Movie review: Friends wrestle with freedom and tradition in Malay comedy Banting

Review Comedy-drama

BANTING (PG13)

110 minutes/Opens on Friday/***

The story: Yasmin (Izyan Mellyna Ishak) is a teen who generally abides by the conservative code set by her mother Halimah (Mastura Ahmad), a religious teacher. But when the tudung-wearing young woman discovers an all-girl professional wrestling school, coached by a drunk has-been, Harry Kosugi (Jimmy Taenaka), she yearns to belong and to win.

This work is the first Singapore-made Malay- language feature to be released in a commercial cinema since the 1970s.

"Commercial" is the key word here. This is a heartfelt, broad-appeal work with above-average production values in which the characters happen not to speak English.

To be sure, it is rooted in the specifics of Singapore's Malay-Muslim community but, psychologically, the characters conform to specific film and television archetypes - stern parent, rebellious teen, helpful sidekick.

The touches of Singapore realism are welcome. Younger characters often lapse into a Malay slang, infused with English.

And in a theme this work has in common with independent Malay-Muslim cinema, Yasmin (Izyan) and her best friend Zaidy (Fauzie Laily) are split into two selves - one that exists in the traditional world of their parents and the home, and a freer one that exists when they are with friends, on the streets. Yasmin and Zaidy slip in and out of their two skins with ease.

More importantly, this picture does an admirable job of avoiding that Suria/Vasantham habit of populating the world with people of only that channel's target race.

One day, there will be a commercial Chinese- language Singapore film that will be as brave, and not use Malay or Indian characters only as walk-ons.

Writer-director M. Raihan Halim fills up the time with situations and characters from a variety of well-known sources. Here is the Hollywood sports underdog story and there are the weirdo wrestlers that recall the weirdo martial artists of Hong Kong's Kung Fu Hustle (2004).

None of the pieces quite fit, however, and the result feels like a jumble. When the story moves into Yasmin's home, the light-heartedness vanishes; only for the humour to be turned up to full zaniness back in the women's locker room.

This is a frequent problem in local films - scenes with parents and older people feel one-dimensional and are played only for conflict or pity, lacking the nuance and sophistication of scenes with only younger people present.

The mechanics of winning and losing in pro wrestling is also never quite defined.

The story hints that bouts are more like popularity contests than actual tests of martial arts skill, yet the stakes seem to be real during matches, undermining the power of Yasmin's desires.

Despite the structural weaknesses, the main cast, comprising mainly of Suria veterans, deliver fine performances; there is not a weak link to be found.

The ringside audience, made up of older men, are a different matter. They are there to leer at the sexy pugilists, but what most of them achieve instead is robotic arm-waving.