Streaming Sleepers: Syamsul Yusof’s MAT KILAU Bolsters With Nationalistic Fervor, Martial Arts Action And Gallantry
I started following niche film sites roughly eighteen years ago, which is eventually how I came to learn about filmmaker Syamsul Yusof upon the release of KL Gangster 2 back in 2013. That film, even though I haven’t seen it to this day, put Malaysia on the map for me as I aspired to keep up a little more with the goings-on of action cinema around the world at the start of FCSyndicate, which makes it all the more interesting now to see streamers like Netflix finally take notice and bring forth more Malaysian action cinema to global audiences, and to their credit, launching Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan following its Malaysia Day rollout in September.
Based on a true story, the film is set in the late nineteenth century in the lands of Pahang as the British and its East Indian army look to colonize the country, levying heavy taxes on the people and violently intruding on their ways and means of living, both economically and religiously. The film’s opening sequence shows the extent of their brutality in their campaign, led by none other than the vicious Captain Syers, in a lead up to when we finally catch up with our hero, Mat Kilau in training with his fellow warriors, preparing to commence a guerilla campaign to tamp down on the British and unite their people.
The history explored in Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan can be hit or miss with some people depending on how you take your biopics. For a lot of us Westerners and fans of Asian films with a keen eye for martial arts and heroic fanfare, there’s no question that Yusof rides high on the narrative he sets forward, firing on all cylinders between the high drama and action sequences. One key aspect of the story that will pull you in are the politics involving Mat Kilau and his warrior brothers, and the Imams and Datuks debating who should lead the movement. The conversation is a revealing character moment that somewhat keeps you guessing in terms of our group of protagonists and their own agendas, with consequences that arise when plans are put into action without teamwork.
Elements of vengeance and redemption come into play as the story builds its way into the third act, culminating with its primary adherence to Islamic messaging to cosign the film’s nationalistic fervor. The film’s score really leans in as well, almost as much as some of the performances, including and especially that of Malaysia-based Belgian actor Geoff Andre Feyaerts who plays the often comically villanous murderous Syers, who is under constant pressure to bring oppressive law and order to the locals, and doing so with brute force, thanks to the efforts of the British-East Indian soldiers and local warriors, including Toga played by the ever noticable Yayan Ruhian who also provides much of the film’s fight action.
One of only a few criticisms I have with the action lies in the lensing and weird movement of the camera at times. It’s not the kind of Hollywood shakycam that all but ruins what you’re trying to look at, and so you can still see the actors in motion, although the camera tries to zoom in-and-out between fight beats to add to the impact of the exchanges. It’s moreso weird than terrible, so there’s not too much to complain about here, especially when the action heats up.
One of the film’s best moments includes a scene about an hour and fifteen minutes in where our heroes infiltrate the area where one of their own is held captive. Crucially, it’s one of the film’s most explosive and pulsating sequences, amplifying an already intense period actioner with only a few ridiculous moments. One shot has a protagonist somersaulting his way bullets against a wall and off of a table. Another shows a fight scene on a jetty with one character surrounded by armed soldiers with each soldier looking like they’re waiting to be hit. Things like this are pretty characteristic to the kinds of pet peeves that stick out for fans of martial arts action with a keen eye on detail.
To that effect, the biggest takeaway from Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan, when it comes to the action, is that when it works, it works. And with good actors trained well in action, it works really well. Putra’s title portrayal hands audiences a steady, sturdy incarnation of the once-living Malay hero and legend, and even with the slightly odd cinematography at times, his action-acting holds up. A few other stand-out performances include actors Fattah Amin as Awang, who finds himself challenged by his own inadequacies as a leader, and Beto Kusyairy as Wahid, whose involvement in the uprising against the British tends to take a hefty toll on his marriage with his pregnant wife, Rokiah, played by Zarina Zainoordin. We eventually see how these two side stories play out and intertwine, with both contributing heavily to the emotive, dogmatic and nationalistic overtones that drive Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan from start to finish.
As I understand it, there’s either a sequel and/or a prequel already in the works while Yusof already has his hands well deep into his newest and modern action-packed affair, The Original Gangster, which isn’t to be confused with reports of a third installment to his KL Gangster saga which is still in the works. In the meantime, I would advise anyone interested in Asian action films to take a gander at Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan – or Mat Kilau as it’s titled on the streamer – if you haven’t already. Find it now on Netflix.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.