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Pendekar Bujang Lapok (Malaya, 1959)

P. Ramlee (center) as one of "The Three Good-for-Nothing Bachelors"

P. Ramlee (center) as one of
'The Three Good-for-Nothing Bachelors'

The Malaysian films of actor / singer / songwriter / orchestrator / screenwriter / director P. Ramlee are gems:  enchanting, disarming, humorous, tuneful treasures waiting to be discovered by Western cinephiles.  On first look Ramlee’s Cinema may look like Bollywood-on-a-Budget, but as the viewing unfolds what emerges is a picaresque slapstick world with a common touch that sings to the humanity in us all.

PENDEKAR BUJANG LAPOK ( “pendekar” = warrior, “bujang” = bachelor, “lapok” = Bahasa-Malay slang that roughly equates to ‘good-for-nothing’ ) was the second of a trilogy of Bujang Lapok films, in which three devil-may-care wanderers stay with an aging kung-fu master in order to learn his skills, while also falling in love with his schoolteacher daughter.

Ramlee — who had worked his way up the ranks at the Shaw Brothers’ film production studios in Singapore — knew how to write a story and use a camera, creating films that on one hand could play to the simple tastes of the open-air cinema-goers in small villages while also using his skills to create an ambiance of sustained playfulness that competed with comedies imported from India and the U.S.A.  (In PENDEKAR there are scenes of characters jumping out of photos to take part in the action and actors directly addressing the audience.)

Reflecting its cuisine and culture, Singapore’s film industry was a rich mixture of Malay, Chinese and Indian talent.  As film production reignited at the end of World War 2, the Shaw Brothers’ studio quickly generated a high volume of quality product choreographed by Indian directors, performed by Malay actors and crafted by technicians brought in from the studios of Hong Kong and Shanghai.  This was the environment Ramlee entered as he auditioned to be a playback singer for the Bollywood-type productions that became a template for Singapore film production.  (As a teenager, Ramlee was a popular singer and songwriter in his native Malay state of Penang.)  Hired as a singer, he taught himself filmmaking by taking on a variety of production work:  clapper-boy, film loader, script continuity clerk, etc.  By 1955 he was the first Malay-born director in the film industry.

As in most of his 66 films, for PENDEKAR BUJANG LAPOK Ramlee scripted, directed, performed the lead role, sang the songs, composed the soundtrack and conducted the orchestra.  However, you don’t come away from the film awed by his talents.  Instead it’s the lovable characters, the moments of laughing out loud, the silly tunes stuck in your head that gives the film a heart connection to the viewer and lingers in his memory.  As a filmmaker, Ramlee was able to achieve that most rare of phenomena:  a body of work that viewers take home and inhabit, which grows in affection over the years.

Ramlee's house in Kuala Lumpur is now a museum dedicated to his film work.

Ramlee's house in Kuala Lumpur is now a museum dedicated to his work.

Doug / PoMo Joan

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1 Comment to “Pendekar Bujang Lapok (Malaya, 1959)”

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