WTF ASIA 235: Talentime (2009)

Love. Death. The Show Must Go On.

Available in AustraliaCanadathe Netherlandsthe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 120 minutes.


It’s test time at the high school. Tan, the proctor, manages to wake up the kid who had been plain-old sleeping, but he gets called out of the room by another teacher, Mr. Anuar, before he can get to the boy who had turned his eraser into a die and had been using it to choose his answers.

So, what is the big deal that required taking Tan from the classroom? Well, it turns out that a third teacher, Miss Cigku Adibah, is organizing a talentime, or talent contest. Mr. Anuar got chosen at random, which fine. He gets his chance to impress Miss Adibah. But…he said that Tan would be performing with him. Tan does not want to take part at all, so Anuar offers him the entirety of the first prize winnings: 1000 Ringgits, or around 210 USD. Of course, they have to win to get it. Tan agrees, and Anuar gives him a big hug and kiss, just in time for another teacher to walk by. Heh?

And then we see a flashback where Anuar cheated specifically to be part of the show. Huh. Also, each of those picked (and Anuar) have to assign a student with a motorbike to fetch the seven student finalists. That is…I guess not the absolute worst way of getting the students to the school.

It is breakfast time at the Harith household. It is a normal morning, with Melur bickering with her younger sisters. Apparently, the pimple on her head has gotten big enough that she asks to skip school. Hey, perhaps she can go to the airport for when her grandmother arrives from England. That is before school starts at 1:00 (!) anyways. The girls leave the table and their mother scolds them for not taking their dishes to wash. The maid, Mei Ling, says that she will wash their dishes, but their mother, or Mak, demands that her “princesses” do it. So, they take their dishes.

Mak reminds Mei Ling about showing her how to make dim sum sauces. Mei Ling worries that the girls might not clean the dishes well enough, and Mak threatens to pull their ears off their heads. That doesn’t quite sit well with Mei Ling either, and she lets Mak know that.   

Melur finds her sisters in her room using her face powder. She kicks out the middle sister, but lets little Melati stay so she can show off her dance moves. The middle sister returns to make deal. She gets to use the face powder and, in turn, won’t tell their parents that Melur plans to skip school to attend the auditions. Melur points out that their father, or Abah Harith, knows. But Mak? Eh…Mak is too busy trying to learn the sauce recipe.

In a very different part of the city, Ganesh calls for his sister, Mother. She goes over to him, scolding him for being so loud. And what is he doing at her house anyways? He should be shopping for gifts for his bride-to-be. Ganesh wants her son, Mahesh, to help him, since he hates shopping. She tells Ganesh that Mahesh has been assigned to fetch a contestant for the talent contest. She says that it is a sign that the school recognizes him as a good and responsible boy, but Ganesh suspects that it is a way to save money on taxis. Mother jokes that Ganesh is trying to do the same thing with Mahesh.

Uncle takes out some cash in response, but Mother tells him that he will need that money for his family; his future children. But he reminds her that he had promised her late husband that he would take care of her. He then threatens to burn the money before just shoving it into her hand.

Mahesh eventually does return from school and his mother scolds him for being late. She also tells him that his uncle was looking for him, and that he should bathe in preparation for his uncle’s bathing ceremony.

Mahesh’s sister, Bhavani, tries to get into the bathroom first, but Mother tells her to let Mahesh go. Bhavani asks if she can help with Ganesh’s bathing ceremony, but Mother reminds her that only men and old women may take part. So, Bhavani lets Mahesh go in, though not before shoving him into the wall.

Bhavani sits by Mother and complains that Mahesh always gets priority. Mother accuses Bhavani of still behaving like a baby even as she is soon to turn twenty. And besides, the older child always has to make way for the younger. She says that, after their father died, they were like her lamps, and that it would get darker anytime one of them left. Aunt Vimala tries to cut in. Is she not one of her sister’s lamps? Mother says that she is more like a street lamp, since she is rarely home.  

