Upon hearing that a film called Mat Kilau: Kebangkitan Pahlawan was about to be screened in cinemas, I immediately thought, "Why is a flamboyant Malay singer being portrayed as a warrior?" until I realised that it was NOT about M. Daud Kilau but rather Mat Kilau, a Malay warrior from Pahang who gained notoriety and hero status in the fight against colonialism, depending on which side of the fence you took to.
Various sources describe him as well-learned in matters of Islam, fluent in his recitation of the Quran and in later years, a silat master who, along with other Malay warriors and soldiers, plotted various attacks against the British to reclaim territories within Pahang like Kuala Tembeling and Jeram Ampai. After some degree of success, an ambush in the mid-1890s by British forces effectively quashed the uprising; Mat Kilau was presumed dead and the other warriors retreated to Siam and given amnesty by the monarchy there.
In the 1960s however, it was revealed that Mat Kilau had survived all these years and died shortly after his confession, but not before sharing accounts of his exploits and passing on a tome to be published titled Kitab Mat Kilau, a book containing his knowledge of various prayers/practices that infuses Malay animism and Islamic theology.
As mentioned in the disclaimer right at the start of the film, this was meant to be a film whose portrayal of its historical characters may not be accurate. This was an understatement. The film starts with British forces going into a village in Pahang to forcefully demand that 3 "troublemakers" immediately surrender to them for imprisonment and ends up being a bloodbath, with the 3 being forced to witness the massacre of the other villagers, all of them crying out "Allahuakbar", or God is the Greatest. The dialogue in this first scene alone sets the tone of the entire film; the concept of Ketuanan Melayu/Malay nationalism, the inseparable bond of Islam and Malays, the British being colonialists who are plundering the riches of Pahang.
The British forces given the most screen time consists of a British officer (Captain Syers), a battalion of Sikh soldiers, and two indigenous warriors of Borneo who are framed as British conspirators which, in the context of real-world history, is a broad and sweeping generalisation of the two races.
The characterisations of Sikh soldiers, the two Bornean warriors as British sympathisers and collaborators whose main goal was to crush the Malays are simplistic at best. Sikh soldiers being in the employ of the British were a result of British colonisation in India. In the rebellion against the British, "about a hundred aborigines" were on the side of the Malay warriors according to A History of Pahang by W. Linehan, aborigines being the term used for indigenous peoples of the Malay Archipelago in this context which, theoretically speaking, meant that the Bornean warriors should have been on Mat Kilau's side instead. There was also a Chinese antagonist in the film, depicted stereotypically in biànzi and never seen without his paper fan (the hairstyle worn by males in Qing China) called Goh Hoi who was a collaborator with the British who had a condescending attitude towards the Malays.
The characterisations of people from other races in the film, when framed in the context of where most of the film's audience come from (Malaysia) can negatively impact the way minorities in the country are viewed, potentially seeing them as instigators or threats to the position of the Malays within the country, creating a bogeyman of sorts that can only serve to be a cause of heightened anxieties and tensions between Malays and other races.
Throughout the film, we are treated to a range of conflicts from both ends of the war: the captain having to convince his British superiors of the feasibility of his war against the people of Pahang, Mat Kilau and his comrades embroiled in interpersonal issues like leadership succession, loyalty towards your race vs. loyalty to your family etcetera but the overarching theme of this film is Islam. It permeates so much of the dialogue that you are left to question whether or not you are watching a religious sermon or in fact a film about the struggle against colonialism.
Dialogues like how Islam does not allow Muslims to be ruled by non-believers (which is not true), how the role of the wife is to obey the husband even if the wife is left to tend to herself during her pregnancy and is pleading with him to be with her during this trying period, how the right of the land belongs only to the Malays, the overtly religious pandering in deciding matters underscores the growing rise of fundamentalism in the sociopolitical climate of Malaysia and also reinforces the bumiputra privilege that Malays in Malaysia are entitled to.
Although the film does attempt to explain the effects of colonialism e.g. exploitation of the natives' natural resources, heavy tax duties on the local populace, it neglects to mention the role the sultanate at the time had in enabling these practices to occur on their soil. The film reinforces the belief that the institution of the sultanate holds the interest of all the Malays at heart when in fact the Sultan of Pahang had straddled both sides of the conflict, employing his people to work in tandem with British forces to quash the rebellions led by Mat Kilau and other warriors, as well being party to the Orang Kaya committee which served the Sultan (which included Tok Raja and Tok Gajah, one of the leaders of the rebellion and also Mat Kilau's father).
On the topic of fight sequences; upon reading reviews of people who criticised them for not being true to the art of silat and my lack of knowledge in silat, I only have this to say: this film is loud. Like really loud. Even scenes involving just two characters talking in their home have an accompanying soundtrack, and there is barely a moment of quiet at all in this film. The fight sequences are a barrage of noise and chaos; a medley of warfare tactics were used, including but not limited to, silat, hand-to-hand combat, archery, fire-archery (yes), gunfights, Molotov cocktails (I wish I was kidding), and dynamite (I really wish I was kidding).
The film culminates in a final standoff between Mat Kilau and his warriors against the British forces which of course the Malays win, with the help of the villagers who initially declined to participate when called upon by Mat Kilau. However, there were tense battles that had to be had between Mat Kilau and Toga, the best of the two Bornean warriors, and the deaths of Mat Kilau's comrades too, namely Wahid who had to witness the brutal death of his wife at the hands of the British, and also survived being tortured by the Borneans. The ending salvo of Allahuakbar from every single Malay fighter, and the proclamation by Mat Kilau that yes, Islam is the ultimate pillar of Malayness, other than upholding the sultanate and the language. Message well-received, a thousand times over.
All in all, this film will appeal very strongly to mainly two groups of Malays; those who keenly feel the effects of colonialism and discrimination and lament the loss of their race's significance in their country like in Singapore, and those who hold very dearly to institutions like the sultanate and bumiputra policies, and who want Islam to shape the core tenets and laws of their country, like in Malaysia.
As tempting as it is to simplify its appeal like that, it is never that simple. People contain multitudes and the appeal of a Malay hero in the face of countless others within the Western sphere is perhaps very pronounced when it comes to representation and rightfully so. However, if our knowledge of Malay history and what it means to be Malay come only from fictional representations and superficial gestures like wearing out the baju Melayu complete with tengkolok in public, proclaiming "Melayu selalu ditindas", "Melayu tidak akan hilang!" or "Aku bangga aku Melayu" without understanding or learning the ramifications of it and how we came to be this way, then we are at risk of doing ourselves a disservice.
It is not enough to merely proclaim pride in one's identity, but to also be able to fully appreciate and understand our culture and our histories. While Mat Kilau provides the opportunity for one to embrace one's roots, it is also a gateway to actually learn more about one's own histories and its complexities. To paraphrase an oft-repeated quote attributed to Hang Tuah, "Takkan Melayu hilang di dunia, kecuali atas keangkuhan dan kejahilan sendiri."
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