Let me start with a disclaimer: I’m not a football fan. You Americans call it soccer (because apparently football is what you call a game where you clasp the ball under your armpit most of the time, but I digress). I wanted to watch Ola Bola because of the hype. Because it’s Malaysian, apparently.
Not made in Malaysia. Malaysian.
Before we get into a heated debate, let’s be clear that Ola Bola is a sports movie, pure and simple. As such, it follows the sports genre formula to the letter:
Underdog — new coach inherits a crappy team — star player rebels against the new coach — training montage — team starts winning — good team comes to taunt — final game, losing the first half — inspirational half-time pep talk — team wins by a point — more inspiration.
image: screen-captured from http://cheezburger.com/2625938688
The premise is this: it is 1980 (thank God I’m not of that fashion era!), and the Malaysian football team is gearing up for the Moscow Olympic qualification. They lost the qualifying match to Korea back in 1976, so they are determined to qualify this time. The captain, Tauke, needs that qualification, and is pushing the team. They get a new coach from England, and…read the trope above.
There are three significant things that make Ola Bola different, though. One: it’s a Malaysian narrative. Two: the main characters have lives — even jobs — that have nothing to do with football. Three (and the most important of all): the movie is a subtle and subliminal clarion call for all Malaysians to wake up from their comfort zone and unite.
People are enthusing that Ola Bola is Malaysian. That’s what Malaysians say when someone or something great is not Malay. You’re a great sportsperson/author/actor/designer but not Malay? We are proud of you, you great Malaysian you. Other than that, we keep hearing declarations like “pergi balik negara asal kau la!” (go back to your country of origin).
Malaysian birth certificate, Malaysian identification card. The negara asal is Malaysia. Duh.
When you slap the term “Malaysian movie” on Ola Bola, I find it distasteful, and doing the director, Chiu Keng Guan, a disservice. I think it’s a Chinese movie, what with the first 15 minutes being in Chinese and all (I think Cantonese and Mandarin dialects are used, but I may be wrong. Maybe it’s just Mandarin.) and with the credits written in both Chinese and Malay. But the characters also converse in English, Malay and Tamil. They don’t converse one another in Malay or English for the benefit of the audience; they speak their natural languages in their natural environments. There’s even my favorite “Why ah?” line. In other words, the narrative is inherently Malaysian, with all its nuances and flavors. For foreigners who want a taste of near-modern Malaysia, this movie is a must-watch. I refuse to slap the term “Malaysian movie” on Ola Bola, though.
The main characters (Captain Tauke, goalie Muthu and aspiring sports commentator Rahman) have their own lives and families, as well as their own sets of worries and hardships. Taukeh works non-stop (rubber tapping, office clerking and then helps his girlfriend at the funfair at night ON TOP of football practices and games — #lebihdari2kerja) just to make ends meet, and his younger sister disapproves of his chasing his football dream — or so it seems. Muthu, the eldest son of the family, is getting flak from his dad for not being there to help deliver coconuts to shops. Rahman…well he always gets his twin daughters mixed up.
There are no Datuks and Tan Sris and overbearing (and overdressed) Datins in this movie. These three focus characters have their own versions of kampung houses and families. We the audience get a taste of these culturally diverse lives that are united by a common thread: the bond of family. Also, nasi lemak. I kid you not. Paraphrasing Tauke in his conversation with Rahman, “kulit kita lain warna, tapi kita sama-sama makan nasi lemak.” Our skin colors may be different, but we all eat nasi lemak. Something like that. What’s so beautiful about this movie is that these culturally different lives are showcased in a way that is not forced onto the audience as with the “Ahmad, Ah Chong and Raju” problem that is prevalent in our patriotic/inspirational movies and advertisements where racial unity is shown in a stereotypical manner (read: pretentious).
Speaking of, talk about being subliminal. Talk about inception. I’m not sure if most other audience members realize this, but the part where the coach talks about the Malaysian team being too deep in its comfort zone, and a change will do it a lot of good, as well as the older version of Tauke’s speech at the end…wow. Good speeches. Deep. Like I said, a clarion call for all Malaysians to wake up, but done in a subtle and tasteful way. Subliminal.
The actors are mostly new and green, so the underacting that at times can be lackluster is expected. I also think the three Caucasian teams they went up against used the same players. Comic relief that borders on slapstick is also rampant, but hey, it’s entertaining as hell. We were all laughing with abandon during the funny bits. And the trope. Come on.
These imperfections hardly matter, though. During the ending speech, the random lady beside me sniffled. Heck, even I felt a little patriotic watching Ola Bola. Because it is a beautiful movie in spite of its imperfections. The cinematography…masya Allah, it’s superb. There’s this (totally unnecessary) scene where the team boards a Nuri helicopter and we get a montage of random but breathtaking aerial views of Malaysian mountains, islands, paddy fields, swamps and forests, and I whispered to Sab, “this isn’t Malaysia. It’s so beautiful! But wait. That’s totally Sabah. Can the helicopter fly that far?” The match scenes are also realistic — as realistic as a non-fan can expect, at any rate. The spirit of the bond created when cheering for your fellow countrymen is palpable. It reaches out throughout the cinema hall.
So why the dramatic title? I felt depressed watching the movie because it’s a fictional Malaysia. It’s Malaysia as how it should be, and not how it is. There is no mention of Melayu or Cina or India at all. When a team member is in trouble, the other helps out. “I cover you,” as Muthu tells Ali.
There is no. Mention. Of. Race.
How beautiful — and sadly fictional is that?
Malaysians (especially the Malays) are so wrapped up in paranoia and distrust that even a good Samaritan helping another person gets highlighted as “Malay guy helps a Chinese aunty” or “Malay elderly refuses the help of an Indian doctor”. It’s depressing that instead of fellow Malaysians, we are forced into clusters and labels of our own doing. Our children are taught to distrust other races. We are conditioned to look at immigrants from countries like Indonesia, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar as lesser beings. Non-Malays are always reminded of the pre-Merdeka past, and to be grateful for the generosity of Malays.
Inilah barisan kita
Yang ikhlas berjuang
Siap sedia berkorban
Untuk ibu pertiwi
I won’t even bother translating these lyrics because Malaysians understand the words, and the meaning behind the words. Only that we have chosen to let the lyrics be just meaningless words.
Watching this movie depresses me because it portrays a beautiful Malaysia that we are drifting farther and farther from every day. It also gives me hope because while it is not a Malaysian movie, the movie is for Malaysia. It is also the best movie Malaysia has produced to date.
“Kita menang sama-sama, kita kalah pun sama-sama.”
We win as one, we lose as one.
May the beautiful words be more than just fiction, insya-Allah.
I leave you with the beautiful song "Arena Gemilang" by Zee Avi.