Malaysian ‘superhero’ film Mat Kilau a hit as tale of betrayal hits close to home
- The movie is set to be Malaysia’s highest-grossing film, and has even drawn the attention of royalty like the influential Sultan of Selangor
- Message of factionalism likely resonated with citizens subject to Malaysia’s constant political turmoil
As of Monday, Mat Kilau: Kebangkitkan Pahlawan has earned a total of 47 million ringgit (US$10.6 million) in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
That amount – just 11 days after its release – means it will fast catch up with the record set by Malaysian horror flick Munafik 2, which has garnered 48 million ringgit across the region since its 2018 premiere.
Mat Kilau’s formidable showing comes despite competition from Hollywood blockbusters such as Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion.
“I’m lost for words. An abundance of blessings from Him. Praise be to God, thank you for everything,” director Syamsul Yusof wrote on his Instagram page. “May our films keep on advancing.”
Singapore-born Adi Putra, 41, plays the central character Mat Kilau. The film also stars well-known artistes Beto Kusyairi, Fattah Amin, Yayan Ruhan and Johan As’ari.
Film critic Zaim Yusoff told This Week in Asia the movie’s runaway success was partly down to its depiction of Mat Kilau as a “relatable heroic figure” no different from DC and Marvel superheroes.
“The masses love superheroes, Marvel & DC movies are proof. The storytelling is simple, the story of betrayal between Malays, something that is relatable to the current political climate.”
The film’s performance has caught the eye of royalty, with the influential Sultan of Selangor, Sharafuddin Idris Shah, on Monday saying the film highlighted how factionalism was detrimental to the country’s majority Malays.
“If we were to appreciate the dialogue from this film, it delivers a message to the Malays that the strength of a nation lies in the spirit of unity and adherence to Islam,” the sultan said.
The film is set in 1892, during British colonial rule in what is now the state of Pahang. Amid rampant exploitation of Pahang’s natural resources by the British, warrior Mat Kilau gathers others like him to fight the colonisers.
The warrior is a well-known name in Malaysian households, and the legend and mystique surrounding his exploits was further enhanced when he came out of hiding in 1969 at age 102. He said he had earlier made a vow to a sultan not to reveal his identity.
The Pahang-born warrior died in 1970, shortly after his re-emergence.
Filmmaker and scholar Zan Azlee said the ongoing frenzy surrounding the film, which is based on historical facts, was because it allowed Malaysians to visualise a hero who stood up to British colonial rule.
Zan suggested the country has long had insecurities regarding its colonial past, which historians say dates back to 1511, when Portuguese forces conquered the port city of Malacca – seen then as the cradle of modern Malay civilisation.
“Even in current times, we have always wanted to show that we can. Remember the slogan ‘Malaysia Boleh’?” said Zan, referring to the popular motivational phrase that roughly translates to “Malaysia can”.
For decades, the term has been used to cheer on national sportspeople, and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad co-opted it during his 1981-2002 tenure in power as a clarion call for his “Vision 2020” campaign to turn Malaysia into an advanced economy by 2020.
The box office hit is not without its critics.
Zan said the characters in the film were “so single dimensional” as it appeared as if their sole motivation was defeating the British.
“There is no other context in the story other than these are foreign elements threatening Malay and Islam,” he said.
Historical fiction writer Azzah Abdul Rahman however noted that this “determinism” against the British powers was what made Mat Kilau unique when compared to previously released anti-colonial films, where the British were portrayed as “saviours” and “friendly”.
“What satisfied me is finally there is a historical film on Malaya where the British colonisers are portrayed as devils,” said Azzah.
This, she said, was a contrast to the 2007 film 1957: Hati Malaya, in which the freedom fighters are the elites – Malaysia’s founding leaders – who “graduated from London”.
That film, launched several months ahead of the 2008 general election, only made 420,000 ringgit at the box office despite being marketed with much fanfare.
Similarly, the 2013 historical biopic Tanda Putera flopped at the box office, scraping only 930,000 ringgit despite a 4.7 million ringgit budget. The film depicts the life of Abdul Razak Hussein, Malaysia’s second prime minister and father of Najib Razak, the premier at the time. It too was slated to be released before the 2013 election, but only hit cinemas three months later due to controversies with its subject matter.