Movies · Reviews

Review: Talentime

By  · Published on March 11th, 2010

The Center for Asian America Media presents the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) this March 11th-21st. The SFIAAFF is the nation’s largest showcase for new Asian American and Asian films, annually presenting approximately 120 works in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Jose. Since 1982, the SFIAAFF has been an important launching point for Asian American independent filmmakers as well as a vital source for new Asian cinema. For more coverage, visit our SFIAAFF 2010 homepage.


Director: Yasmin Ahmad

Country: Malaysia

“Tawas! You crossed the seas from Indonesia, but your destiny is my armpit.”

Who knew John Hughes had a Malaysian sister capable of making films with an exquisite blend of comedy and heart…

Movies and TV shows about the high school experience often share a handful of common themes and story-lines. From young love, to clique clashes, to teachers both good and bad… it seems teenagers experience the same highs and lows regardless of geography. Which brings us to that venerable American Malaysian high school institution… the talent show. Students and teachers vie for spots in the annual show, and while some of the latter provide comic relief in their auditions two students in particular have more serious intentions and talents. Hafiz (Mohamed Syafie Naswip) sings and plays guitar all while pining secretly for Melur (Pamela Chong Ven Teen) who sings and plays piano. Sitting between them is Hafiz’ good friend Mahesh (Mahesh Jugal Kishor), a deaf Indian assigned to escort Melur back and forth to practice sessions. Hafiz likes Melur. Melur like Mahesh. And now we have a Malaysian love triangle… Toss in some quirky family members, some tragedy both sudden and overdue, and some serious commentary on religious differences and you have one of the year’s best films.

The story in synopsis form makes Talentime sound like any number of movies coming out of Hollywood, but that familiarity is part of what makes the film work so well. Spoken languages move back and forth between Malay and English, and soon everything that seemed so foreign at first begins to feel less so. The interactions between Melur and her family could easily be your own. Her dad clearly loves them all but is a playful goof joking about poop and testicles, her younger sisters are annoyingly cute, and her grandmother is… well she’s just nuts. An older Malaysian woman who speaks in a thick Scottish brogue, she has many choice bits of dialogue including this response after one of the girls insults another. “Did you say ‘arse-licker?’ Did she just say ‘arse?’ Arse… it were me favorite word for the longest of time. Now it’s ‘dick.’” Her family reacts just as we do with a brief bit of shock followed by laughter.

Plot specifics are best experienced first-hand as you watch and savor the film, but know that this isn’t simply a light piece of teen escapism. There are plenty of laughs to be sure, but there’s also some heavy emotions. A death leads to strong commentary on the wasteful ridiculousness of fighting over religious, cultural, and social differences. Those differences also play into a painful clash between two of the families over a budding romance as well as some biting comments about class distinctions. And a second death leads to a final scene that’s as emotional as it is beautiful. (Seriously, be prepared to struggle to look cool while you wipe tears away.)

Writer/director Yasmin Ahmad has crafted a shining look at friendship, family, and first love that speaks beyond cultural and geographic boundaries. She uses universal tools to accomplish this feat including traditional story lines, comedy, and some brilliantly written and performed songs. It’s a Malaysian “Glee” of sorts (but more realistic) as the music cuts to the heart of things with both lyrics and melody. One montage set to a sweet and peppy song sees a young relationship building… before cutting to an older cancer patient vomiting in pain. It’s this kind of transition that keeps the movie grounded in a reality we can all identify with to some degree.

The comment at the start of this review about John Hughes having a Malaysian sister may have been a joke, but the inference is real. His influence carries beyond the handful of music montages and teen cast though and into the performances and presentations of the characters themselves. These teens are believable in their attitudes and emotions. Their families feel real in their annoyances and charms. Ahmad’s perfect balance of comedy and heart may rely on fewer laughs than the typical Hughes film, but the balance still feels right. She captures a specific time in everyone’s life where limitless possibility first meets harsh reality, and she shows with beauty and grace that the appearance of one doesn’t have to mean the death of the other. These kids may live thousands of miles away from the world we know, but their pains, triumphs, tears, and laughs are as easily recognizable as our own.


Talentime is playing FRI 03/12 4:30pm at the Sundance Kabuki 5, SUN 03/14 8:30pm at the Sundance Kabuki 6, and SUN 03/21 2:00pm at the Camera Cinema 10

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.