Thursday 4 February 2016

Ola Bola ... Kick-starting national unity

SPORTS films are a staple of Hollywood, for example, Chariots of Fire (1981), Any Given Sunday
(1999) and Remember The Titans (2000). A theme of sports films is the turnaround that happens when a new coach shakes a losing team out of its doldrums and inspires it to reach greatness.
  On the way to reaching for the stars, the team will stumble as the players and coach get a feel for each other. It's not unsurprising to have people shouting at each other, or blaming each other for the team's defeat.

   The players and coaches' families also get entangled in the team's trials and tribulations. However, all these are forgotten when the team is on the brink of glory.
   Malaysian film Ola Bola (Hello, Football), directed by Chiu Keng Guan, 44, who also directed Malaysian Mandarin film The Journey, does all that and more, showing how the multiracial national football team players sacrificed a lot to play for their country and to bring pride to the nation.
   The film is based on the national team's qualification for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which was boycotted by 67 nations.
  I suppose it's fine for people to reminisce about the team's former glory days. Fifa now ranks Malaysia a dismal 171 in the world, its lowest-ever position. By comparison, the nation was at No 79 in 1993 (
   Chiu reportedly used Malaysian Ultra fans when filming the crowd scenes at Merdeka Stadium, and one of the highlights of the films is watching these fanatical fans going delirious supporting the
The 'Ola Bola' team training for the
Olympic qualifiers.
national team in 1980.
   However, it's hard not too forget fans throwing smoke bombs and flares onto the pitch at the end of the World Cup qualifying match between Malaysia and Saudi Arabia in September last year. The fans were venting their frustration at Malaysia's 10-0 capitulation at the hands of UAE earlier that month.
   People should ask why a sports film calling for national unity is making waves in 2016. Malaysians live in a fractured society and the film acts as a salve for them to overlook their differences and bond under a common goal.
   Cheering for a team or athlete is much easier than cheering for a politician or political party. Malaysians can forget about demonstrations, riots and mall attacks and revel in the last time the national team made it big on the international scene.
   We have defender Chow Kwok Keong (J.C. Chee), or "Tauke (boss), the hot-headed captain who represents the real tauke, Soh Chin Aun. Goalkeeper Muthu Kumar (Saran Kumar) represents R. Arumugam and striker Ali (Luqman Hafidz) represents Mokhtar Dahari.
  A peripheral figure is Sabah's Eric Yong (Eric Yong), a youth goalkeeper who became a national team striker, just like Sabah's James Wong.
  Adding to the film's multicultural feel is the fact that English, Malay, Mandarin and Tamil are spoken liberally in it.
   Before the qualifiers, there's confusion as English coach Harry Mountain (Mark Williams)
The Chinese go delirious supporting the national team.
introduces new tactics, causing consternation among players. They can't believe that Harry wants reserve goalkeeper Eric to play as a striker, but as we'll find out later, there's a reason for the Englishman's madness.
   Chow is a hard-working person who busts his ass in an office, trains with the team and helps out with his family's rubber-tapping business. I'm not sure if Chin Aun tapped rubber, but seeing Chow doing it is ludicrous.
   Chow even has time to help out his girlfriend Siew Lee (Katrina Ho) at a funfair stall at night. I'm flummoxed that he hasn't fainted from exhaustion.
    His sarcastic sister Mei Ling (Daphne Low) riles him for wanting to play football whereas she, who obtained As in her exams, is tapping rubber and sewing clothes. All is not hunky-dory in this family.
  Muthu also works to support his family. His father depends on him to pluck coconuts for sale, but his dedication to the game, including practising on the field at night, sets him on a collision path with the elderly man, who believes that his son can do better things than play football.
   I'd expected some focus on a Malay player, but instead of focusing on Ali, who feels his position is being undermined, the film goes with Rahman (Bront Palarae), an aspiring sportscaster with two daughters and another one on the way.
   Rahman delivering his 'Gol, Gol, Gol' celebration is a joy to watch. His friendship with Chow, although unethical as he comments on Chow's games, allows the director to portray Malay-Chinese ties in a positive light.
   The film's main theme is the call for harmony, but underneath it is a heart beating with Chinese's desire to be accepted as part of the country's social fabric.
   First, the film's flashback framework, รก la the investigator in Citizen Kane, is taken up by Marianne (Marianne Tan), a 20-something Chinese female video production employee on her last assignment before she leaves the country for greener pastures.
   She's uninspired by the project, but she goes on a journey to rural Sabah by train to visit Eric Yong,
The Chinese work hard to survive.
also a Chinese. She should have taken an AirAsia flight to save time.
  Eric coaches his grandson's football team and speaks to him only in Mandarin. It's his memories that take viewers back in time.
   Then there's Chow, another Chinese. He slogs to help his family and drive the national team forward. His non-supportive sister also slogs to make ends meet, but all her Chinese colleagues in the sewing plant scream with enthusiasm when supporting the team. Her family's TV set attracts other Chinese to support the national team.
   We return to Eric as a young player. During a heated exchange with team members, he says he came all the way from Sabah to play for the team. He means that he came all the way from China to be part of this melting pot called Malaysia.
   By the end of the film, Marianne is more committed than ever to Malaysia. She has ditched her plan to abandon Malaysia.
    It isn't a surprise that the film focuses on the labour of a Chinese and Indian family. The director is saying that Chinese and Indians have had to do more to assimilate into society, and that although they may be pendatang, they have sweated blood to be considered Malaysians.
   I found the part on the army bootcamp training unusual. I'm not sure if the team did it in 1980, but it allows the film to insert a segment about teamwork and how soldiers have sacrificed their lives to protect the nation.
   Sabah is, of course, the site of the February 2013 Lahad Datu intrusion by Sulus from the Philippines.
  The director keeps things moving at a reasonable pace, and the aerial shots of Sabah are worthy of an Oscar. His desire to show the best of Malaysia deserves plaudits, even though his sports template is derived from Hollywood sports films. I couldn't ward off my yawning towards the end of the film.

3 out of 5 stars





1 comment:

  1. <>

    In the film's final game, the goal was scored by Ali. In real life, James Wong the Sabahan player scored the all important goal.