During the bathing ceremony, Ganesh asks his nephew if he has a girlfriend. Mother interrupts. Of course, Mahesh doesn’t; he is only 17. And when the time is right, she will pick a girl for him. Ganesh calls his sister crazy, and tells Mahesh not to listen to her. Mahesh will be the one getting married. And also, he should go looking now, as opposed to waiting until he is 35. Mother counters that Ganesh is getting married now because he wasted so much time galivanting. And then the two start going back and forth, and continue to do so even while performing the rituals.

It is audition time. Many students take part. And…jeez, Miss Adibah is rather cold, mostly shouting “NEXT” randomly. At least a few students get an insincere “Thank You” as well.  Granted, some of them stunk, but not all of them. And then there is this one weird kid, Melkin, who tries to participate in other children’s auditions. At least a boy named Kahoe managed to get through playing a lovely piece of music on his erhu. Oh, and Melur played a nice little piano ditty and did not have to leave the stage before she finished.

And here comes Hafiz, the kid who had used his eraser die for the test. He plays some…fucking Jack Johnson Mayer song about love on his acoustic guitar, but it is upbeat and energetic and Miss Adibah loves it. And, hey, there’s Melkin being weird.

Uh…I don’t believe that we have seen this character before, but she seems quite unwell.

Another patient comes in to see the woman, asking if she has performed her prayers. She says that she will later. Apparently, she does not know him, and says that male patients are not allowed in here. He tells her that he is invisible. Okay…

After a billion minutes, Hafiz finishes his song to applause. Miss Adibah asks him who wrote the song. Of course, he wrote it. Miss Adibah is impressed, noting that he is the first contestant who is an original. All right, taste is subjective, I guess.

While the judges are deliberating, Miss Adibah goes over to motorcyclists. She tells them that they will be given the names of the finalists whom they will be escorting and be given maps to their homes. And they will have to go to those homes that night to inform them that they have been selected.  

Abah Harith’s mother is here and it is dinner time. She asks Melur whether she still does her short poems. Science-focused Middle Sister mocks the poems, but Melati says that she likes them. Dim sum for dinner strikes Grandmother as an interesting idea. Mak calls them starters and Abah jokes that they are horse dewberries. How any of them knew that he was saying hors d’ouvres, I have no idea. Anyways, Grandmother asks to hear one of Melur’s short poems…or shoems. And it is…fine.

Abah tells a joke that is quite crude…and slightly racist. His mother hits him on the shoulder and his wife tugs his ear. He tries to run after her, but falls to the floor…then his wife and daughters all pile on him. Mei Lin has to yell at them to get off him for his own health, but it takes Grandmother yelling about a visitor to get them to stand up.

It is Mahesh with an envelope. He gives it to Mei Lin, who gives it to Melur. Melati exclaims that she must have made it through the audition. Mak is confused; what audition? Middle Sister points out that she had not said a thing. Actually, it turns out that Mak is not as upset as Melur had feared.

Mahesh goes back to his uncle’s wedding to…WHAT THE FUCK??

It is morning at the Harith household and the sisters are on the porch. Melati apologizes to Melur for blabbing about the audition, even though it turns out that their mother was not that upset. Melur is not that upset either. Middle Sister expresses doubts that Melur would be so forgiving towards her, and Melur counters that Middle Sister is old enough to know better. Anyways, Melati predicts that Melur will win. Melur hopes so. And she asks if Melati also thought that the boy who delivered the letter was handsome. Melati doesn’t answer, but reasons that is why Melur is wearing makeup; she wants to look good for the ride to rehearsals. Melur counters that she has to look good for rehearsals.

Actually, Anuar and Tan arrive in a car to pick up Melur. Anuar tells her that Mahesh was supposed to come, but there was a family accident…and his uncle was killed. Tan provides more context, perhaps more than he should make public. It turns out that Mahesh’s wedding celebration was taking place next to a family in mourning. I guess that that other family did not appreciate the merriment and the ensuing argument led to violence, and the uncle died. Jeez. Also, I am pretty sure that that was not Tan’s story to tell.

Melur gets to her rehearsal piano and…wait, this is a completely different song from the one in the audition…and much better, in my opinion. Definitely better than Hafiz’s. Why did she change it? Is it because of what she heard about Mahesh’s family? Is it because he has showed up and is watching her?

