Why 'One Two Jaga' Is a Great Malaysian Film
I’ll be the first Malaysian to tell you that I don’t watch enough films from my home country, which makes it a tad less easy for one to say he is a film lover and enthusiast. Sure, I’ve seen a smattering of Malaysian films in the past 20 years of my life. But the country has been releasing local movies since 1933, and between then and now, the average moviegoer where I live has likely been influenced more by the foreign films of Hollywood, as well as other filmmaking powerhouses like India, China, and in recent years, South Korea.
This is why the Malaysian film Crossroads: One Two Jaga (currently on Netflix in certain regions) comes as such a surprise. One Two Jaga is a crime drama directed by Nam Ron, and tells the story of multiple characters who face varying difficulties within the same city. This includes an immigrant worker looking to make an illegal border cross, a rookie police officer who discovers his partner’s corrupt ways, and warring crime bosses looking to oust one another. To put it simply, the film is undeniably different in the best of ways from many local films I’ve seen. As my range for direct comparison is limited, in this article I’d like to focus on why I believe One Two Jaga is itself a great film that deserves to be on your watchlist, rather than why I think it is ‘better’ than any particular content that Malaysia has produced in the past.
1. It shows more than it tells
Director Nam Ron took a risk by not catering too much to an audience’s need for knowing exactly what is going on in a film. He instead focuses on telling a story infused with realism, where characters don’t often say what they really feel, rather it is the audience’s task to observe the people in this movie and discover for themselves who they are and what they stand for. The film does not try to be a crowd-pleasing blockbuster, but an attempt to look through the eyes of authentic, real people who exist in society today. This is the kind of film one might see in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars, and indeed in 2019 at least two films about the everyday lives of individuals have been nominated for the aforementioned award. Too often in today’s movie landscape do we see films that are filled with exposition, often done because there is too much backstory to be explained by character actions alone. It feels good to see a Malaysian film that makes us reflect on how people live today, rather than a movie that is simply made for mostly commercial gains.
2. There is more drama than melodrama
One Two Jaga is not without its overexagerrated portions, as one character in the film seems irrationally angry and hateful for most of his screentime. However, what this film has is a layer of bleakness that allows most of its cast to be more controlled in their performances. They shout when they need to shout, and cry when they need to cry. They don’t often do or say anything that would look ridiculous if not accompanied by some dramatic music. The realism is very much in the picture again here, as many characters in this film talk to each other like how they would be speaking in real life. Various languages are used, vicious swearing is present, and it all adds to the list of things that Nam Ron has got right with this production.
3. The music helps build the world
Or more accurately, the lack of music. Though scores and soundtracks have added to a film's quality as long as there have been films, sometimes the wrong music just gets in the way, and undermines the intended emotional impact a scene is supposed to have. This is especially true when paired with poor acting or direction. In the case of One Two Jaga, many scenes go by with very subtle music, or even without a discernable score. This allows the sound design of the film to come to the forefront, making the viewer more acutely aware of every car honk, door slam, and shouting market hawker that inhabits the world of One Two Jaga.
4. It is not afraid to make a statement
Illegal immigration. Police corruption. Hardly topics that would normally be approved by the National Film Development Corporation. The production team had the film financed and made regardless. The result is a scathing look at phenomena that the nation’s film industry has shied away from for decades, and credit goes once again to Nam Ron and Co. for deciding that it would be so. Having read various news articles and reviews of the film when it first hit cinemas, I came across some strong dissatisfaction that the ending of the film contained what some would call a cinematic copout. A little edit that attempted to show Malaysia in an unrealistically better light. I am glad to report that the Netflix version of the film does not contain this edit, and this likely made my viewing experience of the film significantly better.
5. It shows Malaysian cinema still has a long way to go, but progress is being made
For all the credit I have given it, One Two Jaga is definitely not a perfect film. There are subplots that are significantly less interesting or relevant than others. There are character actions and reactions that don’t make much sense and could have done with better context. But the bigger picture is clear and it is hopeful. It is a step forward for filmmaking in this country and a sign that there are courageous artists out there who have the cojones to tell it as it is through as powerful a medium as film. It is the mark of a group of artists who believe swimming against the current doesn’t necessarily mean swimming in the wrong direction. One Two Jaga is the story of unique and compelling characters, each fighting a battle of their own, discovering that the forces of their environment are the greatest enemy to their freedom. It pulls no punches, takes no survivors, and keeps it raw enough to immerse the viewer fully in the cinematic experience.
That's pretty much what I would call a great film.