Given the slew of awards received by Liew Seng Tat’s “Flower in the Pocket,” it’s no surprise that major Western film funds lined up to back his second feature, “Men Who Save the World.” But did any of them actually read the script? This ultra-light comedy about an apparently haunted house in the jungle is loaded with racially problematic scenes and homophobic gags, plus barely one line is uttered by the marginalized female characters. As populist fare, “Men” will probably find success back home, yet as an international fest item, this broadly played laffer raises more red flags than the Chinese army.
The film is supported by a veritable who’s-who of backers, all no doubt eager to support a Malaysian movie by a helmer with a successful arthouse pic already under his belt: Torino Film Lab, Hubert Bals Fund, World Cinema Fund, Sundance Institute, etc. Yet the rush to sponsor “Men Who Save the World” shows up the all-too-often neo-colonialist agenda of these “First World” organizations who magnanimously provide money to “Third World” filmmakers touting a particular vision of what the West wants to see coming out of the East, or South. In this case, perhaps they thought a comedy would shake up their usual product of distancing poverty porn; a clever laffer might have done the trick, but given the way the African character, among others, is treated here, their involvement is perplexing to say the least.
Fans of “Flower in the Pocket” might be surprised by the new film’s more mainstream style. Pak Awang (veteran Malay actor Wan Hanafi Su) wants help from his fellow villagers to carry an abandoned house into town from its incongruous perch in the jungle. The “American House,” so called because it’s painted white like the White House, has a reputation for being haunted, which spooks Pak Awang’s superstitious collaborators, though they reluctantly agree to the multi-day task of moving the structure.
In Kuala Lumpur, African immigrant Solomon (Khalid Mboyelwa Hussein) is set on by paramilitary while he’s hawking belts and watches. Hauled away in a truck, he escapes into the jungle where he finds the American House and seeks shelter. Local good-for-nothing Wan (Soffi Jikan) sees Solomon in the house, thinks he’s a demon, and runs to tell the others. Everyone becomes convinced the place is haunted by “Oily-Man,” a devil who rapes women, and a shaman (Hishamuddin Rais) advises them to attack. They dress up as women to lure the demon, then reason that he’s probably gay and likes cross-dressers, giving them further incentive to kill.
Liew adds a subtheme about a local politician (Othman Hafsham) coming to woo voters, no doubt meant as a statement regarding patronage and corruption, yet any such message is overwhelmed by the tasteless scenes with Solomon, a hunted black man whose terror is played for laughs. There’s even a scene where the blind Muezzin (Jalil Hamid) feels Solomon’s head and asks if his hair is made of metal wires. Had Liew used Solomon to illustrate the plight of African migrants in Malaysia, or at least had he given the character some kind of personality, then maybe the jokey tone could have been forgiven. Marginalizing all the women is another bad move that could easily have been rectified. Only Pak Awang (significantly helped by Wan’s nuanced performance) is given any kind of depth, though again Liew fails to fully explore this frustrated man’s motivations.
Lensing by leading Malay d.p. Teoh Gay Hian (“ThOpera Jawa,” “Rain Dogs”) is appealing, and the logistics of dragging the house through the jungle must have made for difficult shooting conditions. Too bad the talents involved put their energies into this questionable, exaggerated nonsense rather than a genuine farce with something real to say.