The screening of Malaysian drama JAGAT at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival is yet another feather in the annual cinematic summer happening’s plumage of rare and unusual imports to New York City. Past standouts have been the propaganda-laden feel good story COMRADE KIM GOES FLYING from North Korea and SELL-OUT, a musical comedy with audience participation sing-along, (hailing from a far more metropolitan Malaysia.
What JAGAT brings to the screen is a by now classic story of youth learning hard life lessons, the kind that lead to dark futures difficult to acknowledge. However, at times the story’s telling is so far removed from narrative sensibilities familiar in areas with prominent movie industries (as well as those influenced by them), it promises to leave some viewers feeling something askew. No doubt lending to the singularity of the film is its being helmed by a first-time director in Shanjhey Kumar Perumal.
The film first sets its focus on Appoy, a likable and thoroughly relatable middle school aged child who sways to a very different rhythm than his traditional teachers and working class father (a truly imposing figure) who espouse strict old school values. It is the stuff of stories from the good old days, with the resourceful child angling a mirror so he can watch his favorite crime dramas on the family television, and dad coming home in a poster-ripping rage when the absent minded son cannot remember what he did with a work ID card.
At the same time, another narrative unfolds involving some of Appoy’s uncles who are connected to gang that runs increasingly afoul of criminal activity. Pointed conversations suggest a running internal conflict within the Tamil immigrant characters between living modestly and seizing power by more ruthless means.
A combination of experiences that find his creativity unwelcome by those in position of authority, and the influence of those he looks up to reveling in roguish activities sets off a change in Appoy, one the viewers are left to ponder as the movie comes to a close.
A barebones production is made up for by impassioned performances and a clever script; one in which Appoy’s antics often induce laughter and the subtle threat of violence among the older characters occasionally unsettles. The movie’s unique allure includes a remote small town setting presented without any polishing up and music baring the influences traditional influences that together with scenes of local rituals creates a stormy psychedelic effect.
Where JAGAT proves a bit bewildering is an uneven narrative path, including a rather abrupt montage that advances parts of the story a bit too inscrutably. One can also infer cultural and/or government restrictions coming into play, as there is virtually no onscreen violence save a few afterschool scuffles between Appoy and neighborhood bullies. The realism in these scenes do prove to add a surprisingly unnerving element, though.
Despite, and sometimes because of its rough patches, JAGAT is an absorbing blend of classic tale and unconventional storytelling. Seeking it out not only supports a new, compelling voice in cinema, but is also a nod of approval to the New York Asian Film Festival’s continued commitment to bringing unique and far flung programming.
The New York Asian Film Festival continues its run through July 9 at the Walter Reade Theater and SVA theater. Visit the Subway Cinema website for more information and tickets.