Yasmin Ahmad’s second feature, “Sepet,” is a charming romance that uses understated drama and comedy to address the gaps between Malaysia’s three principal ethnic groups. It’s a low-key winner until the very end, when an abrupt turn toward teary catastrophe arrives, throwing off a hitherto fine balance. Continued fest play may tempt some offshore buyers, though pic’s local concerns and mild (albeit often delightful) tenor make arthouse theatrical travel a long shot.
Chipper 16-year-old student Orked (Sharifah Amani), only child of well-off Malaysian parents, is shopping with a pal when she meets earnest Ah-Loong, aka Jason (Ng Choo Seong), a slightly older Malay-Chinese boy who sells pirated VCDs at an open-air market. Despite differences in class, race and language (English is a shared middle ground), a courtly romance blossoms, one he takes rather more seriously than she at first. Scenes with Orked’s amusingly self-absorbed folks (Ida Nerina, Harith Iskandar) provide wry humor, while Jason’s less happy home life adds suspense. Helmer’s deft hand with thesps, graceful stylistic fillips and warmth toward characters make “Sepet” a sharply crafted pleasure, marred only by closing histrionics that seem imported from another movie.