Paskal Review: A Technical Achievement in Malaysian Cinema

But what about the writing?

Adrian Teh’s Paskal: The Movie, is one that centres around our very own Pasukan Khas Laut (Naval Special Warfare Forces), and is inspired by a couple of their real-life successful missions — the one that took place in Angola back in 1998 and the MT Bunga Laurel hijacking in the Gulf of Aden in 2011. It is a film where the characters say ‘ti-ma kasih’ instead of ‘ ka.sih’. Sounds like a weird thing to point out, doesn’t it? But one thing that tends to bother me with some of our local films is that oftentimes characters talk to each other like they’re being monitored by their highschool Bahasa Malaysia teacher with a rattan, ready to whoop their asses if they don’t enunciate their words correctly. I wonder if these screenwriters ever leave their house, sit in a mamak and observe how people, especially Malays, converse in Bahasa Malaysia? What’s even worse, are the type of movies where soldiers would burst into the Negaraku right before they kick the bucket. Recently, I watched Rise: Ini Kalilah, a movie which had lines of dialogue that went something like this:

Girl: Uncle, why do you always make it a point to fly back home to vote during elections? 
Uncle: Sebab tanah tumpahnya darahku. 

To these writers, I ask… WTF?

YouTube video

Thankfully, you won’t find vomit inducing inorganic dialogue like that in Paskal. The conversations, for the most part, feels natural. Though considering the film revolves around a group of soldiers, I would’ve thought that at least words like ‘babi’ and ‘bodoh’, if not ‘pu*imak’, would be part of their lingo. I know, the film is rated PG-13 and is meant to be consumed by the widest demographic possible, but don’t you think it’s a little weird that none of these soldiers who are under extreme duress even lights up a single stick of cigarette? Maybe it’s just me.

But then again, that’s not the only thing weird about the film. It opens with a card that reads ‘based on true incidents.’ And then animated infographics loaded with all sorts of information about our Malaysian Navy Seal fades in and out of frame. What follows is wonderfully staged and shot, grounded and gritty opening sequence that doesn’t just look great on the big screen but also makes you sit up straight in fear and anticipation. But somewhere during the second act, I felt myself being sucked out of the film. Why does this suddenly feel like a Fast & Furious movie? I wondered. That my mind immediately went to Fast & Furious is not a criticism but a mere observation. I love me some fun, outlandish, hyperbolic action vehicles! The issue is that it felt like a Fast & Furious movie… suddenly.

Paskal starts off rooted in realism, but later becomes the kinda movie where the protagonist becomes a hero and this hero puts his gun down to engage in a dick-measuring-contest fist fight with the villain. It’s also the kinda of movie where the rest of the soldiers in the hero’s unit suddenly get a text message, which leads to a grand reunion of sorts in slow motion accompanied by a kickass musical score. I’m not saying I wasn’t entertained by these sequences in isolation — I was, very much so –, but the sudden shift in tone felt somewhat intrusive, like a sudden jolt to the back. And it took me more than a second to readjust myself and start interacting with the film again.

Paskal - Arman and trainer

But I’ve also always maintained that if a writer/director can develop characters that we fall in love with, we’ll be more than happy to sit back and let them take us wherever they please, even if the place they take us to feels very much different to the place we started at (yes, I’m still talking about the tone). For a grand reunion scene to work ala what we see in Fast Five or towards the end of The Avengers, we need to be familiar with the characters who are reuniting, or else the scene is nothing but a bunch of pretty cardboards moving in slow motion with a theme song blaring in the background, like it is in this film. A cool looking shot that evokes no emotion.

The supporting characters here are all one dimensional. Joshua is a bubbly Chinese guy. There’s also the Indian dude who loves reading (but doesn’t do anything particularly smart, or spew any meaningful wisdom throughout the film). We don’t know anything about them beyond these rudimentary traits. There are a couple of other guys that fill the frame during the slow-motion group shot who lack even one-word traits. I love the scene where Arman accompanies Joshua and his girlfriend to the jewellery shop. I wish we got more of that. Scenes where characters would just hang out in the dormitory and bust each other’s balls. There is a scene in the movie like that, but it ends swiftly after a couple of mundane exchanges.

Paskal - Arman's unit

In fact, I was actually surprised by how little backstory these characters have, considering what we were fed during the film’s marketing campaign. In the trailer, we see the struggles of being a Navy Seal — the sheer willpower and tenacity required to complete the training. But what if I told you that the training sequences in the film are merely a few minutes longer than what’s in the trailer? Our two leads have a little bit more flavour. Keyword: little. Hairul Azreen (who plays Arman — our hero) and Ammar Alfian (the villain, Jeb) exude enough charisma to keep us entertained — they play their archetypes convincingly.

But for all its lackings, Paskal fires on all cylinders when it comes to the action sequences — one right at the open, and also the climax. These sequences will stand out as some of the best action set pieces to come out of Malaysian cinema. Some are inventive — like the one involving a crap ton of grenades held together by wires; some involve martial arts, that are brutal in the best ways possible; All, are thoroughly gripping. Despite being a director who previously only tangoed in the realm of comedy, Adrian Teh proves that he’s highly capable of crafting action sequences. Now, if only he’d been just as invested in the writing.

Hey you! Yes you, hot stuff. Like my article? Leave a comment below and let me know whatchu think. Also, don’t forget to share it with your buds. And if you’d like to talk movies with me you can hit me up on Twitter here: @dashtalksmovies

Also click here to check out our other reviews.