Bhavani goes to see her mother, asking her to finally get out of bed and eat something. But Mother says that she does not deserve to live, let alone eat, having failed her little brother. Ganesh, who had sworn to be there for her and her children. Ganesh, who had brushed aside all of her horrible insults towards him. Ganesh, who had done nothing to them. Ganesh, who had forgiven them after they tore down the temple that he had built. And they killed him. Mother says that they may fall over praying all the time, but have no conscience, no love in them for God. She hates them.




This is the sixth film by writer-director Yasmin Ahmad. Most of her films have revolved around youth, love, race, and religion in Malaysia, often leading to controversy. There are definite parallels to her earlier film Sepet, particularly regarding a well-off high school Malay girl (from a family with an overly familiar maid) falling for a poor non-Malay non-Muslim boy. There is also quite a lot of overlap with the cast, and it would have had more if not for scheduling conflicts.

The main story is centered on Melur and Mahesh, a rich Malay Muslim girl and a poor Hindu Indian boy. While they attend the same school, it is obvious that they run in different circles. Yet, it is clear that they have things in common, such as bickering with their siblings and having goofy adults in their lives. However, it does seem like Mahesh seems to live a life of hardship. And death visits his family more. Again, this is similar to Sepet, yet this movie branches out to spend more time with their families and other characters at the school.

The movie portrays this urban society as a mix of ethnicities, primarily Malay, Chinese, and Indian. There is religious diversity and a lot lot lot of linguistic diversity. And the movie celebrates that diversity, displaying it in everyday life and in the Talentime itself. For the most part, it seems like there is a comfortable plurality, but we see cracks. Some of it is subtle, and some of it, like a character brought in 2/3 of the way through, is a jackhammer. The movie seems to say that love could bridge the gaps and solve all problems as long as we let it. As long as we accept it. But will we?

The circumstances around Ganesh’s death are a reference to the 2001 Kampung Medan riots. Of course, there are obvious differences, and the movie does not show the series of attacks that took place after the inciting incidence. But I am pretty sure that Malaysian audiences would make the connection.

While this movie is primarily a drama, there are many comedic moments. Most of the stuff with Melur’s family is played for laughs. Not just her bickering with Middle Sister, but her father and grandmother. The father is a big goof. His English mother seems to put on the airs of aristocracy, though that gets undermined by her Yorkshire accent and her gleefully crude language. There are some jokes that…I didn’t quite get. There is the occasional burp or fart that I guess undercuts an emotional scene. The stuff with Melkin butting into other auditions just perplexed me. And the movie starting with Anuar and Tan was…a choice, as most of the scenes focusing on them seem to be an excuse for homoerotic gags.  

There are a few criticisms that I have about the movie. For one, the acting can sometimes be a little rough, and it took a while for me to get used to the style. It is one reason why I could not get into Ahmad’s first film Rabun, which is also on Netflix. The racism and religious prejudice seem to be largely limited to certain individual jerks and emerged a little awkwardly. I do wish that we saw those responsible for Ganesh’s death and what happened to them. All of the songs ranged from fine to good except for Hafiz’s happy song, but that is the one that gets highlighted. Perhaps because all of the other ones are sad or something. That song aside, I do kind of wish that Hafiz’s storyline got more time, particularly since he seems to have known both Mahesh and Melur beforehand. I also found the somewhat nuanced relationship between Mei Lin and her employers to be more interesting than the movie gave it time to be. Perhaps the movie could have excised the scenes with Anuar and Tan in order to make room. By the end, though, there is a streamlined purity to the movie.

The ever-present specter of death in this film and the need to both mourn and live through it leads comes with some sad and bitter coincidence. Barely four months after the release of the movie, Yasmin Ahmad suffered a fatal stroke at 51. Such a tragedy. And it ended a seven-year film career that could have gone for so much longer. I would have loved to see what else that she had to offer. But as it is, this is an oddly fitting movie to end on. And we will always have this movie and her previous ones. And that will have to do.   




WTF ASIA 236: The Ceremony (Japan: 1971, approx. 123 minutes)


Available in Canadathe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.



WTF ASIA 237: Project Gutenberg (Hong Kong: 2018, approx. 125 minutes)


Available in Canada, the United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.