Young talents sing and play through pain and adversity in Malaysia’s ‘Talentime’

Mahesh (Mahesh Jugal Kishor) and Melur (Pamela Chong) break down cultural barriers as they fall in love in "Talentime."

Talentime transports viewers to the country of Malaysia, where diverse cultures can clash, but also live in harmony. The main characters in the film are united by their musical talents, love for the arts, and struggles with their families. It is also through these struggles and affirmations that we are able to relate to and sympathize with these characters ourselves.

Talentime is a drama with fun and humorous moments, written and directed by Yasmin Ahmad, who passed away suddenly last year. The film made its debut in the U.S. at this year’s 28th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival as part of the International Showcase.

At  a high-level school in the country, a music teacher (Adibah Noor) organizes a talent competition, taking seven of the school’s most gifted kids and pitting them against each other for prize money. The audition montage of instrument-playing, singing in different languages, dancing, and recitations of monologues and poetry plus judge critiques is reminiscent to the likes of a Glee or American Idol episode – one of the brightest points in the film.

When we sneak peeks into the lives of the competitors, we find out more about their motivations. The female lead is Melur (Pamela Chong, a finalist in The Amazing Race Asia), a classical / pop pianist and vocalist who also has a knack for writing and reciting nice but gooey poetry. She lives with her mom, her hilarious dad (Who provides many of the film’s laughs with his English mother), her sisters, and their Chinese maid. Mahesh (Mahesh Jugal Kishor) is the Indian boy assigned by the teacher in charge to transport her to and from rehearsals. Deaf and mute, Mahesh also deals with his lonely and depressed mother (Sukania Venugopal) and an older sister who teases him mercilessly (Played by Malaysian Idol winner, Jaclyn Victor). Deaths in the family have caused Mahesh’s family further pain and falling in love with Melur adds to his list of problems. Melur does return his love, but circumstances threaten to drive them apart.

Another main character is Hafiz (Mohd Syafie Naswip), an acoustic guitar player who sings sweetly to his self-penned heartfelt lyrics. He deals with the impending loss of his mother (Azean Irdawaty), who is hospitalized with terminal brain cancer. Her scenes in the film are sad and intense, even more amplified when she’s on screen with her son. Hafiz also deals with an enemy at school, Kahoe (Howard Hon Kahoe). Also a competitor in the talentime, Kahoe sees Hafiz as a threat to his academic superiority as well as in his musical talent. There are no intense developments portrayed in this particular  relationship, but it is obvious that there is some animosity going on there. However, Kahoe also has a family issue that contributes to his way of thinking about and acting toward Hafiz.

We don’t really get glances of the other kids who are performing, but we do get quick glimpses of the relationships between the teachers in charge of the talentime. A funny running gag in the film is between two male teachers who are physically affectionate toward each other. They don’t appear to be gay, but another teacher only happens to catch them at times when it seems like they could be.

Ahmad does a beautiful job of capturing the cultural landscape of Malaysia, as well as the human spirit that transcends through continents in these characters and in the scenery. The songs performed by the talentime competitors, while a bit cliche at times, are substantial and poetically tell of the longings and heartbreaks of the young characters. The editing appeared to be  bit choppy at times and the ending felt somewhat unfulfilling.

Despite its few downsides, the interweaving stories of love, friendship, and family in Talentime prove that despite talent and prizes at the end of the tunnel, there are many more important things in life to win over and make us feel like we’re truly validated.


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