour, along with the implausibility of the characters’ motivations, prevented it from truly being great.
In the second segment of the film (directed by Rozi Izma), an unmarried 30-something Chinese woman, Gienna (Nell Ng), accidentally ends up in charge of an elderly woman. As soon as she realises that Nek Wok (played flawlessly by Ruminah Sidek) is senile, she does everything a rational person would do – everything I would’ve done – to get Nek Wok back to safety.
This segment dragged on a bit and was repetitive at points, but there was this beautiful moment when, after an unfortunate event, Gienna sat on the curb, helpless. She had tried every single thing she should have, and now, she’s emotionally broken. At that moment, I was right there with her, sitting next to her on the curb with a banana leaf over my head thinking: “Now, what?” That, my friends, is the mark of great filmmaking.
The third and final segment (directed by Sheikh Munasar), is the most fun of the three. It follows Hafidd (Amirul Ariff), a young gentleman who’s never had a girlfriend but desperately wants one while also pretending to be above it all. Essentially, he’s his own worst enemy. Luckily for him, he runs into Hayy (Sharifah Amani), a young woman who drags him down the “rabbit hole” and shows him a side of KL previously unknown to him. Over the course of the night, they meet a bunch of colourful characters, and in the process – somehow – Hafidd learns to stay out of his own way.
I like Munasar’s segment because it’s like cotton candy: colourful, sweet, and almost intimidating in its size. Although, like cotton candy, on closer inspection, you see that’s all it really is: sugar, color, and lots and lots of air in between.
The three stories connect vaguely through characters from the three stories crossing paths momentarily, and that, I think, is Kolumpo’s biggest shortcoming. I liked that the cross-overs are subtle, but I felt that the locations where the cross-overs take place are a little too specific to whatever story we’re in. Because of that, we get the impression that KL is a microcosm, instead of the big metropolis that it is, full of endless possibilities – like I felt when I walked into the cinema.
The Universe of movies where KL is a character (and not just a backdrop) is almost in compete darkness, and because of that, Kolumpo shines. The thing about darkness though, you see, is that it’s not a thing in itself, but rather an absence of something: light.
I’m looking forward to that beacon that shines on KL and shows it for the metropolis it is; a film that touches on something very specific, but also universal (Rozi’s film actually did that to some extent); a film that makes more of the city’s potential. Until then, I’ll keep bobbing my head to Darren Ashley and The Impatient Sisters’ soundtrack single for the film, “Nadi Kota”.
All photos courtesy of Kolumpo.
Al Ibrahim is a writer, photographer and filmmaker based in KL. He blogs regularly at Failed Imitator.